About this Piece
Colin McPhee (b. 1900) knew about sensuality of content. Of all tonight's composers, McPhee's music is perhaps the least connected to the part of the movement of Minimalism that Reich calls "indigenously American," although his music is certainly Minimalist. McPhee was the first Western composer to make an ethnomusicological study of Bali. He studied with Edgard Varèse before marrying (and eventually divorcing) Jane Belo and moving to Bali, where McPhee's imagination was captured by the gamelan. He wrote traditional Western forms, and transcribed dozens of regional melodies for two pianos. Part composer-part scholar, McPhee developed a musical style marked by an acute sensitivity to individual timbres and a keenness for the textures of multi-layered rhythms. Many Minimalists were inspired by Indonesian music, but McPhee represented an extreme of fleeing to the Orient, to a paradise of highly formalized culture, to a seamless tapestry of gorgeous sound. The three movements of Balinese Ceremonial Music were arranged between 1934 and 1938. Just as the metallophones of the gamelan do, the two pianos create a "ringing" effect together, transferring the gamelan sonorities to the keyboard. The first movement, 'Pemoengkah,' is the overture to a shadow puppet play, and makes use of the most popular form of gamelan in Bali, the "Kebyar" style. Kebyar is characterized by sudden and gradual changes in tone color, dynamics, tempo, and articulation, as well as by complex interlocking melodic and rhythmic patterns. The second movement, 'Gambangan,' is representative of the ancient music used in cremation ceremonies ("angklung"), and, as the Kebyar style does, uses its own five-note scale. The final movement, 'Taboeh Teloe' comes from the feast music played by Gamelan gong gedé, which is the oldest and most austere style of gamelan. Since it was very rare to hear Indonesian music in the West in the 1940s, Balinese Ceremonial Music served an educational as well as an artistic purpose. It was dedicated to the famous anthropologist, and friend of McPhee, Margaret Mead.
- Jessie Rothwell is the Publications Coordinator for the Los Angeles Philharmonic. She also writes music, plays the oboe, and sings Bulgarian folk music.