In 1931, Canadian American composer Colin McPhee went to the Indonesian island of Bali for what he thought would be a short vacation. He was so captivated by the music he heard that he stayed for seven years.
What he discovered -- the bright, joyful sounds of Balinese gamelans, or ensembles of hammered keyboards, gongs and drums -- revolutionized his own music. They also prefigured the late 20th century style known as Minimalism.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday April 28, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 54 words Type of Material: Correction
Grainger premiere -- An article in Tuesday's Calendar section about the Pacific Symphony's American Composers Festival 2005 said the festival would present the West Coast premiere of Percy Grainger's orchestration of Ravel's "La Vallee des Cloches." In fact, the work was played in 1979 at the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music in Santa Cruz.
McPhee, who died in Los Angeles in 1964, may not be well known to concertgoers, but he had an immense influence on other American composers. That's what tonight's opening of the Pacific Symphony's American Composers Festival 2005 is designed to show.
Titled "Illuminations in Sound: John Adams and George Crumb in Quest of New Musical Worlds," the festival, which will run through May 7, is the second installment of a three-year series devoted to the influence of non-Western music on American composers. Both Adams, 58, and Crumb, 75, are scheduled to attend and discuss their work.
"These are sounds that will be brand new to a lot of ears -- and very tantalizing," says the orchestra's music director, Carl St.Clair. "It is music of discovery and enchantment."
Tonight's program includes McPhee transcriptions of Balinese music for Western ensembles, pieces he wrote that were gamelan-inspired, music dedicated to him by contemporary Canadian composer Jose Evangelista, and works by Adams and Steve Reich.
According to Joseph Horowitz, author of the new "Classical Music in America" and the festival's artistic advisor, McPhee was "an amazing figure. He was a vital composer and the first Western composer to become a musicological expert on non-Western music.
"In his Second Symphony and Nocturne, he achieved a synthesis of gamelan and Western concert music. The latter is an extraordinarily beautiful work that is strikingly evocative of Philip Glass' moody and pensive pieces in a style we identify as Glass but long before him."
Crumb "is another composer whose discovery of non-Western music was a decisive moment," Horowitz says. "He didn't become a scholar, like McPhee, but the influence of non-Western genres was a liberation for him.
"Same for John Adams. The third movement of 'Harmonium' couldn't exist without gamelan. Adams was a musician eager to experience music of other cultures."
Americans, it turns out, weren't the only ones seduced by the sounds of Indonesia. Debussy and Ravel had been captivated when they heard gamelan performances at the Paris Universal Exhibition of 1889.
Debussy tried to evoke the sound in "Pagodes" (Pagodas), a section of his 1903 piano suite "Estampes," as did Ravel in "La vallee des cloches" (The Valley of the Bells), part of his "Miroirs" piano suite.
Both pieces were later orchestrated by the Australian American composer Percy Grainger, and the festival will include the West Coast premiere of these orchestrations (Wednesday and Thursday at the Orange County Performing Arts Center).
"You never get a chance to hear them," says Horowitz. "They're so expensive -- they require so many instruments."
Other festival highlights include "Harmonium," the expansive choral work that put Adams on the musical map, and his challenging clarinet piece, "Gnarly Buttons," played by Richard Stoltzman.
"The biggest challenge for me," says St.Clair, "is going from the intimacy of Crumb's 'Lux Aeterna' to the intricacy and difficulties of 'Gnarly Buttons' to McPhee's percussive 'Tabuh-Tabuhan' to 'Harmonium.'
"It's a huge breadth of musical expression to embrace, but it's something I look forward to."
The Pacific Symphony plans to conclude this series next year by focusing on composer Lou Harrison, who inherited the mantle of gamelan experimentation. But the orchestra is already looking beyond that.
"We know what the festivals for the '07 and '08 seasons will be," says St.Clair, although he isn't ready to reveal that just yet. "We're commissioning works quite a long period in advance. This is a real commitment.
"A lot of things we do we do for our community, which we then hope will gain national attention. With this particular festival, we're really reaching beyond our local boundaries in hopes our supporters and others will gain a greater understanding and appreciation of American composers and their role in society."
Horowitz also takes a broad view.
"When Leonard Bernstein asked the question, 'Whither music in our time?' in his Norton Lectures in 1973, we didn't have an answer," he says.
"We now can answer it: It is global. The influence of non-Western music and popular music -- that's how we get to Adams, Reich and Glass."
American Composers Festival 2005
Where: Irvine Barclay Theatre,
4242 Campus Drive, Irvine
When: 8 tonight
Where: Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa
When: 7 p.m. Sunday; 8 p.m. May 4 and 5; 3 p.m. May 7
Price: $18 to $74
Contact: (714) 755-5799, www.pacificsymphony.org