On the vanguard: The life and work of Halim El Dabh

Instrumentalist. Experimenter. Iconoclast. We pay tribute to Halim El Dabh

Halim El Dabh worked with celebrated contemporaries during his life including John Cage, Vladimir Ussachevsky and Otto Luening Deborah El Dabh / Halim El Dabh Music LLC
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Earlier this month, venerable Egyptian electronic-music pioneer, ethnomusicologist and educator Halim El Dabh died at the age of 96 in Kent, Ohio, where he lived. Leaving behind a huge body of work, including more than 300 operas, symphonies, ballets, chamber-music pieces, and electronic-music works, with several more unpublished at the time of his death, El Dabh wielded an influence that extends far beyond music.

Having had the privilege to interview El Dabh in 2013, it is clear to me that he was an inventor of genius thanks to his raging curiosity, not only around sound and its vibrational impact, but also music's ability to develop a more-profound human understanding.

As he said: "What I love about music, it connects me with the universe, it makes me in contact with every human being, with who I am actually – music is not just what your ear can hear, but what your body and soul can experience."

Born into an affluent agricultural family in Cairo's Al Sakakini district on March 4, 1921, El Dabh was exposed to music from an early age. The youngest of nine siblings, all of whom grew up playing a musical instrument, El Dabh followed suit, gravitating towards drums – tabla, doff and other local percussion. 

At the age of 11, his brothers brought him to a concert at the historic 1932 Conference on Arabic Music in Cairo, which unearthed his exhaustive interest in contemporary music. It was there that he was first exposed to music documented on a wire recorder – the precursor to the tape recorder – a device he would later learn to manipulate and subsequently become one of the earliest pioneers of electronically made music.

By 1942, El Dabh's piano skills garnered him increasing fame – wining first prize in a piano competition at the Egyptian Opera House. After graduating from university with a degree in agriculture in 1944, the seeds of El Dabh's intellectual future were planted, and it was during these years that his ideological and cultural interests began taking shape. With Egypt in a fierce struggle for independence, El Dabh found himself among the countries leading thinkers, who were eager to push past colonialism and towards self-determination, national identity, and modernism.

Music had yet to become a career for El Dabh – instead, he continued his passion for agriculture, travelling to villages to advise farmers on crop-growing strategies. In our interview, he explained that it was through these travels that his curiosity in sound and music were piqued. Eventually, his experimentations with sound led him to Middle East Radio, a small independent station in Cairo that had wire recorders. There, he began his inventive approach to capturing, organising and manipulating sound – at 23, El Dabh created legendary work Wire Recorder Piece (or its longer version The Expression of Zaar), which would act as a point of departure for electronic music and sound design.

In the evocative two-minute excerpt, we enter a hypnotic sonic field of a zaar ceremony in 1943. Performed primarily by women to momentarily break ties from the patriarchal world, or alternatively to expel djinn, El Dabh disguised himself as a woman in full niqab to access and record the ceremony. After getting caught and kicked out, El Dabh modified the recordings using studio techniques, including reverberation, voltage controls, and doubling by means of a re-recording room with movable walls and the 27-pound (12-kilogram) wire recorder machine.

Recalling Wire Recorder Piece in our interview, he said: "It was all women and it was all chanting. I wanted to find the inner sound, that vibration that's always necessary for transcendence. I eliminated the fundamental tones of the harmony by changing the voltage – it changes the quality of the music, it seeks another quality in the voice, the hidden material, the inner part of the voice. That's what the whole idea of electronic music is. You have a recording and you go inside the recording to find the hidden meaning."

Even with the primitive technology of the time, he managed this by means of a distant, ethereal, chant-like vocal that seems to reverberate out of an echo chamber by creating a looping, spherical movement to emit a sound that is not entirely dissimilar to a high-pitched Gregorian chant.

A few years before, in 1939, American avant-garde composer John Cage discovered several records featuring tonal pieces in a Seattle radio station and used them with two variable-speed turntables, a muted piano and cymbal to compose Imaginary Landscape No 1. That said, Dabh remains the first to record, compose, manipulate and layer sounds by means of a wire recorder, creating the first piece of electronic music. Four years later, French composer Pierre Schaeffer would use the same method to pioneer "musique concrète" at Radio France, starting with his Cinq Études de Bruits.

By 1948, El Dabh again caught attention with his piano piece titled It's Dark and Damp on the Front, based on the war in Palestine. The piece deployed truly avant-garde methods at the time, because it involved placing objects around the piano strings, grossly altering their sound when the keys are struck.

In 1949, after performing at Cairo's All Saints Cathedral, he was invited by the American Embassy in Egypt to study at the famous Juilliard School in New York. Instead of attending Julliard, however, El Dabh used his Fulbright Fellowship to study at the University of New Mexico to explore Hopi music, a culture of sound also known for its spiritual qualities and use of chanting.

In the late 1960s, El Dabh was invited back to Egypt to work under minister of culture Tharwat Okasha by order of Gamal Abdel Nasser. It was then that he created the score for the Sound and Light Show at the Giza Pyramids, which has been performed there each evening since 1961.

Throughout his life, El Dabh composed a prolific body of work, while also collaborating with some of the most-seminal global artists and musicians of the 20th century. He composed contemporary dance music for choreographer Martha Graham, including the notable piece Clytemnestra, and worked with Cage, Vladimir Ussachevsky and Otto Luening at the innovative Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Centre, becoming one of the first outside musicians to be invited to work there after its founding in 1959.

El Dabh was separate from his Western contemporaries, however – identifying as a "black man" an "African" and an "American", the artist held the unique ability to inhabit the various rich, ancient cultures he examined, be it African, Middle Eastern or Native American giving his work an insightful quality. Chief among this work was a piece titled Leiyla and the Poet – it was part of a remarkable electronic opera, but was released by itself on a compilation by Colombia Records in 1964 – influenced many young composers.

Indeed, the entire global avant-garde would be wholly underdeveloped without El Dabh's music, teachings, and fieldwork. His life and work remind us that sound and music can become an object of potent emotional expression, and a spiritual activity that mobilises a human connection to one another and our universe. 


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