Born in Montreal, Canada, Colin McPhee was a distinctive and imaginative composer, ethnomusicologist, pianist, and writer, most noted for absorbing the sounds of Balinese music into his own compositions. He came to the U.S. to study at the Peabody Institute in Baltimore, where his composition teacher was Gustav Strube (1867-1953). He returned to Canada to study piano with Arthur Friedheim in Toronto. The Toronto Symphony gave his First Piano Concerto a world premiere in 1924. He left Toronto for Paris to study piano with Isidore Philipp, and composition with Paul Le Flem.
Even McPhee's early music has a marked tendency to use layers of ostinati. When he first heard cylinder recordings of Balinese music he was entranced. He married Jane Belo, an anthropologist (and graduate student of Margaret Mead). They traveled to Bali, where Jane built a home in the hill country. McPhee vigorously notated the melodies and rhythmic devices of every gamelan he heard. He is credited with saving a number of gamelans that were likely to go out of existence, and of resurrecting some older instruments and styles. The couple adopted a child, Samphi, who later became a member of a Balinese dance troupe that toured the United States.
He worked for the rest of his life on a serious study, Music in Bali, which was published posthumously in 1966. He also wrote transcriptions for Western instruments, and original compositions full of the sound, melodies, and rhythms of gamelan music. The most famous of these, Tabuh-Tabuhan, for orchestra, was premiered during a trip he made in the summer of 1936 to Mexico, conducted by Carlos Chávez.
McPhee and his wife sold their house, left Bali, and divorced in 1939. In the early 1940s McPhee lived in a large brownstone in Brooklyn, shared with other artists and literary figures such as Leonard Bernstein and Benjamin Britten among many others. McPhee, Britten, and Bernstein are said to have fought all the time over who got to play the grand piano. Britten and McPhee participated in the first recording of McPhee's Balinese Ceremonial Music for two pianos and flute in 1941. The strain of Balinese sounds that runs through Britten's music clearly originated with McPhee.
In the later 1940s, McPhee, lonely for his beloved Bali, slipped into an alcohol-deepened depression, and his output drastically declined. He pulled himself out of the depths and produced new compositions in the 1950s. In 1958 he was appointed professor of ethnomusicology at UCLA, and he became an esteemed jazz critic.
Howard Hanson's recording of Tabuh-Tabuhan on the now legendary Mercury Living Presence disc of 1956 excited many music lovers and caught the ears of young American composers. Within a decade, some of them had taken the idea of layers of repeated ostinati that marks the music of McPhee and Bali, and from it created American minimalism.