Bali H’ai

Colin McPhee: Composer in Two Worlds

by Carol J. Oja
Smithsonian Institution Press, 353 pp., $39.95

A House in Bali

by Colin McPhee
Oxford University Press, 214 pp., $12.95 (paper)

Carol J. Oja’s brief biography of Colin McPhee, the Canadian-born (1900) writer, composer, pianist, and ethnomusicologist, provides a survey of his compositions, or rather the fewer than half of them not lost, with a generous selection of examples in music type. As one in a series on American composers, the book naturally gives more space to McPhee’s music than to his writings, which are far more prized (if apples may be preferred to oranges), particularly his memoir, A House in Bali, but also his technical study Music in Bali.1 Still, the facts of his life are of interest in themselves.

A House in Bali, newly reissued, is a minor literary masterpiece. No critic seems to have recognized or acknowledged this when it appeared, in 1946, and the few musicians who read it did so largely out of curiosity about a colleague. Today the musician is all but forgotten, his book more widely admired, both for its observations of cultures in conflict and its sophisticated but unaffected narrative style.

A first-person-singular account of life on the island in the 1930s, A House in Bali does not hint at the existence, much less the close proximity, of McPhee’s wife, Jane Belo, an anthropologist whom he married in 1930 and who, as Oja reveals, shared with him both the house and the enthusiasm for Balinese culture. Though this does not cast doubt on the veracity of the story as a whole, it inevitably raises questions. Both McPhees wrote about some of the same ceremonies, so it is unclear which of the events he describes she also witnessed, and when and how their experiences intersected. In the case of the Balinese women’s court dance-drama, Legong, for instance, Jane Belo and Margaret Mead, a Bali neighbor, provide detailed minute-by-minute notes. McPhee’s account, not necessarily of the same occasion, is casual and impressionistic. In the acknowledgments to her scholarly book, Trance in Bali (1960), Belo generously refers to her husband’s work in Balinese music as “a stimulating parallel,” and expresses gratitude for his help; but her and Mead’s account of the Legong, unlike his, says nothing about the gamelan (percussion ensemble)2 music that is one of its major elements.

The McPhees arrived in Bali together, according to Belo’s Traditional Balinese Culture, whereas in his version he immediately traverses the island alone except for a driver. Six months later, when the pair returned to Paris to renew their visas, three Balinese friends, hers as well as his, accompanied them to the steamship, whose electrical and plumbing facilities, as might be expected, left them awestruck. McPhee excised his wife from this scene as well, though she paid for the trip and indeed supported him entirely for their seven years together. True, he also concealed the real nature of his relationships with the young male dancers, musicians, and house-boys who are the principals in his cast of characters, but this becomes obvious in the book, and, given the publishing restrictions of the time, could not have…

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