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Colin Carhart McPhee (March 15, 1900 – January 7, 1964) was a Canadian composer and musicologist. He is best 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 compositions that were based on world music became widespread.
McPhee was born in Montreal. He enrolled in the Peabody Institute in 1918, studying composition with Gustav Strube and piano with Harold Randolph; subsequently he studied with the avant-garde composer Edgard Varèse before marrying Jane Belo, a disciple of Margaret Mead, in 1931.
McPhee joined the circle of experimental composers known as the "ultra-modernists" and was among those—along with the group's leader, Henry Cowell, John J. Becker, and Cowell protégé Lou Harrison—particularly interested in what would later become known as "world music." McPhee and his wife moved to Bali together for Belo's anthropological work. Once there McPhee studied, filmed and wrote extensively about the culture and music of the gamelans, and in 1936 wrote an original musical score, Tabuh Tabuhan, in the Balinese style. McPhee, who was gay, divorced Belo in 1939. In the early 1940s he lived in a large brownstone in Brooklyn, February House, which he shared with W. H. Auden 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. In 1947 McPhee published a book A House in Bali, about Balinese culture and music during the 1930s. 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. He died in Los Angeles. 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. In 2017, an album Peter Pears: Balinese Ceremonial Music, performed Thomas Bartlett & Nico Muhly and partly based on McPhee's transcriptions, was released on the Nonesuch/Warners label.
by Carl Van Vechten
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