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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 been made more explicit.

Oja attributes the breakup of the McPhees’ marriage in 1938, while they were still in Bali, to Jane’s increasing humiliation from Colin’s ever more openly flaunted homosexuality—pederasty, rather, since the reference is probably to Sampih, his adopted pre-teen-age boy. McPhee himself cites the same cause in a letter to his Woodstock (New York) friend Sidney Cowell, wife of the composer Henry Cowell (who had spent four years in San Quentin for the same “crime” before being proved innocent), but blames Jane’s “vanity.” Walter Spies, the German painter and musician and McPhee’s closest European friend on the island, mentions what must have been a contributing factor, that McPhee “drank heavily and had an ugly temper when drunk” (he died of cirrhosis of the liver), but curmudgeonly conduct does not in itself explain why, as McPhee told Carlos Chávez in the otherwise direct and candid A House in Bali, “I give no indication of having been married,” and why, as he wrote to Sidney Cowell, he had been harsher to Jane than to anyone else.

Jane was fully aware of her husband’s sexual proclivities from the beginning, as well as of her own inclinations toward women. (Indeed, in the late 1930s the Dutch police, on a witch hunt, interrogated thirty-four young female dancers in Jane’s village concerning her sexual behavior.3 ) The marriage had been an arrangement between people with similar temperaments, even to the extent that both of them in later years were patients in psychiatric hospitals, in her case for “repeated stays” between 1944 and 1955. Both were attracted by the exotic, both were interested in drawing, wrote poetry, and were fascinated by African-American culture (“The moment I am among Negroes,” McPhee wrote, “I feel strangely at peace and happy, and always wish I lived in Harlem”). One of Jane’s closest friends and her college classmate was Zora Neale Hurston.

As a student at Barnard of Franz Boas and Ruth Benedict, Jane became absorbed in anthropology, and when she and Colin first sailed to Bali in 1931, she seems to have been as attracted to the island as an opportunity for field work as he was to its music. Margaret Mead’s preface to Belo’s Trance in Bali describes her as “one of the most gifted observers and interviewers [in ethnological field-work] whom it has been my good fortune to know” and credits her earlier writings on Balinese art and ritual, published in periodicals during the 1930s, for her own decision to go there in 1936. In later years Mead and Benedict became the trusted confidantes of both McPhees separately, and Benedict vetted Jane’s book. Belo’s personal papers and medical records are part of the Library of Congress’s Margaret Mead collection, but they contain little biographical information about her, no more, Oja says, than a one-page undated resumé, an apparent job application, and a New York driver’s license.

Jane was not inexperienced. Early in her relationship with McPhee, she wrote to her homosexual ex-husband, the painter George Biddle,

My present state of being in love with a feminine man has aspects of masculine protest…. Heaven knows what stages of change I still have to go through, and how long it will take before I can be the mature female.

But however bitter she may have felt at the time of divorcing McPhee, back in New York she continued to send him her writings about Bali, to which her responded kindly. Though he told Chávez that she had been infuriated by being censored out of A House in Bali, when the two met by accident in New York’s Museum of Natural History in 1952, McPhee described the occasion to Chávez as a “reconciliation,” and even mentioned the possibility that it might endure. Her “sad, aged” appearance, he said, “would break your heart.”

Born in Toronto of Scottish forebears, Colin McPhee displayed remarkable musical gifts at an early age, giving promise of a piano virtuoso’s career while “still in knickerbockers.” At fifteen he presented a recital program of his own compositions. Oja reproduces a chorus written three years later that indicates a certain feeling for harmony. In the same year, 1918, he entered the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, where he eventually performed a piano concerto of his own on a program with Beethoven’s G-Major Concerto.

Returning to Toronto after graduation, he contributed incidental music to a play, identified by Oja in a distracted moment as “Hippolytus’s Euripides.” A spell in Paris followed, with piano lessons from Isidor Philipp, Stravinsky’s teacher at the same time (preparing to play his piano concerto), and further efforts at composition. An excerpt printed from a 1926 opus looks like a near copy of the octave and two-part counterpoint style of Stravinsky’s 1924 Sonata. In Paris, McPhee met Jane Belo, a wealthy Texan, then the wife of Biddle, the scion of the socially prominent Philadelphia family.

Back in New York, McPhee lived for more than a year in a room rented from Edgard Varèse at 188 Sullivan Street. In 1927 he played one of the four piano parts (and Aaron Copland another) in the Carnegie Hall performance of George Antheil’s Ballet Mécanique. McPhee’s own music of the period, in the samples Oja prints, derives from neoclassic models of the day and shows little individuality. Near the end of the decade, hearing a Balinese gamelan orchestra in the German-made Odéon and Beka recordings (five of its ninety-eight sides were released commercially in the US in 1931),4 and captivated by the rhythms and sonorities of the music, he resolved to learn it at first hand. He was also encouraged in this by many of the people he and Jane Belo met at parties in Carl Van Vechten’s West Fifty-fifth Street apartment, one of whom, the Mexican painter Miguel Covarrubias, had visited Bali six months before Colin and Jane.

The culture of the island’s million or so inhabitants was in turmoil when the McPhees arrived there. In 1906 the Dutch had “deposed” the Balinese royalty, which is to say that the entire royal retinue committed mass suicide by walking into the guns of the colony’s masters. The Dutch educators were determined to stamp out every trace of the native culture, even forbidding children in art classes to represent trees, flowers, and birds in the traditional decorative style, teaching them instead to draw realistically and in accordance with the laws of perspective. Missionaries brought pictures of the Virgin that the natives mistook for the queen of Holland, but they became Christians only briefly—Bali is apparently immune to Islamic or Christian conversion—and then mainly to avoid costly cremations.

The destruction of the culture came with the growth of the tourist industry. McPhee remarks on the difference between 1932, when a man seeing an automobile could still ask, “How can it be? A chariot going like that without horse or cow?” and 1935, when the motor traffic was well on the way to the present-day gridlock of tour buses.

The house in Bali was constructed in 1932, after an interlude in Paris, where to McPhee the symphony orchestras seemed “torpid and mechanized” and “the endless legato of the violins” contrasted dully with the metallic spangles of sound produced by the Balinese gangsas. Their new home, in the comparatively cool and salubrious hill climate near the village of Sayan, consisted of a house in the style of a theater pavilion, a sleeping house (separate quarters as far apart as possible for the husband and wife), a bathhouse, a music studio, a kitchen, garage, temple, and shrines. The furnishings included a Steinway grand purchased in Java, peacock chairs, doors carved in Chinese style, and a menagerie of monkeys, an iguana, a small python, a flying fox, and red and green parrots that slept hanging upside down from their perches.

The compound had been built next to a cemetery, however, and, McPhee tells us, the superstitious villagers soon began to complain of demonic deeds. The first portent was an earth-quake in the wrong month; the right ones, in Bali, are evidently assigned by deities. Others began to occur in the McPhee household when for no apparent reason the cat fell off the roof and was killed, bicycle bells were heard ringing in the empty garage, and drops of blood were found on the floor, washed away, but found again in the same places the next day.

  1. 1

    Music in Bali: A Study of Form and Instrumental Organization in Balinese Orchestral Music (Yale University Press, 1966).

  2. 2

    In Traditions of Gamelan Music in Java: Musical Pluralism and Regional Identity (Cambridge University Press, 1991), R. Anderson Sutton says that the ensemble consists predominantly of metal ideophones (bronze or iron gongs, gong-chimes, and metallophones) and one or more double-headed drums. When vocalists are included, xylophone, flute, zither, and a two-string fiddle are added.

  3. 3

    Steven Runciman’s A Traveller’s Alphabet: Partial Memoirs (Thames and Hudson, 1991) contains an account of this stage of the island’s history. “Almost all” European and American men and women had “become rather too intimate with the natives,” Sir Steven writes, and “when the government in Java had at last become aware of these shocking activities, the male settlers had been taken off to be tried and gaoled in Java, while the women settlers were ordered to leave the country.” This may have been the case with Belo and Mead. Runciman goes on to say that when “a tourist ship was arriving, the maidens all hastened to bare their bosoms, knowing that that was what the visitors liked, dressing respectably again as soon as the tourists departed.”

  4. 4

    Sutton, Traditions of Gamelan Music in Java, lists some 150 cassettes (of Javanese gamelan music) of the 450 or so commercially released. The American Gamelan Institute in Hanover, New Hampshire, can provide more information.

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