Ear Supply: Java Jive

By bringing Eastern sounds into the Western orchestra, Colin McPhee godfathered minimalism.

The unheralded godfather of minimalism, Canadian-born composer Colin McPhee (1900–64) became so captivated by a recording of Balinese music that he moved there to study it first-hand. One of the first composers to look across the Pacific, rather than to Europe, for inspiration, he boldly decided to try to translate for Western orchestra the style of the gamelan, the traditional Indonesian percussion ensemble. In his three-movement Tabuh-Tabuhan, McPhee's approach to instrumentation was revolutionary, inverting usual procedure. A core group of keyboards and pitched percussion—hitherto treated by composers as sonic jewelry—anchors the piece, while the rest of the orchestra supports the core and "amplifies and extends the different timbres to their maximum resonance," as McPhee wrote, building up a grand, shimmering brilliance. Equally path-breaking is the piece's structure: McPhee layers and interlocks hypnotic grooves made out of repetitions of tiny elements. (Parts of it would make a perfect soundtrack to film footage of cell division.) It all sounds like it was written last Tuesday, and anyone who might have thought Steve Reich, Philip Glass, or John Adams invented this sort of thing will likely be startled to hear Tabuh-Tabuhan was composed in 1936. Its busy, peppy rhythms and sparkly timbres are the nearest thing we have today to a classical lingua franca; few are the orchestral works written in the past 20 years, especially by composers under 40, that don't owe something to it. Ludovic Morlot will conduct the piece with the Seattle Symphony this Sunday as part of a "Celebrate Asia" concert, alongside music by Tchaikovsky and Debussy and the premiere of Zvonimir Nagy's Suizen for orchestra and shakuhachi, or Japanese flute. Benaroya Hall, Third Avenue and Union Street, 215-4747, seattlesymphony.org. $19–$76. 4 p.m. Sun., Jan. 27.

 
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