A Sonic letter to Halim El-Dabh
A SONIC LETTER TO HALIM EL-DABH.
In this feature we listen to juxtapose the story of Halim El-Dabh (1921-2017), the musician, creative ethnomusicologist, a pioneer of electronic music, an educator, Pan-Africanist and one of the most seminal composers of the 21st century. In the attempt to bend time, we remix history — fast-forward, pause, rewind, forward again, and stopping, almost as if physically spinning on a turntable through temporalities, sonic methods, sonic geographies, (un)timing time to recirculate Halim El-Dabh’s legacy which spans over seventy years of work.
Anecdote 1. Skype call begins. Metwaly can’t make her camera work, El-Dabh on the other side of the screen can only see her cat, thus decides to tell her stories as she tries to fix this technical problem.
El-Dabh: You know, during my birthday ceremony this year we celebrated Bastet, people remembered the ancient Egyptian Bastet, I visited the Bastet statue in the north of Zagazig years and years back in the temple of the cats which is still there. Cats have healing energy, they are very special, they create an energy in the body that rearranges things into place. It’s almost like the people of the Zaar, they do almost the same thing with their voices and singing, it seems that it’s something that Ancient Egypt also enjoyed and understood this source of energy and we have to catch up with it.
Anecdote 2. After a lengthy conversation about Egypt, the sound of Cairo, about El-Dabh’s background and upbringing, the move from the Abu Tig area to the big city as a child, and the first time he experienced the notion of clusters in composition, he says:
El-Dabh: Do you understand now that this interview will turn into a book that will be 400 pages long if we keep it at this pace of detail?
Metwaly: I would love that to happen, I am very curious.
El-Dabh continues: This was around the time when I was sixteen years old because I went to the conservatoire as well at that time. Yes, that was very special. Behind my brother’s house which was located on Kholafa street – a pretty much narrow street in Heliopolis (where my brother had his grand piano). Every time I would go there, I would find a lot of people waiting for me on the area surrounding the house, they would open their windows and their verandahs and all they would want to listen to was me playing, so I would do clusters while playing the piano. I experienced the clusters as a part of my surroundings. When I played the piano I wanted to include the audience in my piano playing and not compose music as an isolated event. My intention was and still is to include the listeners into the experience of music making, this is very different from including the audience into a performance. Rather, it is something that happens simultaneously when you compose.
Elsewhere we ask El-Dabh about his determination to use (now known) ‘extended’ techniques for piano, about this inception of the idea of going beyond the capacity of an instrument. He describes one of the earliest compositions he has made that has been changed, amended, and reworked over time.
El-Dabh: Misreyat (meaning the many Egypts) is a piece that connects me with Egypt, and I don’t want to finish it. I wrote my first piece on the piano when I was eleven, so definitely I was interested in making music. I haven’t really ever finished it because it connects me with Egypt. I just kept developing it over time, this piece is about me growing up in Egypt (…) I also performed this piece or a version of it in Alexandria at the opening celebration of the Library of Alexandria. I mean this is me and Egypt fighting back and forth and I don’t want to complete it, so I keep holding it. Some pieces I don’t want to finish and I want to leave them exposed to change, and Misreyat was one of them.
Cut to twenty minutes later into the conversation, El-Dabh describes his work with piano in New York which inspired Vladimir Ussachevsky and Otto Luening to invite the composer to Columbia Music Center to experiment with the RCA synthesizer (1958-1961).
El-Dabh: I started taking out the strings of the piano, tied them with other strings, stretched them over the wall of the library, as I continued to be interested in the transformation of sound. And when I was doing that, visitors would come into the library and two of them were Otto Luening and Vladimir Ussachevsky, and they thought who is this crazy guy doing that, dismantling a piano, stretching the strings of the piano on the wall (laughs). They realized that I was changing the sound of the piano, stretching it and they invited me into Columbia Music Center.
Metwaly: How different is the music of the street in Egypt from music in concert halls and theatre?
El-Dabh: The music and the living energy has different layers of knowledge, kind of like the pyramid when it used to be covered up by sand, where you have to uncover it to know what lies beneath. Some of the theoretically richest people, for instance, live in Sharqeya in Egypt, it is really very rich and very diverse. I travelled quite a bit in Sharqeya and I discovered a lot of things there. All those experiences have contributed to how I make music today. I mean the diverse tradition of the people of Sharqeya understand the theoretical base of their music as well as the physical base of their music, it is really an amazing culture. There are many villagers there – which we call Falaheen (peasants) – who know that they have an inner understanding of the theoretical base of the music they play, even though they do not know how to read and write.
Halim El-Dabh comments elsewhere that: I think that the thing that was interesting to me during one of those travels is when I thought to use sound like pest control. I experimented with that and used some scrap metals, other materials, and hung them on poles. So when the wind would blow, and shook some metal scraps, they produced noise and that would create an electromagnetic field it sees if that would distract the tiny beetles from eating the vegetables. I felt that maybe I can create a sound-field that would discourage them from attacking the crops. I was involved in the sound at the field, the sound of the wind that would blow in the field, the different changes in the temperature that would affect the sound of the field and the surrounding of the animals and insects, all that I found really fascinating.
Metwaly: How else were you exposed to interesting sounds?
El-Dabh: I went out to the local ceremonies during my travels that also contributed to a lot of exciting sounds that I have experienced such as during my visit to Asyut. When I went to Bawit village, which is located at the edge of the desert, I remember the people of the village had this tradition of celebrating the day when Napoleon’s soldiers were kicked out of Egypt. According to tradition, they would put something like fat or oil on top of turtles, because the area was rich with turtles back in the day, it was a really incredible village. Anyway, in the times of Napoleon and the French occupation, the French soldiers were apparently scared because though there is a hidden army that would come after them because they would put many candles on top of the turtles’ hard shell to scare the Napoleon army. They would go out at night and the turtles then looked like pretty strange and scary creatures, that’s what the people of the Bawit would tell me. It is very exciting to discover things like that, it contributes to the innovation and the tradition of the people to continue and this of course was important to my music, all these strange changes and transformations. And transformation is a very major thing – the ability to transform from one character to another.
Metwaly: In 1932, your brother Bushra, took you to the Congress of Arabic Music – you were only 11 at that time; this was the first time you saw a wire recorder, what made you interested in it?
El-Dabh: Well, my life craziness I think. My life was involved in so many things, my life and I are constantly in transformational energy. When I made clusters on the piano, I had no experience, the sound I created gave me experience. Sound to me was physical as well as audio, but it was also visual. I remember when my mother made jam out of roses I could hear the roses from the jam, I could feel the roses, and the vibration of the colour. Those things made me understand that there is a way to write music using colours because of the frequencies and the vibrations that stimulate the mind into a different stage of understanding and hearing with colour vibration and frequencies. So when I kept visiting the Middle East Station to hear my brother play the piano there or would go just hang around in the studios, I was exposed to this equipment that the studio owned and then my interest in the transformation of the idea of spirit and physical being was introduced to me when I started visiting Zaar ceremonies. When I started visiting Zaar ceremonies and saw those people dancing, moving, drumming and singing, I witnessed a whole world of transformation that was taking place in front of me that shook me and I wanted to know more about it by recording the ceremony and eliminating something from it. Like when I recorded myself playing the piano and eliminated the fundamental tones of the material I was playing, so it would give me a different result at the end. Whether I hit the very bottom parts of the vibrations with piano keys or the high parts or the middle, they have a different quality of vibration. The essence of transformation made me think of elimination and addition. After I met Bartok, which was a period of time in which Egypt was going through a renaissance in music and recording technologies were introduced, Egypt at that time was bubbling with music, people were interested in music right and left.
I became interested in the recording machines and the availability came from the Marconi Company and Telefunken among many other Danish, Italian recording companies that we suddenly had access to; a lot of industrial machines were being poured into Cairo, we started getting flooded with all this equipment actually because of the congress of Arabic music. It kind of generated a very unusual energy in Egypt and I felt that energy became the reason why I felt that I wanted to experience the idea of recording and the idea of time transformation. One day I recall, I was in the Middle East radio and I saw what they have of equipment and I said: “can I borrow some of the equipment and use it?” and they were very supportive of me using the equipment and using the radio station for my work. The radio station had movable walls, so I could move the walls as I ejected sound in a chamber and move the wall to change the vibration, to change the echo, reverberation, electric energy, the voltage control. I was really screaming (out of happiness) suddenly I had all very exciting changes available at hand, I couldn’t believe how many changes I could do.
Metwaly: There are still a lot of questions to follow in this interview, but I am thinking since we have been talking for two hours already, would you like to take a break?
El-Dabh: Yes and you are at midnight right now. I think I should be practical about it even though I am only 4096 years old as Deborah would say.
Deborah: Four thousand is for the pyramids.
Words by Halim El-Dabh in conversation with Kamila Metwaly which took place in 2017
Leiyla and the Poet(1959), visitation: El-Dabh’s “electronic drama” derives its text from the epic of Layla and Majnun, and consists primarily of tape manipulated instrumental and vocal sounds;
The Dog Done Gone Deaf (2009), introduction to the live album performance;
Leiyla and the Poet (recorded in Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center in 1959);
Kaff Dance (from El-Dabh’s recordings, appears in African Village Music, recorded in 1960 in Egypt. Egyptian Nubian people in the village of
Kalabsha. The words “Hela Hela Hallah” calls on brothers and sisters to welcome a stranger. It retains the ancient Egyptian customs of special types of hand clappings.
Misri-yaat (composed mid-30s, Halim El-Dabh never finished this piece, thus he recomposes it on several occasions);
Ya Khouiy (2016), appears on Sanza Time, El-Dabh’s most recent electronic music album co-composed with Ron Slabe.
Excerpts of Leiyla and the Poet, sound collage by Kamila Metwaly;
Halim El-Dabh photographed by Bob Christy. Courtesy of Kent State University Libraries. Special Collections and Archives. The portrait of Halim El-Dabh used in the body of the sonic letter is published here with kind permission of the photographer James Vaughan.