Colin McPhee and the Music of Bali

In 1929 the Canadian-born composer Colin McPhee [1900-1964] chanced upon a set of rare gramophone recordings of Balinese gamelan music. This music, with a “mystery that was quite overpowering” sent McPhee on a quest to the island of Bali where he lived for much of the 1930s.

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Settling into the community and hungry to learn about this otherworldly music, the composer-ethnomusicologist immersed himself in the islands rich cultural heritage, its alluring sensuous charm. In 1947 he published an account of his time there in the book A House in Bali. I recently reread my copy and discovered a beautifully evocative passage. Though much has undoubtedly transformed over the years, the description here stirs in me my own memories of the island, as well as other personal encounters with music and sound during my time in Indonesia.

During the day there was the incessant clang of bells from the pony carts that filled the streets, and the asthmatic honk of buses and cars forever driving in and out of town. The crowing of a thousand cocks, the barking of a thousand dogs formed a rich, sonorous background against which the melancholy call of a passing food vendor stood out like an oboe in a symphony.

But at night, when the shops had closed and half the town was already asleep, the sounds died so completely that you could hear every leaf that stirred, every palm frond that dryly rustled. From all directions there now floated soft, mysterious music, humming, vibrating above the gentle, hollow sound of drums. The sounds came from different distances and gave infinite perspective to the night. As it grew late the music stopped. Now the silence was complete, only at long intervals pierced by a solitary voice, high, nasal, nostalgic, singing an endless tune; or else broken by the sudden hysteria of the dogs that began in a thin, single wail, rose quickly to a clamour of tormented voices and died once more into silence.

In 2006 I had the chance to visit Bali for myself to study the gamelan tradition at Flower Mountain in Payangan. Flower Mountain was the private home of American Ethnomusicologist Robert E. Brown, now used by the Center for World Music for arts and education workshops.

The short recording above comes from a gamelan performance that took place during my time there. Though I’m no gamelan expert, the combination of pulsing rhythms punctuated by violent bursts of drums and cymbals, feels to me to be a wonderful example of the exciting energy unique to the Balinese tradition.

Image: Gamelan Pelegongan of Kapal village by Colin McPhee. Source: here

Systema Naturae [2017]

The year ends with the completion of my final collection of electronic music - Systema Naturae - comprising of tracks from the past few years since returning to the UK. The three-part eponymous piece builds on ideas drawn from the Otoplexus project that was originally conceived in Tokyo around 2011-2012. Lynch Suite emerges out of time at film school while the final track The Enframing is a nod to my continuing interest in the writings of Martin Heidegger.

This collection is dedicated to two giants of electronic sound: Iannis Xenakis & Bernard Parmengiani.

The Sound of Crowds and Power

In the early 1990s British guitarist and improvisor Derek Bailey presented a television documentary on the role of improvisation in music. During the series Bailey visits a church on the Isle of Lewis in Scotland where we hear the unusual tradition of Gaelic psalm-singing. This kind of swarming choral effect reminds me of the singing documented on the 1989 album Polyphonies Vocales des Aborigenes de Taiwan. Other references might be Louis Sarno's recordings of the Bayaka People of the Central African Republic as well as Alan Lomax's extensive recordings of prison and work-song in America.

Inspired by these kind of choral textures The Ecstatic Lament for Jerusalem [2017] is a plunderphonic reworking of the famous hymn Jerusalem, which is sung at the Proms every year in the Royal Albert Hall. Using realtime sampling, melodic intervals are stretched, re-ordered and repeated to create an ever increasing rapture of sound and emotion.