Colin McPhee (March 15, 1900, in Montreal – January 7, 1964, in Los Angeles) was a Canadian composer and musicologist. He is primarily known for being the first Western composer to make an ethnomusicological study of Bali, and for the quality of that work. He also composed music influenced by that of Bali and Java decades before such world music–based compositions became widespread.
McPhee studied with the avant-garde composer Edgard Varèse before marrying Jane Belo, a disciple of Margaret Mead, in 1931. He was involved in the circle of experimental composers known as the “ultra-modernists” and was among those—along with the group’s leader, Henry Cowell, John Becker, and Cowell protégé Lou Harrison—particularly interested in what would later become known as “world music.” McPhee is said to have first encountered Balinese music while listening to a record in New York City. He and his wife moved to Bali together for Belo’s anthropological work. Once there McPhee became so interested in the music that he studied, built, and wrote extensively about the gamelans. McPhee, who was gay, divorced Belo in 1939. In the early 1940s he lived in a large brownstone in Brooklyn, which he shared with Leonard Bernstein and Benjamin Britten, among others.
In 1942 he arranged Britten’s Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, a work for string orchestra, for two pianos, to be used for Lew Christensen’s ballet Jinx.
McPhee was responsible for introducing Britten to the Balinese music that influenced such works by the British composer as The Prince of the Pagodas, Curlew River, and Death in Venice. Later in the decade, McPhee fell into an alcohol-fueled depression, but began to write music again during the 1950s. He became professor of ethnomusicology at UCLA in 1958 and was also a respected jazz critic.
On June 26 and 27, 2009, an opera about McPhee’s life by the American composer Evan Ziporyn, entitled A House in Bali, premiered at Puri Saraswati in Ubud, Bali. It will receive further performances at UC Berkeley on September 26 and 27, 2009.
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