McPhee: Composer in Two
By Carol Oja.
Washington and London:
Smithsonian Institute Press, 1990. 353 p. Photos.
<>[ Note: This review was solicited
and written for the journal Ethnomusicology, and published there. One line was taken
out in the published form, and put back in here. - LP ]>
McPhee's life and work elucidate important
compositional, ethnomusicological, and musicological issues, and
presage many of the reasons that the distinctions between these three
activities are no longer of much use. However, with the exception of
the orchestralTabuh-Tabuhan very
little of McPhee's compositional work is known or appreciated by
either those interested in 20th century American music or Balinese
music in general. A major strength of Carol Oja's book is its strong
and necessary argument for the reconsideration of McPhee's work as a
McPhee's early years are discussed in
Chapters 1-3, from his early and quite standard music education in
Toronto through his attendance at the Peabody Institute and
residencies in New York and Paris, where he began to emerge as a
composer. Chapters 4-6 discuss 1931-1938, the period when McPhee
lived in Bali (except for a brief period in NY). Chapters 7-8
chronicle the somewhat sad post-Bali period until his brief (and
unusually happy and productive) employment at UCLA. Analyses and
descriptions of McPhee's music after 1940 are presented in Chapter 9,
and Chapter 10 briefly discusses the last few years of his life at
UCLA. The three Appendices consist of much needed annotated listings
of McPhee's compositions, gamelan transcriptions and writings.
Meticulously documented and extraordinarily thorough, the appendices
make a valuable contribution to the study of both Balinese and
In documenting McPhee's life, Ms. Oja helps
show how divisions between musical cultures can and should be
obviated by forward-looking scholars and composers, but her study
seems weakest when it deals with McPhee's relationship to Balinese
music. While presenting a sketchy if adequate biographical
description of his time in Bali, Ms. Oja concentrates her musical
analyses on McPhee's compositions for western instruments (many of
which are "transcriptions" of Balinese music), saying that "...
analysis of his ethnomusicological research awaits future scholars."
In her discussion of McPhee's Balinese pieces and transcriptions,
terms like "ostinato" and "tonicization" pop up all too frequently in
a sometimes mistaken focus on the simulacra instead of the original.
McPhee's main musical contribution is probablyMusic in Bali, which
Ms. Oja does not critically consider. This is like writing a
biography of Cage that focusses only on his work with mushrooms. Ms.
Oja does, however, present thorough, if conventional analyses of
McPhee's compositions, and by doing so fills an important gap.
McPhee's case raises intriguing problems for
scholars and musicians. In writing a biography of a student of
Beethoven's, fluent German and a deep knowledge of Beethoven's music
(and his entire "musical culture") would be a prerequisite. Ms. Oja
however, apparently did not feel it necessary to speak Balinese or
Indonesian, and the bibliography contains no entries in Indonesian
(though a few in German!). Even a quick scan through something like I
Wayan Rai's "Daftar Skripsi: 1972-1987" [Rai, 1987] would show a
great deal of written material on Balinese arts that could have
provided important references. Interviews with primary sources like
Made Lebah were done with a translator, making the material on
Balinese music much less substantial. Similarly, the main sources of
McPhee's Balinese-influenced music, the master composer and musician
Lotring, and Lebah himself, are given no direct musical
consideration, something like ignoring Schoenberg's music in a
critical analysis of Webern's.
This imbalance, which some might consider a
ghettoization of non-western cultures and others a natural result of
a musicologist's education, raises important ethical and scholarly
questions. Why write a book about a student (McPhee) when no book has
yet been written about the teacher (Lotring)? One response is that
McPhee's work has been of greater impact in the west, and as such,
this book is more about the messenger than the message. In addition,
our educational system (quite wrongheadedly) distinguishes between
the "ethno" and the non-prefixed musicological, and Ms. Oja is simply
working within that context. But if we substitute Germany (or France,
or The Netherlands) for Bali, not knowing the language or the music
becomes simply insufficient scholarship. This is not an accustion of
Ms. Oja, whose work I greatly respect and whose scholarship is beyond
question, but rather an indictment of musicological methodology
(including the prefixed one) already cogently made by scholars and
artists like Judith Becker  and Jody Diamond . These
writers, and many others in various "cross-cultural" fields are
calling (quite belatedly, it seems to me) for an end to this kind of
culturo-centrism, and I think, a radical redefinition of
ethnomusicology itself. The need for redefinition is underscored by
Ms. Oja convincingly shows how McPhee
blurred distinctions between scholarship and composition, but does
not question his methodologies, like transcribing Balinese music on a
piano as a primary way of learning the music. "Notation was the only
means available to McPhee for documenting gamelan repertories, and he
regularly used the piano as a transcribing tool." (p. 207) Cultural
transposition can help illustrate the absurdity in McPhee's
methodology: imagine a young Charlie Parker sitting in a posh New
York penthouse (as McPhee's "house in Bali" must have seemed to
Lotring and Lebah), for several weeks playing a complex solo over and
over again while a Balinese musician transcribed it for gender
wayang. As Philip Corner  and many others have asked, why
didn't McPhee just learn to play, or invent a notation that more
accurately reflected the source?
In the book, it's unclear whether he played
or not, and how well, and why this doesn't figure into his work on
the music. A minor problem is a frequent feeling that the book is
"through-composed": minor and major points are often left dangling
and occasionally what seem like direct contradictions are on adjacent
pages without explanation. There is a quote in which McPhee says he
would "Often ... ask a g'nder player to move aside while I took his
place for a while... I knew the melodies by heart and as I played I
felt both peace and exhilaration..." (p. 87) Four pages later the
chapter ends with a statement from Lebah that "He [McPhee] couldn't
play actual gamelan instruments. He knew the music but he couldn't
play the instruments." (p. 91) There's a lot left unexplained here,
and this kind of discrepancy requires comment, especially when it
concerns an issue that has become so crucial to successive
generations of ethnomusicologists.
Other contradictions are less important, but
interesting. For example, Ms. Oja's description of McPhee/Belo's
house in Sayan euphemistically describes what must have been an
almost unbelievably ostentatious spectacle to the villagers ("Colin,
who wanted to slip unobtrusively into the community..." (p. 73) "...
built in the native style..."). But on the next page, she says "Jane
was accustomed to this grand life." What is missing here is the
Balinese perspective and perhaps a bit more research into what it
must have meant for Sayan to have the McPhees there, especially
considering the amount of "western" perspective this book offers
(McPhee's letters, comments and letters from western friends, etc.).
Only Lebah is quoted about how generous McPhee was to him, along with
McPhee's disturbance at one villager exclaiming that the house was a
"palace." The subtext of the relationship of McPhee's homosexuality
to his life in Bali is also given little discussion in the book,
although one senses that it was an important factor in McPhee's love
for the island, and his subsequent depression after leaving it.
One of Ms. Oja's dilemmas as McPhee's
biographer is having to argue for a body of music which is considered
by many, even those "in the field," to be dated, anachronistic, and
generally of not great interest. As she points out, McPhee is largely
"marginalized" in terms of performances and musical attention. She
argues strongly that several of his later works, like the
Nocturne for Chamber
Orchestra and the Second Symphony are
important and successful, and since McPhee's music is so little
known, this is an important contribution. McPhee's "marginalization"
comes from the fact that many of his pieces are in rather strongly
established styles, and his most "famous" work, Tabuh-Tabuhan has
often been thought of (rightly or wrongly) as an example of how not
to incorporate non-western elements into western art music. But Ms.
Oja's book is fascinating in showing McPhee's contradictions. On one
hand, he is the pathbreaking "pro-active" ethnomusicologist helping
Lotring revive old traditions by actually establishing functioning
ensembles (an important example for future generations of American
ethnomusicologists like Robert E. Brown ). On the other hand,
when not in Bali, he appears as a rather whining, somewhat
self-absorbed, and relatively unproductive composer. McPhee's work
has been marginalized, but so has most American 20th century music.
His music may deserve more attention (as does all 20th century
music), yet it is difficult to argue for it in the context of
contemporaries like Ruggles, Cage, Cowell, Thompson, Copland, Becker,
Crawford and others whose music has had a more lasting impact. Ms.
Oja's book convincingly demonstrates that these composers simply
worked harder and more steadily at their music than McPhee did. And
Philip Corner certainly has a point when he states that: "... I do
not think that it is only personal preference which leads me to take
issue with Ms. Oja's unconvincing presentation of McPhee as even a
'good' composer." [Corner, 1991]
Ms. Oja analyses McPhee's later
transcription pieces, and points out that McPhee inherited the
questionable idea of piano transcription from Walter Spies. But it's
hard not to cringe a bit when she says that the transcriptions "...
remain consistently faithful to their sources, ... and made it
possible to hear music that was otherwise unavailable in the West."
[p. 215]. Whatever the Benjamin-esque nature of these transcriptions,
they are in no useful way "faithful" to anything except some kind of
approximation of rhythms and melodic contours. The only thing they
made possible for "the West" was to hear these transcriptions
themselves. Composers of later generations, like Lou Harrison and
Jack Body, have explored the relationship between composition and
transcription in extremely innovative and insightful ways. But
McPhee's completely obliterate tempo fluctuation, timbre, tuning,
dynamics, musical and cultural context, ensemble variation, and most
importantly, the musical and performance variations of the original.
Hearing a gagaku ensemble play an arrangement of Pierrot Lunaire, as
wonderful a music as it might actually be, gives very little sense of
Schoenberg. Ms. Oja's analytic focus on on these transcriptions (pp.
211-214) seems odd to me in its level of indirection, like analysing
the English prosody and poetry of the Old Testament by reading the
King James bible. When we look at "the other's" music, or language,
we need to give it the same importance and see in it the same degree
of richness and complexity as we do our own. Oja quotes McPhee's
colleague-in-Bali Margaret Mead (p. 70) as describing the
"extraordinary" specifity of Balinese: "If you showed a Balinese a
loaf of bread and asked him to slice it, but used another verb
instead of the one that meant meant to cut in even slices the
thickness of which was less than their length and breadth, he would
look at you with an absolutely blank expression." No kidding. Please chop me another piece of toast,
More troublesome is Ms. Oja's discussion of
a long quote from McPhee about identity and composition. "I feel that
the artist must strive more and more for anonymous expression, ...
and try and negate all that cries from within for self-conscious and
egotistical declaration ... What a marvellous thing would be a
program made up of new works by composers whose names were not
included in the program." Ms. Oja states that this passage "tells
much about concerns that continued to occupy him in the United
States... [and] was a revolutionary idea, especially for a composer
whose musical language remained fairly conservative. ... in the years
ahead McPhee's mission would be to reconcile 'anonyomous expression'
with personal creativity...". (p. 206) But McPhee nowhere evidences
any kind of urge for anonymity, or in any way shows that this was not
a kind of superficial, almost touristic remark (one that I have heard
from many students first becoming familiar with Indonesian music).
Worse, it suggests a false and dangerous romanticization of the
"other's" music and culture [Diamond, 1990] that is simply not
tolerable anymore. McPhee was not only musically conservative, he was
also socio-musically conservative. He never left his name off a
program, or was active in any kind of community music-making (except
in Bali!). From this book, he seems to be more egotistical than many
composers I've known. His idea is only "revolutionary" if one rather
disingenusously ignores most of the music-making that has occurred on
this planet throughout history, continuing in the present, in
cultures! In addition, many Indonesian composers and musicians want
and need to be recognized for their work, and fortunately, this has
recently occurred for some of them , including Lotring himself
Ms. Oja's book successfully documents the
western compositions of Colin McPhee, and gives us a reliable
biography of the composer. She convinces us that McPhee's life and
work are worth reconsidering. Like all pioneers, McPhee opened doors
to the future, but was prone to error by virtue of being a pioneer.
Perhaps one of the main results of Ms. Oja's scholarship is that
McPhee's mistakes, and our awareness of them, may become his most
important contribution to the development of cross-cultural creative
Brown, Robert E
1992 "Interlocking in Bali: Exchange in the
Context of Change." Paper given at the conference, "Indonesian Music:
20th Century Innovation and Tradition." University of California
Berkeley, September 27,29 1991. Summary of talk, edited by Marc
Perlman, published in Festival of
Indonesia Conference Summaries,
Festival of Indonesia Foundation, 1992.
1991 "Some thoughts on reading Carol Oja's
biography of Colin McPhee." Balungan. Volume 5,
Number 1. Winter/Spring.
1991"A Brief Note on Turtles, Claptrap, and
Vol. 23, No. 3. Fall.
1990 "There is No 'They'
there."Musicworks 47. Summer.
à Wayan Lotring (1898-1983).
Ocora C 559076/77. Compact disc.
Rai, I Wayan
1987"Daftar Skripsi, STSI Denpasar:
1972-1987." Distributed by the American Gamelan Institute.