Vincent McDermott

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(Joseph) Vincent McDermott (September 5, 1933 – February 10, 2016) was a classically trained American composer and ethnomusicologist. His works show particular influence from the musics of South and Southeast Asia, particularly the gamelan music of Java. He was among the second generation of American composers to create and promote new compositions for gamelan.



McDermott was born in Atlantic City, New Jersey. He received a B.F.A. in music composition from the University of Pennsylvania (1959), an M.A. in music history from the University of California, Berkeley (1961), and a Ph.D. in music history, theory, and composition from the University of Pennsylvania (1966). His composition instructors included Constant Vauclain,[ citation needed ] George Rochberg, Darius Milhaud, and Karlheinz Stockhausen. [1] In 1980, McDermott became friends with Lou Harrison, the godfather of American gamelan. It was Harrison who encouraged McDermott to start composing for gamelan.

McDermott first encountered gamelan circa 1965 in Amsterdam. He later studied Javanese gamelan in Indonesia at the Akademi Seni Karawitan Indonesia (now Sekolah Tinggi Seni Indonesia Surakarta) in Central Java (1971, 1978, and 1984). He studied or worked in Surakarta with Sumarsam and Rahayu Supanggah, and later, in the United States, with Pak Cokro and Midiyanto. In the 1970s he made an intensive study of Hindustani classical music, studying with sitarist Ira Das Gupta, and with renowned tabla player Zakir Hussain.[ citation needed ]

He died in Sumatra, Indonesia, on February 10, 2016.


Many of McDermott's works are for standard Western ensembles (e.g. chamber, orchestral, choral, solo, and electronic). In 1969 he began to incorporate sounds and ideas from North Indian music. In 1980 Lou Harrison encouraged McDermott to begin composing for gamelan. He then composed a number of works for gamelan (some in combination with Western instruments), and presented gamelan workshops in several Asian nations (including Malaysia and Japan), focusing primarily on encouraging new compositions for gamelan. He received several Fulbright grants and National Endowment for the Arts commissions and a "Master's Award" from the Oregon Arts Commission.

McDermott's compositions have been performed in North America, Europe, and Asia. From the earliest period he was drawn to cross-cultural works, multimedia, and theatrical music. Two of his operas, The King of Bali and Mata Hari, juxtapose gamelan and Western ensembles. Both were written and performed in the U.S. with English texts in the 1990s, and in this century were translated into Indonesian and performed in Yogyakarta, Indonesia.[ citation needed ]

McDermott's musical style varied. His generation witnessed the onset of a wealth of new styles, and in his early days he tried his hand at many of them. By and by he eschewed the poles of abstract atonality and indeterminacy that were much in favor in the 1960s and 1970s, turning instead to modality, melody, and counterpoint. His compositional goals are expressivity, depth, and spirituality, yet often with a light heart. In Asia, he advised young composers to borrow from Western traditions, saying it will help them speak to international audiences, but he insisted that the soul of their music as well as many of its techniques must come from their own soil.[ citation needed ]


McDermott taught at the Hampton Institute (now Hampton University) in Virginia (1966–67) and at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music in Milwaukee where he served for a time as dean and director (1967–1977). In 1977 he began teaching at Lewis & Clark College in Oregon; he retired in December 1997. While there he began the college's world music program and in 1980 founded its first gamelan, Venerable Showers of Beauty, which was purchased in Java with the help of Rahayu Supanggah and Nyonya Nora along with an American patron, Loraine Fenwick. He directed the gamelan and later invited Javanese musicians to teach (including Midiyanto, Supardi, and Darsono). He also instituted classes in Indian and African music performance with Nisha Joshi and Obo Addy. He later helped to establish gamelan programs at the College of William & Mary and the University of Puget Sound. Among his composition students at Lewis & Clark College were Greg Bowers, Erika Foin, Hoe Yeong KIm, Duncan Nielson, Myrna Schloss, and Sophia Serghi.[ citation needed ]

After retirement, McDermott was a Visiting Professor at The College of William and Mary (2002); Indonesian Institute of the Arts (2002–03); University of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur (2006); Osaka City University (2005); and University of Technology (MARA), Shah Alam, Malaysia (2009). The last four placements were assisted by Fulbright programs.

During his last years, McDermott divided his time between the United States and Yogyakarta, Indonesia. In Yogyakarta, he directed an ensemble called Musica Teatrica Nova.

Selected works

Published writings

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  1. Stabler, David. 1990. "'The King of Bali' A Crowning Achievement". The Oregonian (20 April, fourth edition): R32.