It is reported that the island of Sri Lanka, off the coast of India, was sending ambassadors to the Greek and Roman courts as early as the 1st century B.C. Reciprocal influences that scholars have detected between Indian and classical Greek art may lead us to speculate on a time when music of the Orient and the Occident music were as one. Whatever their common origins the respective worlds of Asian and Occidental music moved to opposite poles during the ensuing millennia. Nevertheless, Colonial expansion was bound to bring a cultural awakening in the course of time, even if it first resulted only in tobacco, tea and spices. From ‘fairy lands forlorn’ to Mallarme’s brise marine, from Rousseau’s ‘noble savage’ to Gauguin, from Walden pond to a house in Sayan – these are but short steps. Wagner was contemplating an opera on the life of Buddha when he was mercifully taken from us.
Many have seen the turning point as that day, nearly a century ago, when Debussy encountered an Indonesian gamelan at the 1889 International Exhibition in Paris. He did not endear himself to his contemporaries by commenting that beside Asian percussion instruments those of the West produce the noise of a travelling circus. It was 40 years before the first composer of the Western world actually went to live in Indonesia for the sole purpose of learning a new musical language. His name was Colin McPhee.