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.

Balinese demons can be exorcised only by Leyaks, invisible supernatural sorcerers, who in turn can be summoned only by top holy men. The price in sacrificial animals and birds levied by the guru McPhee solicited was both onerous and impractical—a chicken with feathers growing the wrong way—what Flannery O’Connor calls a “frizzled chicken”—but the old man was open to compromise, especially when primed with glasses of arac, which he “tossed down with the sudden quickness of a lizard that has seen a fly.” To McPhee’s remark, “I thought priests might not drink strong drinks,” a houseboy responds with “He is very holy and may do as he pleases.” On another occasion, the village imposed a twenty-four-hour curfew in the hope that, with everyone indoors and all lights out, “the demons would think the village deserted and pass it by.”

McPhee’s thumbnail portraits are wonderfully vivid. An ancient holy man, “white hair tied up in a knot on the crown of his head…piled on top of a slow-moving pony [and] holding a paper umbrella over his head” reminds him of “a Chinese painting of a Taoist monk.” A prince with whom McPhee eats fruit, spits the mangosteen, litchi, and pomelo pips on the floor where they are “immediately gathered by an attendant,” a human spitoon who “carried the royal discard in his hands.” The face of the visiting regent of the district is “a masterpiece of sensuality, cruelty and cunning. His sarong and headcloth were arranged in extravagant folds. Enormous moonstones buttoned his white official jacket, and his fingers were heavy with rings.” When one of McPhee’s handsome young retainers brings tea, the regent’s gaze settles on the boy, after which “his eyes met mine in a glance of insolent penetration.”

Bali, when the McPhees landed there, was the most musical land on the planet:

The air was constantly stirred by musical sounds. At night hills and valleys faintly echoed with the vibrant tones of great bronze gongs. By day drums thundered along the roads to the clash of cymbals as chanting processions of men and women carried offerings to the far-off sea…. Bells were fixed to oxen yokes, weavers’ shuttles, pony carts…and tiny ones were hung to the feet of domestic pigeons, whose tail feathers were attached with bamboo whistles.

The Balinese gamelan orchestra is an ensemble of gamelans (mallet instruments resembling marimbas), gongs, drums, cymbals. Its music is based on five tones, cosmologically signifying the gods linked to the five directions, north, east, south, west, and the center, the omphalos of the world, where Siva, the Creator-Destroyer, sits in the middle of a lotus. The sole purpose of music is to please the gods, the pleasure of humans being coincidental. Like some Indian ragas and the canonic hours of the West, it has a “scale of midnight” and “a mode of dawn.” It is also anonymous and, apart from the barest outlines encoded in a few virtually uninterpretable scratches on dried palm leaves, unwritten—a fugitive art, therefore, with no theory, no notation, no indication of rhythm, melody, or the interweaving of sonorities; every phrase, note, detail of the accompaniment is learned by ear and by “careful and infinitely patient listening to a teacher.”

On what seems to be McPhee’s first experience of a live gamelan orchestra, he felt

a sensation of indescribable freshness. There was none of the perfume and sultriness of so much music in the East, for there is nothing purer than the bright, clean sound of metal, cool and ringing and dissolving in the air. Nor was it personal and romantic in the manner of our own effusive music, but rather sound broken up into beautiful patterns. Gongs of different sizes punctuated this stream of sound, divided and subdivided it into sections and inner sections, giving it meter and meaning.

Nyoman, a Balinese musician for whom McPhee played unspecified specimens of Western music on an upright piano, complains that it sounds “like someone crying…. Up and down, up and down, for no reason at all.” McPhee tells us that since the piano has twelve pitches and Nyoman’s instrument only five, irregularly tuned, Western music can have no meaning for the native ear; “the Balinese taste for Bach, in tourists’ tales” is an impossibility. For Nyoman and his people, Western European art music is “a complicated noise, without order, tempestuous and baffling in its emotional climaxes, dragging on and on and leading nowhere.” Music, for these people, is remote from emotional self-revelation:

Without effort, with eyes closed, or staring out into the night as though each player were in an isolated world of his own, the men performed their isolated parts with mysterious unity…. I wondered at their natural ease, the almost casual way in which they played…. As I listened to the musicians, watched them, I could think only of a flock of birds wheeling in the sky, turning with one accord, now this way, now that.

McPhee is a keen observer of many aspects of Balinese culture. Where do the gods stay while on earth, he wonders, and eventually deduces from what he hears that they hide in the tiniest objects, in stones and bits of wood, and in little golden figurines fashioned for them and kept locked up in temples. He is fascinated by foods and their preparation, whether dragon-fly larvae on shredded and toasted coconut or curried anteater. “A whole etiquette revealed itself in the way people sit,” he writes, introducing a discussion of the hierarchical relationships between man and man in the island’s caste system, though this complex subject, with its distinctions of language, manners, and dress, different in every district and village, and of the effects of Dutch authority instated over the four existing Hindu castes, is more comprehensively examined in the methodical writings of Jane Belo and Margaret Mead.5

In a chapter on the puppet shadow-plays and traditional dramas based on the ancient legends, McPhee refers to the dance as “music made visible,” Balanchine’s artistic credo, except that Balanchine would have objected to the Balinese theater’s obscuring of the borders where dancing ends and acting begins. When McPhee finally decides to undertake a serious study of the island’s music, which later became Music in Bali, he pitches a tent in distant places in search of ancient primitive instruments, such as are seen in relief sculptures on Javanese temples. He is shown several unfamiliar kinds of drums and gongs and a kind of rattle, a harp-shaped frame hung with different sizes of bamboo tubes. McPhee does not confine his inquiries to technicalities. “How does a musician earn a living?” he asks, and the answer is: “Oh, his wives weave mats.”

A House in Bali was written in the early 1940s at Yaddo, in the house of Henry Cowell at Shady (Wood-stock), New York, and in the top-floor apartment of the Brooklyn Heights brownstone whose other tenants included W.H. Auden, Carson McCullers, Gypsy Rose Lee, Oliver Smith, Benjamin Britten, and Peter Pears. (McPhee’s Balinese transcriptions undeniably influenced Britten’s The Prince of the Pagodas, which makes more interesting use of them than McPhee ever managed to do.) Paul and Jane Bowles were also residents in the Brooklyn house while McPhee lived there, and the reader inevitably remarks on the resemblances between the two couples, and on the two men themselves, both of them having wedded unusual “Janes,” lived as expatriates and preservers of indigenous cultures, worked as music critics, and been more successful as writers than as composers.

While at work on A House in Bali, McPhee recognized that “I write so much better than I compose.” (Virgil Thomson might have made the same recognition of his own gifts, though it is not likely he would have said so, as well as Harry Partch, author of the lucidly argued Genesis of a Music and composer of sounds remote from Western musical traditions.) McPhee elaborates in a letter:

I’ve been trained as a musician, and feel words the way I feel tones. The sentences must float…. Just as the music of Mozart floats, while Beethoven,…and Bach too at times, sinks to the bottom of the glass.

He told Margaret Mead, a close friend though he found her “YMCA energy” tiresome, “I was a fool to be so fussy about what I thought was style, but…at last when I had a subject, I could not resist playing with it self-indulgently. At the same time I was trying to make a complex experience crystal-clear.”

Fussed over or not—three versions of A House in Bali are mentioned and McPhee admitted that “little, trivial things seem able to disturb me for hours. You’d think I was James or Flaubert”—McPhee’s book displays remarkable descriptive dexterity. In the tiny port town of Buleleng,

the dentists were Japanese, and their offices held no secrets from the passerby. In the center of each a plush chair balanced on uncertain machinery; the walls were covered with terrifying charts, while glass cases exhibited pearly molars and sets of golden teeth.

A House in Bali, Music in Bali, the children’s story A Club of Small Men, the music criticism, and the letters attest to a “natural” literary gift. So do McPhee’s unpublished Balinese field notes:

Spent the day sailing in praus across the straits of Java…walking over the coral reefs…. Small fish of indescribable brilliance, gold, scarlet, crimson, ultramarine and silver; enormous starfish…giant clams—the same whose shells are used in Cathedrals of France for l’eau benit.

McPhee’s music criticism, the 140 or so pages of it published in Mina Lederman’s Modern Music between 1939 and 1946, as well as his record reviews in Mademoiselle and the more substantial essays on Balinese music in Dance Index and The Musical Quarterly, exposes a more audacious side of his personality, and an honesty that such friends as Virgil Thomson and Aaron Copland must have respected, even as it may have irritated them (Benjamin Britten was “grieved” by McPhee’s dismissal of Sonnets of Michelangelo as “baroque and pompous show-pieces”). Thomson’s “chaste and Lilliputian” Third Piano Sonata, McPhee writes, might better be described as “Adventure in C…a sharp would be as disturbing as a coarse word at a church social”; the “eloquent simplicity of [Copland’s Lincoln Portrait] somehow does not ring quite true to my ears”; and “the sexy and goonlike voices of the Andrews Sisters, those Rhine maidens of the jukebox,” provide an object-lesson “in the degradation of a Negro tune.” He might have been thinking of Stokowski, with whom he had had some experience, in noting that the gamelan orchestra has “no conductor’s stick to beat time, no over-eloquent hands to urge or subdue.”

McPhee had a “natural” musical gift as well, but not a creative one of any size. He was a time-to-time composer whose best efforts depend on Balinese examples, formal, rhythmic, melodic, and instrumental. Oja is not deaf to the weaknesses of the music, its minimalist repetition, for instance, and its monotonous syncopation. She praises two of the late pieces, the Nocturne for chamber orchestra and, extravagantly, the Second Symphony (“sublimely beautiful”), yet is well aware that McPhee’s importance is not in his own music but in his explication of the music of an Oriental culture and therefore in helping the twain to meet. If, as Steve Reich claims, non-Western music has become “an increasingly important source for Western composers,” McPhee provided one of the first bridges.

In New York in the 1940s and 1950s, McPhee was obliged to scrounge for a living. He thumbed along the familiar route of the Guggenheim grant, the Bollingen fellowship, the Fulbright. He had no success on the lecture circuit, succeeded as a reviewer but made no money, scripted radio programs on the history of jazz for the OWI, worked as an arranger and tried to wangle commissions—Lincoln Kirstein sponsored one for chamber ensemble arrangements of McPhee’s transcriptions of Javanese court dances, which were performed with choreography by Balanchine in two Ballet Society concerts in 1947.

At one point McPhee lamented to a friend, “The only things in life I want are the things money can buy,” and though he recognized that his separation from Jane marked the beginning of his decline, he blamed the divorce on “bad luck.” Though remarried, she silently continued to give him money, indicating at least a residue of affection for him. After a six-year hiatus from composing he took a teaching position at UCLA. He died in Los Angeles in 1964.

McPhee’s life after Bali contains few highs—a recording of his music for two pianos with Benjamin Britten at the other keyboard, a performance by Béla Bartók and his wife at Amherst College in 1942 of some of the Balinese two-piano transcriptions6—and many lows. In 1943, in a depressive psychosis, in sad contrast to the sustained euphoria of A House in Bali, he confessed to Dr. William Mayer (husband of Elizabeth Mayer, Auden’s friend and co-translator of Goethe’s Italian Journey), director of the psychiatric hospital in Amityville, Long Island:

Many times there was a decision to make between some important opportunity and a sexual (homosexual) relationship which was purely sensual. I never hesitated to choose the latter. The Balinese period was simply a long extension of this.

Yet his best years were those on the sexually ambidextrous island which inspired the two books, his lasting achievement.

This Issue

October 24, 1991