Colin McPhee was a Canadian composer and musicologist. He is primarily 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 world music–based compositions became widespread.

McPhee studied with the avant-garde composer Edgard Varèse before marrying Jane Belo, a disciple of Margaret Mead, in 1931. He was involved in the circle of experimental composers known as the "ultra-modernists" and was among those—along with the group's leader, Henry Cowell, John Becker, and Cowell protégé Lou Harrison—particularly interested in what would later become known as "world music." McPhee is said to have first encountered Balinese music while listening to a record in New York City. He and his wife moved to Bali together for Belo's anthropological work. Once there McPhee became so interested in the music that he studied, built, and wrote extensively about the gamelans. McPhee, who was gay, divorced Belo in 1939. In the early 1940s he lived in a large brownstone in Brooklyn, which he shared with Leonard Bernstein 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. 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.

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.


Jordan Hall at New England Conservatory | November 20, 2011

News and Press

[Concert Review] BMOP opens season with a fancinating array of Canadian music

Geographically, Canada is not that far away from Boston. Some of the Canadian music heard Sunday afternoon at Jordan Hall, however, sounded like it was coming from a much greater distance.

The Boston Modern Orchestra Project began its subscription season Sunday with "True North," featuring four composers with ties to our neighbor country. Conductor Gil Rose led his solid ensemble in works by Kati Agócs, Colin McPhee, Michael Colgrass and Claude Vivier, which may not have uncovered any cohesive national identity, but certainly offered much artistic creativity and informed musicianship.

Boston Classical Review Full review
[News Coverage] Rose, BMOP set to launch season with a spotlight on Canadian composers

"It's funny. When it started, I really thought that after a while it would change," says Gil Rose, artistic director of the Boston Modern Orchestra Project.

"It's been fifteen years, and producing concerts and making recordings has become an always and forever state. It's fun for me personally, but I really thought that it would get easier over time."

Boston Classical Review Full review
[Press Release] BMOP Salutes Canadian Composers at its Season Opening Concert

The Boston Modern Orchestra Project (BMOP), the nation's premier orchestra dedicated exclusively to commissioning, performing, and recording new orchestral music, kick-starts its 2011-12 season with a nod to our friendly neighbor to the North, Canada. Paying homage to some of Canada's top composers, BMOP is slated to perform: Vessel by Kati Agocs; Symphony No. 2 by Colin McPhee; Letter from Mozart by Michael Colgrass; and Orion by Claude Vivier.

Full review