Stranger In A Strange Land

In the 1930’s, Canadian composer Colin McPhee lived for the most part in Indonesia, mainly on the islands of Bali and Java, where he studied and transcribed gamelan music. Although obscure to the general public and even to much of the classical world, his studies and the ways in which he incorporated the traditional music into his own work have had an important and lasting effect on contemporary classical music. His book, “Music in Bali ,” and his 1940’s recordings of his transcriptions in piano duet with Benjamin Britten paved the way for the music of such composers as Lou Harrison and Ingram Marshall. As a composer and ethnomusicologist, he was in the sweet spot of history, after the voluptuous Orientalism of the Impressionists and before the emergence of the idea among supposedly right-thinking people that culture, especially non-white, non-Western culture, was a commodity.

McPhee is indirectly responsible for the work of Evan Ziporyn, who is not only an excellent clarinetist and member of the Bang on a Can All-Stars, but a fine composer and the leader of his own gamelan, Gamelan Galak Tika. So who better to create an opera about McPhee, specifically taken from another of the composer’s books, his memoir “A House In Bali,” which BAM presented last week as part of this year’s Next Wave festival. It’s a dense and ambitious work that tries to cover a broad range of concepts in the space of ninety minutes, and that range, while often dazzling, ultimately leaves the work unsatisfactorily adrift and even unguided.

Ziporyn and librettist Paul Schick introduce us to McPhee as the composer wanders Paris and longs for Bali. He returns to the island, full of plans, runs afoul of native culture, longs for a young boy and ultimately departs. Ziporyn’s music frequently captures how this works out, in a series of juxtapositions, conflicts and occasional comity between contemporary, almost rock, writing for the All-Stars as well as music performed by Bali’s Gamelan Salukat. It works in spite of the libretto, which, though it has nicely crafted individual lines, does little to define most of the characters or to tell us what Ziporyn and Schick think is really going on. From moment to moment the words and music are mostly fine, but the journey from start to finish of the piece ends up making only a little sense and having a disappointing effect.

Ziporyn deliberately keeps the musics, Western and gamelan, separate for most of the work. All the musicians are onstage, joined by the singers who interact with the gamelan musicians, who themselves leave their stations and become part of the action, conveying the idea of the community in which McPhee (Peter Tantsits) is living. Gamelan Salukat is joined by other Indonesian performers, Kadek Dewi Aryani, Desak Madé Suarti Laksmi and Nyoman Catra, who each play multiple roles and dance, and Nyoman Triyana Usadhi who plays Sampih, the object of the composers desire. McPhee’s friends Walter Spies and Margaret Mead are played by Timur Bekbosunov and Anne Harley. That the Western performers play individuals and the Indonesian ones fulfill many roles is perhaps unintentionally revealing of the fundamental conflicts in the drama and the fundamental problems in the opera’s story.

McPhee is both dissatisfied with Western music after his first taste of Bali and unable to adapt to village life. He tries to have a house built and not only picks an inauspicious site but expects the work to be done on a European timetable, he offends the village and must make amends in a traditional, not contractual manner, he falls in love with a young boy, a matter of factual record that in the context of this work seems the ultimate nonchalant, condescending insult of an ignorant Westerner. Spies is supposed to have gone native in some more successful manner, though this is asserted rather than demonstrated, while Mead wanders blithely through the set, commenting on what she sees but offering us no insight. The staging, by Jay Scheib, is imaginative. There is a smaller box on the stage that represents the interior of McPhee’s home and out of which images are projected on a screen hanging over the stage. At the back is another screen, with video that gives us the landscape of place – a house and garden, members of the community, streams and forests. A great deal of the music is represented through dance, mainly from Kadek Dewi Aryani and Desak Madé Suarti Laksmi, who are riveting performers, and their dancing is the most beautiful and involving aspect of the opera.

What happens with the characters is more problematic. McPhee demands the attention immediately, psychologically on edge and accompanied by effectively brittle triple-meter music from the All-Stars. As he sings, the members of the gamelan wander onto stage, as if out of his memory, and this beginning is deeply auspicious. The sense of McPhee as stranger in a strange land is effectively conveyed by his inability to successfully interact with the villagers. But once he finds a way to have his house built in scene three, the characterization of both him and his friends is abandoned by the libretto. They sing, but their words tell us nothing more about them. Spies is supposed to be important, but he is less than a cipher, and his ultimate arrest just happens and we’re supposed to know why if we read the synopsis but can’t possibly tell why by watching the opera. When McPhee sets eyes on Sampih, Ziporyn gives him a lovely, almost pop ballad which is very effective musically and in terms of character, but again the libretto wanders away incoherently. The climax is musically effective, the tension building, but on stage what is clearly meant to be an emotional highpoint of McPhee realizing the futility of his pursuit and Spies arrest is just confused, not by the direction but by the lack of the characters having much to say about what is happening to them. This is opera, we need to hear from them. The conclusion is dominated by a soliloquy from Mead and symbolic action from the dancers; the latter is mysterious and involving, the former is irritating – she has been a minor figure, more of a set decoration than a character, and her presence in front of the score makes no sense.

It is the abstract parts of A House in Bali that work, that are focussed, clear and attractive. Ziporyn switches back and forth between lyrical Post-Minimalism and gamelan, and the music itself is a character. The two musics misconnect and misunderstand each other for long stretches, and this is the point. The gamelan music tends to dominate both in duration and interest, although this may be a subtle effect of that music being strange to us, and certainly the narrative dancing is fascinating and marvelous, telling us what is happening more forcefully than the characters themselves. There is also an interesting comparison of musical values at work, with the Western music set in a common hierarchy of the acting singers playing a role on stage with musical accompaniment, and the gamelan ensemble, which is implicitly social, the musicians interaction on stage, along with the coordinated physical beauty of the playing itself, where the graceful gesture of how each instrument is approached is as important as playing the notes together in time. The one fault, as with the direction, is that at times the activity is too dense. It’s often hard to keep track of one thing on stage because so many things are happening, and at times the music becomes a mass of undifferentiated sound, especially in a trio for the main characters. As Ziporyn piles on instruments, the voices get completely lost in the mix. The instruments and singers were miked, which was probably necessary, but the PA at the Howard Gilman Opera House is not good, and the singers’ headsets sieved out the most colorful partials from their voices, leaving their timbres flat, metallic and bland, an unfortunate reflection of the quality that Schick gave them.


I'm a composer and musician, and I write about music—I do that here, for the New York Classical Review, at the Brooklyn Rail (I edit the music section there) and any place else that will have me, like New Music Box and Music & Literature. I also wrote the Miles Davis' Bitches Brew book in the 33 1/3 series.