Cover for OJA: Colin McPhee: Composer in Two Worlds. Click for larger image

Colin McPhee

Composer in Two Worlds

A study of a pioneer among American composers, his life, his influences on fellow musicians, and his struggles as a composer

Colin McPhee was a performer, writer, and pioneer among Western composers in turning to Asia for inspiration. A close friend of Aaron Copland, Carlos Chavez, Henry Cowell, and Virgil Thomson, he played a vital role in new music activities in New York in the 1920s, but his most important accomplishments came from his devotion to the music of Bali. Carol Oja's Colin McPhee: Composer in Two Worlds traces his life, his influences on fellow musicians, and the profound experience of a composer striving to comprehend an entirely new musical language.

After hearing rare recordings of the Balinese gamelan--a percussion orchestra with delicately layered textures and clangorous sounds--McPhee traveled to Bali and worked closely with such Western anthropologists as Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson. The island may also have appealed to him because of its relatively open attitude toward homosexuality.

Gay by inclination, he nevertheless married anthropologist Jane Belo and built a native-style house on the island where they lived for most of the 1930s. During this time, McPhee became a devoted and meticulous chronicler of Balinese musical culture, and his Music of Bali remains a classic in ethnomusicology. Beginning in the mid-1930s, his own compositions became an imaginative hybrid of Balinese and Western music, anticipating the later work of such figures as John Cage, Lou Harrison, and Steve Reich.

Finally back in print, Carol Oja's account of McPhee's unconventional life and work evokes key issues in composition and ethnomusicology, sure to be of interest to scholars, musicians or anyone interested in 20th century American or Balinese music.


Carol Oja is the author of Making Music Modern: New York in the 1920s and is president of the Society for American Music.

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