Travels with a Donkey, Robert Louis Stevenson
Robert Louis Stevenson’s well-loved travel tale is threaded with longing for the love of a woman he was not sure he would ever meet again.
It is 1931 and the young Canadian composer Colin McPhee has just arrived in Bali. Sarda, his handsome young chauffeur, drives him around in an old Buick with ‘an air of utter scorn’.
In the early morning the island had a golden freshness, dripped and shone with moisture like a garden in a florist’s window. By noon it had become hard and matter-of-fact. But in the late afternoon the island was transformed once more; it grew unreal, lavish and theatrical like old-fashioned opera scenery. As the sun neared the horizon men and women turned the colour of new copper, while shadows grew purple, the grass blue, and everything white reflected a deep rose.
One evening, as we drove along, the full moon rose above the fields, scarlet, enormous, distorted beyond belief in the invisible haze. I told Sarda to stop the car, and sat looking in silence. A tone of romantic enthusiasm in my voice, possibly, had set Sarda thinking, for suddenly he asked,
In America you have no moon, perhaps?
He spoke so simply I could not tell if irony were intended or not. I told him we had, and at this he started the car, saying I would be late for dinner at the hotel.
In 1929 Colin McPhee, a classically trained pianist and composer, happened to hear some gramophone records that changed the course of his life. They were recordings of the gamelan orchestras of Bali, virtually unknown to western ears: ‘the clear, metallic sounds of the music were like the stirring of a thousand bells, delicate, confused, with a sensuous charm, a mystery that was quite overpowering.’
McPhee later said,
I couldn’t imagine what type of a culture could produce music like that. This was nothing that I had ever been taught to think could be music, and yet these were sounds that always seemed to have been in my own mind.
From that moment he lived for the day when he would see it played live. A year later with his new wife, the anthropologist Jane Belo (a former student of Margaret Mead), they embarked on their journey and arrived in Bali intending to stay six months but stayed for seven years.
In A House in Bali, McPhee’s enchanting account of his time in this fabled island, he describes entering a Chinese temple soon after arrival in the little port town of Buleleng, where he saw a live gamelan for the first time. A gamelan orchestra is a collection of tuned percussion instruments: metal gongs and xylophone-type instruments, cymbals struck by hammers or mallets, sometimes accompanied by flutes, and drums to register the beat.
With graceful and synchronised movements, the musicians in the temple played a piece called ‘The Sea of Honey’.
The Melody unrolled like some ancient chant, grave and metallic…seeming to fill the temple with faintly echoing sound.
Afterwards Sarda drove them to their destination on the other side of the island – over a mountain, through forests, past a volcanic crater, its inner wall covered with jungle, and down a long road toward a purple sea. They passed rice paddies, copulating horses, chanting women with offerings on their heads, and the occasional tottering, starving dog that would be knocked aside by the car with a thud. They reached Denpasar, Bali’s capital, which was then a rambling colonial settlement with a couple of streets of shops, surrounded by a shantytown.
McPhee and his wife moved into a musty little village house in nearby Kedaton, with a deep verandah and a view of rice paddies and the sea. Each morning would begin with the aroma of frying coconut oil and sra, a putrid paste of shrimps that had been ground, dried and fermented underground. A pea-sized amount was sufficient to add a ‘racy, briny tang’, which McPhee soon found himself craving, ‘as an animal craves salt.’
The layout of their village was the typical square grid, with a network of roads and lanes. Houses were barely visible behind walls overhung with palms, breadfruit and frangipani trees bursting with ‘starry blossoms’. Toward the outskirts stood a collection of communal temples, for the ‘origins’, the village elders, the earth’s axis, and the rice goddess Sri. Past the graveyard stood the temple for the Dead, exquisitely carved, with its wall reliefs of animals, its ‘atmosphere of peace, silence and decay, of neglect and loving care.’ Religious ritual permeated daily activity; then as now, it was inseparable from cultural life and the people’s sense of meaning and connection.
Every three days while the women set up their stalls in the busy marketplace, the local men would gather under the banyan tree, idly chatting and appraising their fighting cockerels. As evening fell, they would move to the thatched hut where they kept their gamelan, and by a blaze of lamplight would play their silvery music until late into the night.
Visitors dropped by McPhee’s house at all hours to chat or just sit quietly. Among the gifts they brought were a monkey and a cockatoo that roamed the house and fought one another. On the two-tiered deck a whole etiquette developed around the seating arrangements for guests, according to caste.
Nyoman Kaler was one of the first visitors to the house. A shy, gentle man in his early thirties, he was one of the headmen of Kedaton, in charge of all three gamelans in the village.
He had been raised in one of the old royal courts as a dancer. These courts had been established by princes, religious scholars and warriors from the collapsing Hindu Majapahit Empire who fled Islamic influences that were sweeping Java in the 1520s. To the safe haven of Bali they brought their wives, concubines, soldiers, writers, craftsmen, actors and musicians. The princes became brilliant patrons of the arts which led to a flourishing of culture and religion in what became known as the Golden Age of Bali, when the royal courts rang with music.
But in 1916 the Dutch launched an offensive against Bali, the last remaining independent kingdom in Indonesia. Rather than submit to the humiliation of colonial subjugation, members of the royal families dressed in ceremonial white, together with hundreds of their followers – men, women and children – walked into the gunfire of the Dutch army. Their glittering kingdoms were destroyed and their patronage of the arts became a thing of the past. Now the pawnshops were crammed with royal treasures. Surviving princes would rumble into Denpasar in open Fords that were constantly breaking down by the roadside.
Yet in the villages music continued to thrive. McPhee became the first westerner to learn from Balinese masters and Nyoman Kaler was the first of a number of important teachers. He listened intently to Kaler’s own gamelan orchestra as it practiced regularly at the Temple of Origins, noticing that the music was neither personal nor romantic like the music of the west, ‘but rather, sound broken up into beautiful patterns.’ This was an utterly new musical language for him.
Although the music had originated in Java and, earlier still, in India and China, successive generations of Balinese have transformed it, quickening its rhythms and modifying the instruments. Pairs of instruments, tuned slightly differently, produce interference beats that symbolise for the Balinese the presence of their gods. The intricate interplay of notes and voices create a rich, delicately ornamented web, a ‘shimmering and pulsating sound’ in which no part is greater than the whole. Try listening to this mesmerising piece performed by the gamelan of the master Taman Sari. This is mostly an oral tradition, the musicians learning the intricate pieces by ear from teachers who have committed it to memory.
In return for his teaching, McPhee introduced Nyoman Kaler to western music but to him it sounded like an endless, complicated noise with no order. After listening to a waltz or sonata he would ask, ‘But where is the beat?’ The exception was Jazz, which he enjoyed immensely. He thought Louis Armstrong’s trumpet was fantastic, and found its rhythms close to his own tense and syncopated music.
Six months into their visit, McPhee and Belo’s visas had almost expired but the prospect of leaving made McPhee ‘infinitely depressed’. His last two weeks were spent feverishly recording, filming and documenting the Balinese musicians, their instruments and music. Packing all his material into a trunk, he felt he was ‘storing a folio of pressed flowers.’
In Paris McPhee could not get Bali out of his mind. Concert performances of new music that would once have delighted him now seemed ‘dull and intellectual’.
I thought of the sunny music I had listened to in the open air, among people who talked and laughed, hearing yet not hearing the musicians, but cheered and exhilarated by the sounds. Here, as I looked about me in the hall, I felt suddenly shut in, and I could hardly wait for the end of the concert.
The call was too strong and one year later the couple returned to Bali. McPhee set out to compile the most complete record of its music possible. In the cool and peaceful hills close to Ubud, they built a house and garden in the village of Sayan, on the edge of the magnificent Ayung River Valley.
This time, McPhee gained a deeper understanding of the different genres of the music, and began work to stimulate the revival of semar pegulingan, an older style of gamelan from the seventeenth century that had almost disappeared. To his mind its sound was sweeter and more restrained than the more modern, ‘melodramatic’ gong kebyar.
The loss of royal patronage had come at a huge cost to music and dance and the great traditions had started to dwindle. Today sponsorship comes in the form of mass tourism, but at a price: repertoires are reduced to a handful of well worn pieces which are truncated for short attention spans.
McPhee could already sense the start of such changes. Boat loads of travellers arriving on Dutch liners began signalling the end of the island’s isolation, and he complained about the number of western people building houses in Bali. ‘Everyone wants to be Robinson Crusoe, and takes other footprints in the sand as personal insults,’ he said. His compulsive mission for preservation seemed increasingly ‘important and urgent’.
McPhee involved himself in many aspects of Balinese cultural life. He prevented a number of orchestras from breaking up by donating money for instruments and covering the cost of musicians’ travel to performances. He established his own gamelan and learned to play some of the instruments: ‘I knew the melodies by heart and as I played I felt both peace and exhilaration…’ And he discovered some extraordinarily talented musicians and dancers, on his travels to many parts of the island to research, film and document the various traditions.
McPhee and his wife divorced in 1938, probably on the grounds of his open homosexuality. Jane Belo is never mentioned in A House in Bali, which McPhee wrote nearly ten years after their divorce. But she had spent these years fruitfully studying children’s art and ceremonial life, particularly trance states, and made important scholastic contributions. See an article about Belo in American Anthropologist.
Belo had funded their years in Bali so their separation left McPhee impoverished. Homosexuality had always been tolerated on the island but as part of the Dutch East Indies, Bali had become a target for Nazi witch hunts. On Christmas day in 1938 McPhee was obliged to flee the island for New York, and never returned.
In 1936, while on a break from Bali, McPhee composed a piece based on Balinese music that is regarded one of his most significant works. Tabuh-Tabuhan (meaning ‘percussive rhythms and sounds’) was commissioned by Carlos Chavez and premiered in Mexico City with a performance by the Mexico Symphony Orchestra. In this piece McPhee aimed to evoke the atmosphere of gamelan and its musical patterns using a western orchestra.
After Bali, McPhee moved back to New York and for a while lived in ‘February House’, a brownstone in Brooklyn Heights. It was a communal home for creative strays, including poet W.H. Auden, novelist Carson McCullers, writers Paul and Jane Bowles, the burlesque performer Gypsy Rose Lee and the then unknown British composer Benjamin Britten. The house was so named because many of them had birthdays in February.
McPhee shared his love of Balinese music with Britten, who was always looking for new sources of inspiration, and was highly receptive. McPhee had arranged for some of the gamelan music he had transcribed in Bali for two pianos, and together, they performed these pieces called Balinese Ceremonial Music several times in the US. Britten later performed them when he returned to London at the Wigmore Hall in 1944. McPhee and Britten also recorded these works and the result was a six record collection called The Music of Bali, released by Schirmer in May of that year. It is a vivid, evocative work, full of the ambience of Balinese gamelan.
The music of the gamelan made a lasting impact on Britten’s own work especially his ballet The Prince of the Pagodas. He also borrowed McPhee’s gamelan transcription Taboeh teloe for the interlude ‘Sunday morning’ from his opera Peter Grimes, to evoke the sounds of the chiming church bells of Suffolk.
McPhee’s life never reached the same heights. People in the west seemed interested in the music of Bali but he was disappointed that his piece Tabu-Tabuhan was so rarely performed in America. Forced to live frugally, he was prone to bouts of self-destructive depression and alcoholism. He yearned for pre-war Bali and the friends he had made there. And more than anything he longed to immerse himself in its music on a daily basis again.
Although he composed very few musical works in his final years, McPhee wrote two ground breaking books. A House in Bali was the first to be published in 1947. It is not just about music; it contains lyrical descriptions of the Balinese culture, its people and landscape.
And for the next twenty-five years McPhee toiled on a book based on his fieldwork. His perfectionism made his editor despair, as he refused to relinquish the manuscript until just prior to his death. Music in Bali was published posthumously in 1966 by Yale University Press. It was McPhee’s magnum opus and although currently out of print, it is regarded as the essential reference work for Balinese musicians, dancers, composers and choreographers, and an important contribution to ethnomusicology.
In his introduction to A House in Bali, musicologist James Murdoch writes: ‘Western composers such as Benjamin Britten, Philip Glass, Steve Reich and Peter Sculthorpe, are all deeply indebted to McPhee’s love for, and scholarship on, Balinese music.’ John Cage can be added to this list too.
McPhee served as a faculty member of the UCLA Department of Music for the last few years of his life. One of his colleagues, composer Lou Harrison, said that after McPhee composed Tabuh-Tabuhan, he gave up composition in absolute frustration. He felt defeated by an established and rigid European musical tradition that allowed little room for experimentation. McPhee wanted to start composing music from his own tradition again, but he found the influence of Bali overwhelming. It was a love affair that had consumed him.
In A House in Bali, McPhee wrote that towards the end of his time in Bali he had listened to music,
…that by now had grown so familiar, its laws, its form, its design seemed clear at last. I thought back on how, through scraps of conversations, notes, expeditions and discoveries I had gradually put the puzzle together. There seemed nothing more to do. The parts fitted; the mystery was solved…But as I listened to the delicate, nervous drumming of Lebah or one of the radiant compositions of Lotring that seemed to burn with new creative life, the essence of music, its nature, its final meaning, seemed elusive and indefinable as ever.
Colin McPhee: Balinese Ceremonial Music (Gambangan)
‘Gambangan’ is the fourth movement of McPhee’s six movement arrangement for the Western instrumental ensemble, which was performed by the New York Ballet Society in January 1947. Three of the movements including ‘Gambangan’ were adapted from his Balinese Ceremonial Music in his composition for two pianos (that he played with Benjamin Britten). ‘Gambangan’ was transcribed from a gamelan piece composed by the great musician and dancer I. Wayan Lotring. Balinese Ceremonial Music was dedicated to McPhee’s friend, the anthropologist Margaret Mead.
As well as leaving his wife out of A House in Bali, Colin McPhee also failed to mention that he had been part of a vibrant community of expatriates in Ubud, headed by Walter Spies, a free-spirited, talented painter and musician. Spies had been part of the avant garde in Berlin in the 1920s. He was friends with leading Expressionist painters Otto Dix and Oscar Kokoschka and became the lover of film director Friedrich Murnau, who involved him in the making of the film Nosferatu. In 1923 he fled the rise of National Socialism, boarding a cargo ship and travelling via Java to Bali, where he settled in 1927.
Charismatic and curious, Spies attracted large numbers of local artists to his bungalow, and was soon involved in numerous rich collaborations in dance and music. He founded an art society that reinvigorated the Balinese painting scene and had a lasting impact on the arts for decades after his death. And he developed a dream-like style of painting incorporating elements of magic realism. His works depict detailed scenes of everyday life in Bali: temple ceremonies, cockfights, market activity, and work in the fields.
With Indonesian dancer Wayan Limbak, Spies choreographed a modern version of the ketjak dance, often known as the Ramayana Monkey Chant. This extraordinary dance (you can see a version here) involves one hundred dancers or more, emulating monkeys involved in a battle scene from the Hindu Ramayana epic.
Like Colin McPhee, Spies learned the instruments of the gamelan and his transcription of Balinese music using two pianos is likely to have influenced McPhee’s own efforts. But McPhee gave Spies only passive mention in The House in Bali. This astonished the dancer and photographer Beryl De Zoete, who had co-authored Dance and Drama in Bali (1937) with Spies:
Mr. McPhee was of course at liberty, as his story is personal, to make no allusion to other European or American residents in Bali. But as he does make casual mention of that very original painter and musician, Walter Spies, the most learned, beloved and trusted of all alien inhabitants of Bali, whose death by drowning during the war was far more than a personal calamity, one feels that recognition of the writer’s many debts to him would have been a becoming gesture. Perhaps this awaits Mr. McPhee’s book on Balinese music, which no one is so qualified to write as he.
In the thirties, a number of wealthy travellers visited Spies. Among them were the anthropologist Margaret Mead, writer H.G. Wells, former President of France (and great friend of Claude Monet’s Georges Clemenceau), and the heiress Barbara Hutton, who fell for the handsome Spies in a big way.
Charlie Chaplin visited Bali and met Spies in 1932. At the time he was undergoing a creative crisis due to the rise of the ‘talkies’ which had led to the demise of silent film. ‘Some people suggest that a tramp might talk but this is unthinkable. Dialogue does not have a place in the sort of comedies I make’, he said. He also confessed that he had become ‘obsessed by a depressing fear of being old-fashioned.’ Chaplin’s brother Sydney felt that travel would help Charlie through this impasse, and the visit to Bali became part of a 16-month world tour. In his travel memoir A Comedian Sees the World, Chaplin wrote of Bali:
How different, I thought, from anything I’d ever seen. How far removed I felt from the rest of the world. Europe and America seemed unreal – as though they’d never existed. […] How easy [sic] man falls into his natural state. What does a career, a civilisation matter in this natural way of living?
Chaplin returned to Bali few years later when composer Noël Coward happened to be visiting too, who could not resist penning this bit of doggerel:
As I said this morning to Charlie,
There is far too much music in Bali.
And although as a place it’s entrancing,
There is also a thought too much dancing.
It appears that each Balinese native
From the womb to the tomb is creative,
And although the results are quite clever,
There is too much artistic endeavour.
Walter Spies took care of McPhee and Belo’s house when they left Bali until he was imprisoned by Dutch authorities as a German citizen and on charges of indecency. He lost his life in 1942 on a prisoner-of-war ship leaving Sumatra for Ceylon, when it was bombed by a Japanese war plane. All on board perished.
I first visited Bali briefly in 1992 and will never forget the trip through miles of dense jungle to reach the artistic community of Ubud in the foothills of the Gianyar regency, which was like a journey into another world. Ubud still had the feel of a village, with its tiny web of narrow streets, mostly unsealed, and an upmarket hotel here or there but well hidden in the jungle. In the early evening an outdoor food market was lit by a string of bare light bulbs strung between the trees and the smell of tamarind, nutmeg and cumin hung in the air. Balinese women sauntered to the temples dressed in batik sarongs, some with colourful and elaborate offerings on their heads. Terraced rice paddies could be glimpsed through spaces in the jungle and there was the distant sound of running water from its two rivers. A strong sense of magic, something rich, powerful and deeply mysterious lingered here and I didn’t want to leave.
Returning in 2014 it was different. Most of the lush jungle on the road to Ubud was gone. Many of the rice paddies had disappeared, replaced by resorts and large concrete dwellings. Ubud was now a town, its streets jammed with tourist buses, and taxis full of tourists like me, its population of 70,000 or so swelling to accommodate three million visitors per year. A veil of smoke settled in the valleys, produced by the burning of rubbish. People begged in the streets or hassled for sales. A taxi driver told me how just ten years before he had made his living working on his family’s small farm but now, despite working longer hours, he was barely scraping by. He looked back on his former life wistfully and with regret.
My before and after experience of Bali reminds me of Theroux’s comment in The Pillar of Hercules: ‘It is almost axiomatic that as soon as a place gets a reputation for being paradise it goes to hell.’ Ubud, it seemed, was being loved to death by paradise seekers like me. And as with the taxi driver, I could only look back with a sense of wistfulness and regret – and guilt too, as I feel that I’d been a party to its destruction.
Yet scratch beneath the surface and there is a vibrant, flourishing community that remains unchanged. Everywhere you look rituals are carefully observed. The predominant religion in Bali is called Agama Hindu Dharma, a blend of Shivaism and Buddhism originating in Java. While its philosophical foundation is Hindu, its rituals are indigenous involving animism and ancestor worship in a unique blend that tallies with the Balinese saying: ‘The truth is one: The interpretation, multiple’.
Many families own household shrines and make daily morning offerings called ‘Canang sari’ to spirits and ancestors in the form of rice, fruit, joss sticks, flowers, presented on woven palm leaf rosettes or in baskets. These offerings are everywhere; on roadsides, at the entrance to shops, the foot of temples or next to statues.
A strong sense of community can be found at the markets early in the mornings, before the oppressive heat of the day. Here locals catch up for a chat while buying up their chillies and fresh vegetables, or grabbing a quick meal at one of the food stalls. Baskets tumble with delicious tropical fruits like mangosteens and rambutans or brim with fresh flowers ready to be offered to the gods. All of it is whisked away by 8 am and replaced by stalls selling artefacts and trinkets for the tourist market.
We had the privilege of being invited to a Balinese wedding. It is often a three-day event. We attended the Mentanjung Sambuk ceremony where families of the bride and groom ask permission from the spirits and gods for the marriage to take place. Offerings are made at the family temple in a ceremony led by the Hindu priest, who sprinkles the couple with holy water. Although the ceremony was meticulously observed, the atmosphere was relaxed, with relatives coming and going, or chatting on the sidelines. Their relaxed behaviour reminded me of McPhee’s description of gamelan audiences. We were made welcome by people who were generous, warm and open hearted. The experience made us realise that in the most essential way, the ‘Island of the Gods’ is alive and well, nourished by its people who are dedicated to preserving their culture that is like none other.
A piece on edwardherbst.net about the repatriation of Bali’s earliest music recordings in 1928. These were the recordings that Colin McPhee first heard in New York.
This is a silent film made by Colin McPhee around 1932 to 1935. I Wayan Sampih dances the Igel Jongkok (Kebyar Duduk). He is accompanied by Gong Peliatan and the kendang player is Anak Agung Gede. Sampih, the dancer in this film, actually rescued McPhee from drowning during a flash flood. Noticing his talent, McPhee organised some of the best dancer teachers for him and he became a huge star, touring America and Europe in 1952. When Sampih was murdered in Bali two years after his overseas tour, McPhee was devastated.
I Wayan Lotring became another important teacher to McPhee. Like Nyoman Kaler, he had been trained as a dancer at a royal court and turned to music as he grew older. He became a sensation in Bali, creating new tunes and forms of music that modernised the gamelan. McPhee said the music he had learned from Lotring was the most beautiful he ever heard on the island. Here is footage of Lotring dancing and playing in 1972, towards the end of his life.
Here is a selection of his Balinese photographs, taken by McPhee and now stored with the Ethnomusicology Archive at the University of California in Los Angeles, along with his papers, letters, recordings and field notes.
A Trailer for Michael Blackwood’s documentary: Colin McPhee: The Lure of Asian Music.
‘Colin McPhee’s Musical Life in Bali’, an article about Colin McPhee, and the expatriate experience in Bali by Kerry Lee in the Literary Traveler.
A trailer for Michael Schindhelm’s documentary about Walter Spies.
A collection of the paintings of Walter Spies can be seen here, on the website for Ubud’s ARMA Museum.
And a trailer for the documentary Chaplin in Bali featuring Chaplin’s own footage taken on his travels in 1932.
In ‘West Meets East‘, Kyle Gann writing for American Public Media examines the impact of non-Western music on Western composers, including Colin Mcphee.
Taman Bebek offers a range of villas and suites that hark back to prewar Ubud, built on the site of Colin McPhee and Jane Belo’s Balinese house and garden. The land was acquired in 1980 by artist, writer and landscape artist Made Wijaya, when only the foundations McPhee’s house remained.
The Bali Tourism Board.
Amirkhanian, Charles. ‘Portrait of Composer Colin McPhee’, featuring commentary by Henry Cowell and Lou Harrison. All Other Minds, a sound recording retrieved from Archive.org
Blackwood, Michael. Colin McPhee: The Lure of Asian Music, Michael Blackwood Productions Inc, 1985
Cooke, Mervyn. ‘Benjamin Britten and the Balinese gamelan‘, Indonesian Circle, School of Oriental & African Studies, Newsletter, Vol 18, Issue 52, 1990
Copeland, Jonathan with Murni, Ni Wayan. Secrets of Bali, Fresh Light on the Morning World, Orchid Press, 2013
Lechner, Ethan. Composers as Ethnographers: Difference in the Imaginations of Colin McPhee, Henry Cowell, and Lou Harrison, Dissertation, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, 2008
McPhee, Colin. A House in Bali. Periplus, 2000
Millet, Raphael, Chaplin in Bali, Documentary, 2017
Oja, Carol J. Colin McPhee: Composer in Two Worlds (Music in American Life). University of Illinois Press, 2004
Schindhelm, Michael. Walter Spies: An Exotic Life, Documentary, Barry Films, 2019
‘Walter Spies Biography‘, Encyclopedia of World Biography