Colin McPhee: Tabuh-Tabuhan


Composed whilst Colin McPhee was visiting Mexico in 1936, Tabuh-Tabuhan is an orchestral toccata that features two solo pianos. Straight after McPhee had finished penning the work, Carlos Chavez and the National Orchestra of Mexico City had given it its first performance. The unusual name and origins of the work are explained by McPhee in his programme notes:


“Tabuh-Tabuhan was written after I had already spent four years in Bali engaged in musical research, and is largely inspired, especially in its orchestration, by the various methods I had learned of Balinese gamelan technic. 

The title of the work derives from the Baliness word ‘Tabuh’, originally meaning the mallet used for striking a percussion instrument, but extended to mean strike or beat – the drum, a gong, xylophone or metallophone. Tabuh-Tabuhan is thus a Balinese collective noun, meaning different drum rhythms, metric forms, gong punctuations, gamelans, and music essentially percussive.”


The Music

McPhee states that Tabuh-Tabuhan is a work that incorporates Balinese melodies and rhythms into a Western symphonic structure. Mapped out into three movements, Tabuh-Tabuhan is a thrilling exploration of rhythm and motif.


Movement I – Ostinatos

As the title suggests, the opening movement is a series of ostinatos that are layered through the ensemble. McPhee’s use of a “nuclear gamelan” adds the sparkly tones to the music:


“To transfer the intricate chime-like polyphonic figuration of the gamelan keyed instruments and gong-chimes, I have used a ‘nuclear gamelan’ composed of two pianos, celesta, xylophone, marimba and glockenspiel. These form the core of the orchestra.”


The syncopated rhythms begin to interlock as more voices enter the mix. The busy woodwind, in particular the flute, crosses over with the nuclear gamelan group often, which keeps the initial Balinese melody moving. The drive in the ostinato rhythm keeps the music moving at a quick pace as the intensity rises. The symphonic surge lies at the core of this movement, making it a truly thrilling opening.


Movement II – Nocturne

The Balinese flute melody that opens the second movement is whimsical, modal and a big contrast in style to the previous movement. The mysterious character of the flute solo is accompanied by the pulsating ‘nuclear gamelan’ core team. Woody marimba and pinging piano lines add to the unusual character and atmosphere. When the strings take over the flute melody, McPhee’s rich textures begin to blossom. The dissonant upper string lines shine above the rest of the orchestra, making it a focal point of the movement. The piano interlude takes the music in a new direction before the woodwind take over once more. The second movement concludes quietly after a small climax.


Movement III – Finale

The highly syncopated finale movement centres around Balinese street dancing. The xylophone takes a lead role in this movement, with the opening melody being an authentic version of the melody. The melody goes through a big development, which sees another symphonic surge wave across the orchestra. The grand treatment of theme by the end creates a scintillating finish for this Balinese-inspired work. 


Ⓒ Alex Burns

Happy Reading!

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