Sunday, May 25, 2008

Drop the needle

Quick! Guess the composer!

Easy. Colin McPhee (1900-1964). As a cultured person, you clearly know all about McPhee's music, but for the sake of the ham sandwich in the corner who's never heard of the man, I'll elaborate. McPhee was the anti-Canadian composer; born in either Montreal or Toronto (no-one seems to know), he moved to the States, became a respected ethnomusicologist and published the first study of Balinese gamelan music. When asked, he would rail against what he saw as the provincialism and small-mindedness of Canadian musical culture; he never went back to Canada but has been posthumously adopted as a Canadian composer because he wrote this piece called Tabuh-Tabuhan (1936) and audiences seem to like it. Three cheers for the Canadian musical heritage!

Anyway. You should have guessed immediately that the excerpt was by McPhee; his characteristic gamelan-inspired sound is unmistakable, with whirling ostinatos up and down the pentatonic scale and prominent percussion parts. Obvious, really. In fact, less charitable people would go further and say that McPhee's "characteristic sound" is actually evidence of a lack of originality; all his later works sound like slightly less successful reworkings of Tabuh-Tabuhan. Here at This Blog Will Change the World, however, we are nothing if not charitable, so we won't even suggest such a thing.

Here's the thing, though. The piece is not by Colin McPhee; it's a section of Henry Cowell's Variations for Orchestra (1956). Cowell, who most people know as "that playing-inside-the-piano guy", could well have intended this as a tribute to his friend; certainly they were both interested in Eastern music. But still: if Cowell had written an entire piece in this style, his heirs could have sold the manuscript to the CBC as a genuine McPhee piece. If he could imitate other composers this well, he could been a rich man. I'm a bit frightened.

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