Colin McPhee: Composer in Two Worlds

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 composer.

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 American musics.

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 [1991] and Jody Diamond [1990]. 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 this book.

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 [1991] 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 [1991]). 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, Margaret.

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 all 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 [1989].

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 work.


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.

Corner, Philip

1991 "Some thoughts on reading Carol Oja's biography of Colin McPhee." Balungan. Volume 5, Number 1. Winter/Spring.

Becker, Judith

1991"A Brief Note on Turtles, Claptrap, and Ethnomusicology." Ethnomusicology. Vol. 23, No. 3. Fall.

Diamond, Jody

1990 "There is No 'They' there."Musicworks 47. Summer.

Lotring, Wayan

1989Hommage 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.