Thomas Bartlett and Nico Muhly

Peter Pears: Balinese Ceremonial Music

It’s funny where the ear and eye can sometimes take you. Growing up as an awkward, bookish kid in New York, the late artist Tobias Schneebaum used to visit side shows in Depression-era Coney Island and elsewhere in the city.  And it was on these excursions that he became fascinated by the Wild Man of Borneo, and other side show acts that featured “primitive” men of color. In 1955, when he was thirty-four, Schneebaum was awarded a Fulbright to study art in Peru. While there, he went into the jungle and vanished for a time, only to re-emerge naked and covered in paint, transformed by the experience in ways he could not anticipate. Later, after returning to New York for a time, the usually timid Schneebaum set off again, but this time for New Guinea, where he lived among the Asmat people, a place deep in the jungle where men had male and female lovers and where Schneebaum found a level of acceptance that had alluded eluded him in New York.

The point of the story is that we humans are homing pigeons of a kind, circling and landing on those worlds that speak to us more profoundly and effectively, sometimes, than the place we’re meant to be of, belong to. Think about Paul Bowles. Born to an upper middle class family in New York before the start of World War I, the gifted auto didact fell in love with what can be loosely termed “world” music when he was a young man. Living for most of his adult life in Tangier, he recorded local musicians and storytellers in an attempt to not only become more deeply immersed in the culture that drew him to them, but to decipher how he had become himself—a white boy drawn to the colored world.

Nowadays this might be called colonialism or appropriation, but I’m not buying that: When I was growing up in New York in the nineteen-seventies and eighties, I didn’t see myself in much of the stuff that interested me then, but that didn’t prevent me from finding the metaphors in the work that did inspire me, regardless of the cultural context. What did I share physically with Sissy Spacek and Shelley Duvall in Robert Altman’s 1977 masterpiece, “Three Women”? Not much but a sense of my own alienation and unwillingness to look at my own alienation.

So, when I first heard about the Canadian ethnomusicologist, musician, and composer Colin McPhee and his interest in Asian music, I was intrigued because he ended up exposing the white world to what he heard, which wasn’t white but part of the culture of an “other” world. McPhee was born in Montreal and attended the Peabody Institute. He was a student of Edgar Vares’, and a pivotal step in his development was marrying, early in the nineteen-thirties, a woman named Jane Belo, who was a protegeprotégée of the great anthropologist, Margaret Mead. Together the couple went off to Bali together so Belo could get on with her anthropological work. And it was there that the queer McPhee really began to devote his heart and ear to his new enthusiasm, Gamelan music, which he first heard in New York. Gamelan music is traditional ensemble music of Bali and Indonesia; it’s dominated by percussive instruments, such as metallophones, xylophones, and flutes.

It’s not difficult to imagine what swept McPhee up on that trip down East: a different world that had made a different way of communicating through sound, and separate from that monolith, otherwise known as the Western Musical Canon. The world was not all about white men, even if he was one himself. Being the minority can be liberating. What did the Balinese care about this man who was not them?

Following his divorce from Belo, McPhee lived in February House, the Brooklyn Heights domicile that had been established by the legendary magazine editor, George Davis, another gay man who would go on to marry the chanteuse, Lotte Lenya. Davis ran the house with W.H. Auden; it was an experiment in collective living. Among McPhee’s fellow boarders: Paul and Jane Bowles, the stripper and author, Gypsy Rose Lee, novelist Carson McCullers, the composer Benjamin Britten and (at times) his lover, the singer Peter Pears. By all accounts February House—so called because most of the inhabitants shared birthdays in February—was lively; it was the locale where McPhee shared his enthusiasm for this “new” old Balinese music with Britten.

Things were very gay at February House, and imagine what Britten heard in this “other” music: work that could inform his own. Prolific and inventive, Britten was always looking for new sources of inspiration. Just as he was taken with the music used in the strict and elegant Noh theatre he saw on a trip abroad in 1955—the itinerary included not only a stop in Japan but Singapore, Indonesia, Hong Kong, Bali, and Thailand—he was open to other sources that would give him himself. That self was complicated. Like Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) before him, Britten found children erotic. And when he found this “other” music, he also found, in the faces of those Balinese and Indonesian children, the kind of romantic purity that figures like Schneebaum sought outside of the usual tenets of queerness.

The question of appropriation is a thorny one, and I lean on the side of influence when I think of Britten and McPhee’s influence showed up even before Britten saw Asia; in 1941 McPhee and the composer recorded McPhee’s transcription for two pianos of Balinese Ceremonial Music. Is this appropriation, when a musician queers what he hears to become more of his queer self? It’s there in the title, right, the acknowledgement that thematic we are about to hear comes from somewhere else and has been transcribed by McPhee’s queer hand first?

Britten’s interest in those darker skinned children was, to my mind, a perversion of the white English belief in hierarchy. (I don’t know what his partner, the singer Peter Pears, thought of all this, but I can’t imagine he wasn’t supportive; they lived together for most of their adult lives.) In Britten’s day, homosexuality was not only outlawed, it was a source of horror shame and evil. What could be “less” and therefore more palatable than being gay? Children. Brown folk. And yet the music that inspired Britten—and McPhee before him—was made by those people and responded to in the purest way possible: through being heard, taken to heart, transcribed, and absorbed and now recorded again, coming out on the other side of something else—a world where these complications are not only articulated, expressed,  but heard.

I didn’t know any of this or much of this when I first heard Doveman and Nico Muhly’s “Peter Pears: Balinese Ceremonial Music,” last spring. Doveman is, of course, the excellent musician and singer, Thomas Bartlett, and Nico Muhly is the estimable author of choral music, operas, dance music, movie music—work that has earned him a powerful position as one of the more original and protean composers and musicians working today. “Peter Pears “ marks their TK collaboration, and the nine track record has the aura of history—McPhee, Britten, that lot—and the aura of history remade according to the demands of Thomas and Nico’s own musicianship and understanding of what has come before, and what artists take and give, often at the same time. Produced over a TK period of time, the delicately rendered album also includes three gamelan transcriptions by Colin McPhee that inspired their work. Thus, “Peter Pears,” enters the world as an interesting mix—the old and the new and the queer, all at once.

It’s an upsetting-in-the-best-way record, one that floats towards the ear and then recedes and then takes up all of the mind, in part because of the wonderful singing, which says as much about breathing and the breath that singing necessitates, as it does about language. (When asked what the hardest part of singing was, Bjork said: “Breath.”) In various press reports Thomas has said that he wanted this record to sound different, vocal wise, than his previous as a vocalist and musician, 2009’s “The Conformist” (which, incidentally, has a wonderful track called “Breathing In”). I wasn’t so much alarmed when I read that as curious: how can you improve on intimacy? Because that’s what Thomas’ singing evokes—someone who is alone, waiting for love, or, having had love, regrets not having it: whispers of regrets, recriminations, and then sudden little clouds of joy. In tracks like the superb, “Dominic,” Thomas gives us that intimacy, but it is supplemented by all those glorious sounds that McPhee brought to the West: a whole catalogue of  Eastern sound that still feels unfamiliar to us despite the advent of world music. Why? Because most Americans still listen, primarily, to American music or music written and performed in the American idiom—funk, blues, etc.—or that is part of the Western canon—Bach, Beethoven etc. In short, most audiences listen to music to hear themselves, or a more elevated version of themselves.

Thomas and Nico have an enormous amount of respect for Britten and Pears (the Western cannon) and for the American voice (Thomas’ voice), but with it all the record doesn’t really focus on one sound or idiom, it revels in the inspiration that McPhee’s work and thus Britten’s provides, not to mention all those Balinese musicians playing forcefully and softly into the air. “Peter Pears,” starts off with such power you don’t know where you are at first, listening to bells or a piano? Or? The piano is breathing! You can hear it when the pedal is put down and then a note struck and it’s like the heartbeats and breaths in Doveman’s voice to come, in “Festina,” for instance, and then “Grendl,” which bubbles with the sound of electronic waves; they lap at Doveman’s voice, just behind it, like waves looking for sand in some place like Bali, or England, or home.


—Hilton Als