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Colin McPhee's Music: (I) From West to East

  • Douglas Young
Extract

It was the title that made me stop: A House in Bali by Colin McPhee, 1947, first edition, 5p. At that price it was irresistible; but what was such a recondite book doing in a junk shop in Camberwell—who was the author, and what was the significance of the ‘house’ in the title? As I looked through the book it became apparent that McPhee was a composer. I had never heard a note of his music, but one thing in particular fascinated me: inside the book cover was an announcement:

Three of the author's transcriptions for two pianos of Balinese gamelan music have been published by G. Schirmer of New York. Under the title ‘Balinese Ceremonial Music…’.

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1 The reference to Arcana at bars 136–37 is not fortuitous. Varèse had been writing this huge work between 1925 and '27, and it was during the latter part of this period that McPhee befriended the older composer, subsequently studying with him. He would thus have had the opportunity to look at the score of Arcana long before actually hearing it.

2 This, and the ensuing quotations are taken from Colin McPhee's autobiographical novel A House in Bali (1947), Gollancz Ltd.—reprinted 1979 by OUP (Oxford in Asia paperbacks), ISBN 0 19 580448 1.

3 Until the beginning of Dutch rule Bali was divided into a number of small kingdoms, royal courts, and palaces which acted as cultural centres maintaining gamelans, musicians, actors, dancers, and theatrical craftsmen. With the coming of Dutch rule (1906) a deep cultural change began to take place as one by one the court theatres were abandoned and their gamelans sold to neighbouring villages. It was in this radically changing cultural environment that McPhee began his research.

5 According to the author John Coast, Walter Spies greatly influenced Balinese painting and dance. ‘He, in fact, with an American dancer, Katharane Mershon, had been responsible for selecting the trance chants and movements of the now famous Ketjak, or Monkey Dance’. So much for ethnic authenticity! Coast's book Dancing out of Bali (Faber and Faber, 1954) makes an interesting, and disturbing, post-war sequel to McPhee's House in Bali.

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Tempo
  • ISSN: 0040-2982
  • EISSN: 1478-2286
  • URL: /core/journals/tempo
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