As an agricultural engineer, Halim el-Dabh met with physicists and engineers to find a way to use sound and light to divert the flight path of bees away from crops — sound as repellant. There must be a way to apply these techniques to music and composition, he thought. His explorations into sound and agriculture carried over into recording and processing the sounds of his environment. In so doing, he created the world’s first piece in the style of musique concrète, Ta’bir al-Zar.
Halim El-Dabh – Wire Recorder Piece (1944)
Halim el-Dabh’s career took him from his position as an agricultural engineer in Egypt to migrating to the United States to becoming the father of the Arab avant-garde. While el-Dabh did not define himself as an avant-gardist, he was regularly heralded as one of the first Arabs of the twentieth century to work in this Western context. Among his accomplishments, he conducted ethnographic research into African and Afro-Brazilian music; served as Igor Stravinsky’s assistant in 1950 at the first Aspen Music Festival; studied with Irving Fine, John Donald Robb, Luigi Dallapiccola, and Aaron Copland; composed for modern dance icon Martha Graham; and participated in some of the early experiments at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music center. In terms of an archive, he has made several individual contributions to compilations, including Symphonies in Sonic Vibration-spectrum no. 1
for the 1957 collection Sounds of New Music, on Folkways Records, and Leiyla and the Poet on the 1964 album Columbia-Princeton ELECTRONIC MUSIC Center, on Columbia Records.
While overlooked in part due to his ethnicity and his non-Western upbringing, el-Dabh found a way to produce challenging art on his own terms. In this article, the contents of which were gleaned mainly from phone interviews with the composer in 2012, I will relate el-Dabh’s formative years to his establishment of an Arab avant-garde. I will also discuss his position as an Arab artist living in the united states with respect to his contributions to and the leeway given him by the American avant-garde.
Historically, movements in the avant-garde have driven wedges between the past, or a status quo, and the present and future. At the same time, divisions are also instituted upon avant-garde subjects themselves through canons, hierarchies, and cultural literacies. Whether self-appointed or categorized as such, Halim el-Dabh has experienced these value placements on several sometimes-paradoxical levels, ranging from Leopold Stokowski making changes to his score because of its complexity to his being “discovered” and invited by Otto Luening to participate in the prestigious experiments at the Columbia-Princeton electronic music center. The conditions of his practice cannot escape the relationship between two constructs: “his” culture and the implied norms of the avant-garde. His very participation in the avant-garde draws attention to the borders of these constructs.
In his compositions, el-Dabh draws upon the varied music of the Arab peoples and the world around him for inspiration. As this chapter will elaborate, el-Dabh’s cultural influences are not limited to his agricultural vocation and encompass noises from his environment as foundational elements. In this sense, his recourse to local Egyptian traditions is markedly different from how many Western composers incorporate “world” tropes into their music. His “Egyptian material” refuses to be ornamentation, approximation, or ethnic styling that adds tinge or color. His music is a rendering of his intimate experience with people making music on a local level — for instance, by manipulating audio recordings of daily Egyptian life and mixing those sounds with atonal piano chords, rather than playing harmonized “exotic” scales on a piano.
By way of contrast, consider some Western composers who have drawn from traditional musics. Béla Bartók transcribed folk tunes and reworked them in an orchestrated form. Claude Debussy used his impression of gamelan music as a compositional departure. Philip Glass employs ornamentation borrowed from Indian classical music. Many contemporaries of el-Dabh in the United States have used ethnic elements in a manner that Lou Harrison described as transethnicism. David Nicholls defines this as “the employment or evocation of musical styles and techniques other than the composer’s own” (Nicholls 1996, 26).
Clearly, el-Dabh did not conform to the profile of those who reference traditional styles from the “outside.” Unlike these other composers, el-Dabh experienced Egyptian music as a native, not as a witness to the unfamiliar or foreign. He felt that his experience with indigenous Egyptian forms stimulated latent responses within himself and that he was an indigenous artist. From his agricultural engineering perspective, el-Dabh had examined the relationship between the work and the lives of people making music; although not himself a farmer by trade, he fully understood the correlation between the cultural, agricultural, and musical differences as they shift according to locality.
Where might this compositional approach fit with the American avant-garde movement? Nicholls suggests that composers incorporating non-Western structures as a basis for their work might not be received as well as those who adapt ethnic forms merely as surface decoration:
The American musical establishment has been able to tolerate (and, indeed, in some cases encourage) the use of folk and ethnic materials by Beach, Farwell, Copland and others because those materials have been (imperially) appropriated simply in order to impose an “American” accent onto the existing European musical lingua franca. With transethnicism, the situation is fundamentally different: for a composer to employ materials from “elsewhere” not merely as coloring, but as the basis of a compositional method, and therefore to display an attitude of seriousness toward cultures lying beyond imperialism’s zone of tolerance is to effectively condemn his music to rejection by the American eurocentric establishment. The greater the degree of transethnic influence, the greater the likelihood of rejection. (Nicholls 1996, 26)
But what if the transethnic elements come from the artist’s own local repertoire? The modern Egyptian composer Nahla Mattar characterizes such uses of cultural material as “inheritance” (Mattar 2007, 1). While Mattar describes inheritance in temporal terms, I would add that it bears a cross-sectional dimension too, given el-Dabh’s experience with frequent changes in music across relatively slight modulations in place. Egyptian historical and geographical influences are prevalent in much of el-Dabh’s work, especially in Leiyla and the Poet. In contrast to the more mathematical compositions of his contemporaries, el-Dabh interlaced pure electronic sounds with traditional strings and percussion, both Arab and Native American.
An Arab tweaking of Arab musical convention inherently engages postcolonialism, whether to erode the political fixity of “the local” or to reinvent a dynamic selfhood that rejects the Arab musician’s role as culture bearer. Predictably, and in line with Nicholls’ observations, when el-Dabh wrote in this complex fashion, his oeuvre failed to achieve wide acceptance. The most striking rejection of his work in the West occurred in 1958, when Leopold Stokowski conducted el-Dabh’s Fantasia- Tahmeel: Concerto for Derabucca and Strings and made several cuts to the score because of its intricate and challenging rhythms (Seachrist 2002, 23).
The fact that el-Dabh is not a Westerner begs questions about his relationship with the avant-garde, which is largely made up of composers of European descent. Some of el-Dabh’s European contemporaries in the 1950s and 1960s, such as Pierre Boulez, were staking their claim in a provocative manner with a postserial approach. Others, like Pierre Schaeffer and his musique concrète circle, were defining their own school in which to work. el-Dabh had no such confrontational agenda. Instead, he hoped to bring together his compositional techniques, the influences of a life spent in agriculture, and his local ethnic experiences. But because of his iconoclasm, el-Dabh’s output and presence could be perceived as unsettling to Western avant-garde circles. In addition, the composer’s inability to fit into a school or generalized approach may have affected the credit and distinction, or lack thereof, that el-Dabh received.
Despite the dismissive reaction of the European-American avant-garde, el-Dabh was, perhaps unwittingly, laying the foundations for something new: an Arab avant-garde. A particular incident resounds. In 1952, the Juilliard school presented a performance of el-Dabh’s Monotone, Bitone, and Polytone. In attendance were the composers Giancarlo Menotti, William Schuman, and Vincent Ludwig Persichetti, who all chastised el-Dabh because his work did not follow the “norms” of modern composition. Ironically, el- Dabh disrupted avant-garde conventions. He asserted that “yes, I could be a threat to the avant-garde,” and continued to stress that he never thought of himself in these terms. Rather, he considered himself a composer working with his own language. In this manner, el-Dabh’s formation and experiences differ from those of most modern composers of European descent. The following survey of el-Dabh’s trajectory as an artist reveals that his cultural influences constitute both a method of composition and a new movement.
Born Halim Abdel Messieh el-Dabh on March 4, 1921, el-Dabh grew up in an environment where education and achievement held a high value. The ancient Coptic and Eastern Orthodox churches played a critical role in his early experiences, with chant and ritual functioning as cornerstones (Seachrist 2003, 2). Being relatively affluent, the el-Dabh family had servants, one of whom introduced the young el-Dabh to traditional songs from Nubia, upper Egypt, and central Egypt, and these constituted some of the first musical experiences for the impressionable child (Seachrist 2003, 4–5). Other early musical encounters included street puppet shows (Seachrist 2003, 5).
Music was a prevalent part of el-Dabh’s early life. His family kept an old upright piano in their home, and all the siblings were encouraged to play. In particular, his older brothers nurtured his musical interest. One of them, Bushra, recognized el-Dabh’s acumen on the piano and coaxed his younger brother into taking lessons in theory and harmony at the Szula Conservatory in downtown Cairo. el-Dabh furthered his passion for music at age eleven, when he entered middle school. That year, he attended the Congress of Arab Music organized by King Fouad I in Cairo. There he would have encountered Western composers and musicologists such as Béla Bartók, Jaap Kunst, Henry Farmer, Baron Erlanger, and Paul Hindemith. Cairo’s 1932 Congress of Arab Music set out to define Arab music using Western documentation methods so that Arabs and the West could better communicate and understand one another. The congress spurred two key outcomes. First, it helped establish the careers of some of the Middle East’s most popular music artists of the century. Second, it further delineated the traditionalists as separate from the more forward-looking experimentalists. I would argue that it had a third key function, at least as it pertained to el-Dabh. The congress exposed Egypt to the new recording technology known as the wire recorder. Likewise, in many of the avant-garde movements of the twentieth century, technology has played a key role. el-Dabh actually met Hindemith and Bartók, but the experience was lost on him, being only eleven years old. However, exposure to the wire recorder made a deep impression on the young el-Dabh and proved pivotal to some of his early work.
As his schooling progressed, el-Dabh followed a scientific curriculum in the hope of studying agriculture and participating in the family business of agricultural commerce. He also joined an informal study group with twelve other young men. The early intellectual curiosity that led him to join this group would be critical in his musical experimentation and freethinking. By age fifteen, el-Dabh had begun to open his world to international and Egyptian modern thought. He was immersing himself in the works of Sigmund Freud, Georg Hegel, Immanuel Kant, Aldous Huxley, and Naguib Mahfouz. At certain junctures in his life, el-Dabh would also have contact with some of the more well-known Egyptian composers and performers of the time, including Umm Kulthum, Muhammad ‘abd al-Wahhab, and Abdel Halim Hafez. He pursued a different trajectory than the aforementioned artists, however. While their paths crossed at times, little if any artistic exchange took place between them.
As noted, the relationship between music and agriculture was of critical importance to el-Dabh. Seachrist elicits a sense of conflict between the two passions in the composer’s life (seachrist 2003, 11–12, 16), but I would argue that they were productively connected. el-Dabh describes agriculture and music as complementary influences. As a part of his agricultural studies, el- Dabh traveled to villages throughout Egypt, where locals invited him to attend and participate in festivities where musical ensembles consisting of double reed instruments (argul), clarinets, drums, and trumpets would accompany singers and dancers (Seachrist 2003, 11). According to el-Dabh, “agriculture was my way to the people” (author interview, october 12, 2010). The ceremonies and celebrations served as a critical turning point for him in devoting his life to music. el-Dabh noticed a correlation between those working the land and the practice of music. According to Seachrist, “he experienced the cyclic rhythm of nature when he learned to plant the berseem to hold the nitrogen in the soil, then to plant beans and peas to make the land fertile enough for wheat or corn” (Seachrist 2003, 11). He firmly believed that musical diegesis functioned similarly, and this close correspondence between agriculture and music comforted the young composer. el-Dabh’s exposure to folklore and local music would be of paramount consequence to his future in music.
While radio gained popularity in these regions from the 1920s through the 1940s, el-Dabh relates the importance of retaining local traditions as an expression of cultural distinctness from the somewhat popular and homogenized government-run broadcasts. Between 1924 and 1934, “the musical portions of radio broadcasts consisted primarily of commercial recordings. Broadcasting commercial recordings from the privately owned radio stations served the dual purpose of advertising the recordings and filling in program time” (el-Shawan 1980, 95). Or, as el-Dabh says, “The radio normalizes everything” (author interview, July 7, 2010). Radio broadcasting in the subsequent decades tended to focus on popular musical styles as opposed to the rich and diverse musical cultures of Egypt. While the penetration rate of radio receivers escaped documentation by the government or NGOs during the 1930s and 1940s, a study by the United Nations educational, scientific, and cultural organization (UNESCO) indicates that their numbers nearly doubled between 1950 and 1956 (el-Shawan 1980, 108). If this increase is any indication, state-controlled radio likely had a significant impact on the range of music experienced by Egyptians.
In 1944, el-Dabh created his first wire recorder piece using sounds from his surroundings. The collection of source materials for this piece happened concurrently with the experiments of the French composer Pierre Schaeffer, who premiered his first composition termed musique concrète in 1948. el- Dabh and Schaeffer were not aware of each other; however, Schaeffer gets the credit for being the father of this movement. Thousands of miles away in Egypt, el-Dabh conducted related experiments and would later return to electronic composition upon his visit to the United States. According to el-Dabh, “I didn’t think of it as electronic music, but just as an experience” (Young 2007, 26). Ironically, el-Dabh and Schaeffer later worked concurrently at Radiodiffusion-Télévision Française, the home of much of Schaeffer’s research, but the two composers never met.
el-Dabh furthered his fascination with indigenous music and observances when he became interested in the zar, a women’s only ceremony where healing occurs through contact with otherworldly spirits. The zar is also a type of folk music; it is “directly linked with areas outside of Cairo and less influenced by Cairo’s central musical domain” (Racy 1981, 20). In 1944, el-Dabh and his close friend Kamal Iskander loaded up a wire recorder and dressed as women to infiltrate one such ceremony just outside Cairo. They were quickly discovered, but the women allowed them to stay and document and participate in the ceremony. They even conducted a healing on el-Dabh and Iskander. The resulting recordings would serve as source material for the world’s first composition to use recorded and processed sounds. el-Dabh describes it in his own words: “They have big darbukka drums and sometimes use flutes. They do a lot of incantations and their voices almost change in the process, and it’s like different languages coming into being, and you feel as though you’re on a different dimension, and all of a sudden you’re lifted” (Young 2007, 26). el-Dabh manipulated these sounds using the rudimentary equipment at a local radio station, applying the effects of reverb, echo, and tone controls. He built up the piece by playing the source material, treating it according to the capabilities of the radio station, and then recording it on another wire recorder. During the process, he brought certain tones to the fore, edited others out, and enhanced particular sounds. Specifically, he concentrated on two elements: foundational tones and vocal noises. el-Dabh attempted to “filter out vocal and instrumental sound” in order to isolate the sound remaining (author interview, August 13, 2010). His effort yielded Ta’bir al-Zar (“The expression of Zar”).Pointless music issued a surviving excerpt of the composition in 2000 (young 2007, 26).
The piece is simultaneously spiritual and frightening, with el-Dabh creating an abstract aural rendition of the ceremony. He eschews traditional rhythmic elements, allowing sounds to emerge and sometimes predominate through his treatments. The point of reference is that of an indigenous listener, as opposed to an ethnographic document or the recordings of the women as a cultural touchstone. The treated drums and voices retain their cultural context and indeed form the substance of the composition instead of being invoked as attributes or references. el-Dabh is able to convey a perspective of someone who is inside the experience. The piece is a landmark of electronic music in that it references recorded material yet is electronically modified using a rudimentary echo chamber and by bouncing the piece from one wire recorder to another. Such fare became more common with the innovation of magnetic tape and Schaeffer’s experiments with recorded sound. Critics and the media have, until recently, failed to recognize Ta’bir al-Zar as part of the avant-garde because even el-Dabh had forgotten the piece and left it out of his portfolio of compositions. Shortly after its creation, he presented it in an installation-like setting at a YMCA in Cairo. Given the newness of the art form, it is unlikely those who experienced it made a connection to the similar emerging work in the West.
In 1945, el-Dabh had begun work as an agricultural engineer in Cairo. While he looked forward to a life in agriculture, he still eagerly responded any time his brother Bushra invited him to visit and compose or play on his grand piano (Seachrist 2003, 12). His travels around the country helped strengthen his sense of the relationship between local agricultural practices and musical customs. Farming traditions differed by region as did the terrain. Likewise, the music differed from place to place. According to el-Dabh, “The music in Egypt changes every twenty miles” (author interview, October 12, 2010). el-Dabh viewed the culture of Egypt as fair game in his new musical work. Some may have regarded the local traditions as needing to remain local or utilitarian in scope. For el-Dabh, they did not represent opportunities for transgression in the name of the avant-garde but were rather a rich amalgamation of ideas and realizations. These concepts could exist together. Because of this orientation, locality and regionally marked material became a great source of strength to el-Dabh, instead of remote ideas to be rationalized and reconciled.
Soon after launching his agricultural career, el-Dabh responded to an invitation to join a group of French, Syrian, and Lebanese men with common interests in music and music appreciation. el-Dabh and three of the other group members would become close, and these colleagues proved critical in encouraging him along the path of modern music. They introduced him to composers such as Schönberg, Stravinsky, and Milhaud and discussed emerging ideas in philosophy. Also, around 1945, el-Dabh became enamoured of tone clusters, as well as playing the inside of the piano (Seachrist 2003, 12). Thus began an interest in experimentation in nontraditional piano technique for the young composer. This approach stood in contrast to a more conservative traditional, European one present in Cairo during this time. The European understanding of performance, composition, and theory taught in the conservatories responded both to Egyptian demand and the listening habits of a large Western presence in Cairo (el-Shawan 1985, 144).
Egypt’s identity shifted drastically over the course of el-Dabh’s early life. Though Egypt declared its independence in 1922, the British maintained a military presence until 1956. In the 1930s and 1940s, the activities of the city’s many international embassies and cultural attachés helped foster an environment in which Western and Eastern culture coexisted and citizens could avail themselves of both. el-Dabh believes that Cairo of the 1930s and 1940s served as a hub for music from around the globe and describes it as a progressive city that embraced culture. “it was a time of incredible advancement,” el-Dabh observes (author interview, July 7, 2010). As a result, a plethora of societies existed in the city, some with connections to European countries, and this is the environment in which el-Dabh continued to develop his work. These societies were not perceived as orientalist in nature, as they were not exclusive in their membership. Nor did they carry an agenda that smacked of imperialism. Rather, they exemplified Cairo’s status as a place of emerging ideas and a crossroads of Eastern and Western intellectual thought. Several of the leading composers of the time incorporated Western elements, but Egyptian artists and audiences alike viewed their music “as part of an ‘international’ musical language to which all cultures have equal access” (el-Shawan 1985, 146).
el-Dabh went on to write several pieces during the mid- and late 1940s. During one of these periods of productivity, a friend contacted him and implored him to consider an offer from a classical music society to perform his own compositions. While el-Dabh had confidence as a young professional, he did not possess the same resolve with regard to his music (Seachrist 2003, 12–13). He feared being viewed as a dilettante. It took some time for the friend to convince him, but el-Dabh eventually relented and premiered his work for solo piano entitled it is Dark and Damp on the Front on February 11, 1949, at the Assembly Hall of All Saints’ Cathedral in Cairo (Seachrist 2003, 17). in reflecting upon the work, el-Dabh says, “That piece changed my life” (author interview, July 7, 2010).
The Emotional Response
it is Dark and Damp on the Front was written for solo piano with distinct sections and employs some repetition in its form, alternating between tone clusters and descending lines. It is unlike other piano pieces of its time and makes little reference to serialism or the Viennese school. The work runs for roughly six minutes, but the score allows the performer to vary the length at the end. The piece is about the mass immigration of European Jews into Palestine and the subsequent war with the Arab states. In a discussion decades later, el-Dabh explained, “The war is dark and damp in the heart of human beings. There is something there that is going to haunt people for years and years and years and years. War truly begins in the heart of every human being” (Seachrist 2003, 17).
The Assembly Hall was filled to capacity on the evening of the performance, with a cross-section of Arabs and Westerners in attendance. They reacted with great feeling to the piece. It is crucial to recognize that al-nakba (“the catastrophe,” referring to the loss of Palestine) then touched the hearts of many in Egypt. Egyptian soldiers were fighting in the war, and soldiers and their sympathizers in the audience must surely have responded with charged emotions to the depth of the music and the current tragedy, both as fellow Arabs and as people backing their own nation’s participation in a war. Egyptians of all classes attended the concert, demonstrating Arab solidarity across social strata and proving the growing appeal of original Arab art. Although the performance showcased avant-garde work, the immediacy of al-nakba and a budding sense of pan-Arabism likely fueled the attendees’ fascination. “Nineteen forty-eight, for me, was very disturbing,” el-Dabh says. “The whole balance in the middle east was falling down that year” (author interview, July 7, 2010). el-Dabh was more taken aback by the horror and tragedy of war and the emergent refugee problem than the politics of the situation.
The piece is jarring, with dynamic contrasts that give the feeling of restlessness and shock. The peppered tone clusters in the upper register wrangle with the listener, giving a sense of darkness. The score asks the performer to repeat chords as a way of finishing the piece and allows her to choose how long this should continue. The open-ended nature of the conclusion could give one a sense of hope but could also symbolize the perpetual nature of the horrors of war. It leaves something with the listener that she may be unable to shed. Prominent disjointed chords invoke a dreamlike surrealism, capturing the disorientation and disbelief felt by many Palestinians with respect to losing their homes and land as the world stood idly by. it is Dark and Damp on the Front conjures images of despair and uncertainty at best and a devastating, unresolved, yet reiterated sense of finality at worst. It represented the confluence of el-Dabh’s training as a musician with his deep feelings about war and conflict, against the backdrop of a sympathetic and shocked international community in Cairo. The work had a broad appeal to those in the region, the majority of whom were deeply affected by al-nakba. While progressive and considered ahead of its time, the composition also contained figurative references in the descending lines, recalling falling mortars. it is Dark and Damp on the Front bore a timely appeal to those in Egypt who may have closely identified the avant-garde elements of the piece with the stunned and unthinkable plight of the Palestinian people. The dismay and disbelief at the state of the Palestinians may have prepared those hearing the piece for the more avant-garde elements therein. At the same time, the figurative elements may have fostered a sense of identification that either allowed the listener to embrace the avant-garde figurings or transcend them.
About it is Dark and Damp on the Front, el-Dabh states, “I came to the realization that the front is in every human being. You have to have a balance. A balance in power and relationships. As long as someone is sitting on top of somebody, you can’t have a balance. Without balance, there is no rest. Conflict has affected everyone in this world. It’s perpetuating this kind of negative energy. It has a fear dimension. It perpetuates other wars. It perpetuates suffering for humanity. It’s a composition of what happened. I felt a horror feeling, but I felt hope” (author interview, July 7, 2010). He also felt that the piece should evoke the murkiness and sadness in the world, “a thin hazy layer covering the minds of people.” el-Dabh explains, “I wrote that piece for myself. I had to play what I did. It had a power of its own and I couldn’t control it.” To this day, el-Dabh believes that “we’re haunted by something that happened in 1948.”
The cultural attaché of the American Embassy asked el-Dabh to repeat the concert at Oriental Hall of the American University in Cairo. That evening, the venue filled to capacity, with word of mouth prompting quite some excitement. The response to the performance was, again, powerful. Following it, el-Dabh was invited to install a recording of the work in an isolation booth as part of a visual art opening at a Cairo gallery (Seachrist 2003, 12–17).
The composition and performance of it is Dark and Damp on the Front marked a critical turning point in el-Dabh’s career. Not only did the piece convey great emotional depth, it also incorporated technical complexity and experimental approaches that el-Dabh would continue to employ throughout his career. Among these are multiple superimposed chords and unorthodox pedal techniques. el-Dabh performed the work on a nine-foot piano, which was a rare treat in Egypt at that time, manufactured by the French firm Pleyel and equipped with three pedals, which el-Dabh exploited fully to enhance the tone and dynamics of the piece (see notes to the score; el-Dabh 2010 a). The piece shies away from traditional form but generates a sense of structure through its distinct sections and literal repeats throughout. Notes, like sections, reappear with fair frequency. The lowest occurs at the beginning, setting an ominous tone, with the highest appearing in the second section, invoking a rending sense of loss and fatalism. el-Dabh employs varying dynamics, especially in the second and last sections, where these can vary within the measure to invoke the visual dimension of the chaos of war and sudden movement. While the piece contains atonal elements, there is no evidence of serialism.
The French critic A. J. Patry, who attended the Assembly Hall performance, noted, “el-Dabh touches the instrument in a fashion of his own; he molds and fuses the sonorities of the piano[,] producing sounds and feelings pertaining to a basic cult. He has exposed the European ear to a different way of playing. One must notice the way he uses the pedals, producing from simple elements, complex superpositions of harmonies” (Seachrist 2003, 17). Patry’s observations were especially significant because of his reputation for bias against unknown composers. He demonstrated a genuine interest in el-Dabh’s work, however, and sought him out to discuss his approaches. el-Dabh reluctantly agreed, not yet comfortable with his standing as a composer or performer. While generally confident in himself, el-Dabh lacked conviction about the risk and responsibility that lay ahead in a life in music. He had not yet thought about leaving his profession, which allowed him financial and professional success.
Patry’s interview helped el-Dabh express his ideas on composition. During it, el-Dabh expounded how all sounds derive from a single pitch. He asserted the significance of sound traveling throughout the universe and through time, and the necessity of employing only a single tone (Seachrist 2003, 19).
When asked in 2012 about his use of dissonance, el-Dabh staunchly rejects the term. in reference to the tone clusters he uses in it is Dark and Damp on the Front, he classifies them as “clashes that produce vibrations, not dissonance.” el-Dabh describes his technique of composing as “heteroharmony,” a term el-Dabh created to describe the combination of “heterophony and chordal harmony in an interaction of chords and clusters with the focus on the unison” (el-Dabh 2010b). This revision of terminology both identifies and broadens the geographic and cultural locus of the avant-garde by relocating the source of new sounds. These noises do not spring from a rejection of conventional Western harmony but, rather, from the goal of isolating and exploring elements particular to Arab music. el-Dabh states that “heteroharmony theory comes out in terms of sound relationships.” He feels that traditional harmony can create an imbalance and “eats up the energy of the music.” To el-Dabh, traditional harmony may not be optimal “in terms of the harmonic production.” In his own words: “my chordal and melodic styles are based on a structure that I coined and named as ‘heteroharmony.’ it is an approach based on the friction of tones in a desire to achieve unison. Sometimes I can achieve the feelings of the quarter tone by executing tonal friction in tetrachords of augmented seconds. Occasionally these augmented seconds could be juxtaposed over an Egyptian Arabic hijaz, or simply over regular piano scales” (el-Dabh 2010a).
it is Dark and Damp on the Front proved foundational for el-Dabh’s subsequent compositions. The piece sparked in el-Dabh an attraction toward experimentation, through the use of tonal clashes and clusters. “it became part of my writing in orchestral works and electronic works,” he says (author interview, July 2010). This is specifically evident in el-Dabh’s heteroharmony approach, which relies more on the vibrations created from contrasting tones than on traditional harmony.
The technical elements of it is Dark and Damp on the Front garnered el-Dabh critical acclaim and attention from Patry and the American cultural attaché in Cairo. At a time when he did not have faith in his future as a composer, these responses were especially flattering. says el-Dabh, “People grasped hold of the technical elements” (author interview, July 7, 2010). Subsequently, the American cultural attaché arranged for el-Dabh to study in the United States at the University of New Mexico.
Based upon the merit of it is Dark and Damp on the Front, Aaron Copland invited him to enroll as a private student at the Berkshire music center at Tanglewood in Lenox, Massachusetts. There, el-Dabh met Irving Fine, who helped open an opportunity for him at Brandeis university, a school with Jewish roots. Fine would become one of el-Dabh’s most influential teachers. When asked if he felt his Arab heritage proved an obstacle at Brandeis, the composer said he did not face any prejudice there. In fact, Brandeis enlisted el-Dabh to recruit non-Jewish students to attend the university. “I don’t think I ever thought of discrimination,” he observes (author interview, July 7, 2010). el-Dabh’s experience was likely consistent with that of other Arabs in the United States at that time. Prior to the Six-Day War of 1967, Arabs were often viewed as exotic and the modern stereotype of the terrorist had not yet been proliferated by the American media. Like some Egyptians, el-Dabh also identified himself as African and felt a connection with the varied people throughout the continent. Regardless, el-Dabh was certainly a minority among those studying at Brandeis. His identity was more that of a composer honing his craft under the tutelage of well-known musicians than that of an Arab trying to establish himself among those in the avant-garde.
After his schooling, el-Dabh attained several other positions of prominence throughout his career. With the end of each of these professional breaks, another would inevitably emerge. “every time I thought about going home, something pulled me back,” el-Dabh observes (author interview, July 7, 2010). el-Dabh missed Egypt and his family but felt enthusiastic about the serendipitous openings that continued to arise, sometimes during the final moments just before he was due to leave.
One of these opportunities allowed el-Dabh to further his experimentations with the piano. Between 1955 and 1956, he held a residency at the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire. There, he tested out what he terms “sonic vibration,” attaching wires from the piano to his room at the colony and tying a drum to the side of the piano. He also began to explore with magnetic tape. The up-and-coming electronic music composers Otto Luening and Vladimir Ussachevsky heard about this and visited him in his cabin. They experienced his raw-trialing firsthand and later encouraged him to work in the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center in New York City.
Luening and Ussachevsky likely saw el-Dabh as a bit eccentric but at the same time were intrigued by his approach. Arab contexts informed el- Dabh’s musical research as he continued the work he had begun in Egypt. He eventually arrived at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music center in 1958, a facility that afforded el-Dabh a dynamic set of associations. There, he and several other composers experimented with early synthesizers and magnetic tape, doing their best to avoid mimicking the sounds of acoustic instruments. In an interview, el-Dabh says, “at Columbia, we didn’t imitate real music, as it might take jobs away” (author interview July 2010). Instead, the composers focused on more abstract noises and the slowing down and speeding up of recordings, as well as the layering of different sounds. el-Dabh also experimented with tape-looping to create new rhythms by varying the length of the loop and then layering those rhythms with other sounds.
Halim el-Dabh compared his consideration of the sonic to how a visual artist might relate to her media; he believed that, like the creations of a sculptor, sound could be carved and shaped out of noise.
While at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center, el-Dabh wrote Leiyla and the Poet, a landmark contribution to electronic music. Mike Hovancsek declares, in the notes to a compact disc of el-Dabh’s electronic work, “While many composers of electronic music at the time worked with a calculated, mathematical approach, el-Dabh’s work reflected his cultural background, his compositional skills, his studies of Native American musics, and his years of experience with manipulated sound recordings. The results were stunningly powerful and original” (Hovancsek 2000).
Leiyla and the Poet incorporates recordings of Egyptian flutes and the Arab dumbik drum to tell the ancient story of forbidden love between the first cousins Leiyla (also spelled “Layla”) and Majnun. In the recording, we hear these instrumental selections sped up and slowed down to create a surreal backdrop that retains its elemental Arab attributes while still feeling modern, in part due to el-Dabh’s sculpting of sound through electronic processing.
el-Dabh believed each engagement would be his last in America, and he always prepared to go home to Egypt as an assignment neared its close. This is a radically different experience from that of many of his American contemporaries who jumped at stable academic careers and may have preferred a more planned approach. In the Arab world, there is something of a fatalist outlook, and el-Dabh’s experiences are no exception. This is evidenced in the Arabic language by the word Insh’llah: if God wills it.
Opportunities in the United States were certainly increasing as the country experienced prosperity, including more funding available to artists. In a manner consistent with Arab culture, el-Dabh allowed his career to take a natural path, while taking advantage of these opportunities. Without a doubt, el-Dabh worked diligently within these engagements and exhibited outstanding productivity. He demonstrated imagination and creativity, but was perhaps less aggressive or strategic in his approach than other composers who were born and raised in the United States during this time. As a result, el-Dabh’s persona seems devoid of the recognizable feature of “genius,” itself an idea that emerges from modernist rhetoric of authentic creativity. He has never performed this Eurocentric articulation of individualism and, while this may have been a disadvantage, it also reveals the ideological limitations of the European avant-garde.
Today, in Cairo, el-Dabh is studied by the second generation of young Egyptian composers working with some European-based training; his piano pieces are the subject of a current dissertation (Rasha Tomoum, email message to author, November 23, 2010). Throughout his life, el-Dabh returned to Egypt several times, in part to keep his link with his home intact. He also contributed to the music that accompanies the light show at the pyramids. Ultimately, el-Dabh is considered by academics as one of many Egyptian composers to make a significant contribution in the twentieth century. Most documentation of modern music in Egypt centers on Gamal Abdel-Rahim and his students (el-Kholy 2003, 3). Likely, because Abdel- Rahim stayed in Egypt and taught there, influencing subsequent generations of composers, as such, there exists a more complete archive of his work. The contrasting documentation of the two composers begs the question of what el-Dabh’s impact on Egyptian modern music would have been had he stayed in his homeland, or if he had embarked on a career in music there. Unflinchingly, el-Dabh asserts, “I would have composed in the same way. The energy of composing is very powerful, and I wouldn’t have been stopped. If I didn’t travel from Egypt, I would have had a parallel realization. If I had stayed in Egypt, I would have been working with quarter tones and maqam art” (author interview, November 6, 2010).
el-Dabh does not apologize for how his work fits or does not fit into any particular framing of “tradition.” In this respect, he can be considered destabilizing to the avant-garde, Arab or otherwise. He has not set out to be a traditionalist composer in the Arabic folk or classical idioms, nor has he deliberately attempted to shed his cultural background in his work. el-Dabh has created something entirely new based upon his experiences. His seamless oeuvre, which moves from documenting the music of Ethiopia, to writing for Martha Graham,
to experimenting with modifying pianos to achieve new sonorities, is indicative of an incredibly flexible and intellectually curious mind that knows no boundaries. The idea of “double dependency,” where the composer struggles with having one foot in tradition and the other in the unwelcoming camp of the progressive West, may very well apply to many among the Arab avant-garde.see Kay Dickinson’s introduction to The Arab Avant-Garde for further elaboration. I find no evidence of this in el-Dabh. He does not view tradition as an impediment. Rather, in both a cross-sectional and temporal sense, el-Dabh views the world around him as a source of material to be explored. One could view el-Dabh’s approach as naïve or extremely challenging, or perhaps a combination of the two. However perceived, el-Dabh’s take must be credited as chance-taking, new, and a challenge to the status quo. Specifically, when serialism was in vogue, el-Dabh’s work made no reference to it. And, as I have argued, his electronic experiments at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center pushed the boundaries, as compared with his peers, who worked to strip out any aural references to musical instruments. el-Dabh not only embraced the sounds of instruments but made solid use of them.
When asked if he feels bitter about not being adequately acknowledged for being the pioneer he is in several cutting-edge art forms, el-Dabh humbly replies, “I’m just a simple guy who doesn’t expect credit” (author interview, July 7, 2010). From creating the first recorded piece in musique concrète prior to the birth of the form, to using tone clusters and playing the inside of a piano in 1949, to experimenting with electronic music at the Columbia- Princeton Center, el-Dabh has undoubtedly been a forerunner of the avant-garde in the twentieth century. This is all in addition to his work as a scholar, ethnomusicologist, and composer. el-Dabh’s achievements have yet to be fully appreciated, but he is the first among Arabs and Western artists during the twentieth century to lead the way with work of such convincing breadth and depth.
To be an Arab means to live with contradictions or, indeed, to live as a contradiction. This can manifest itself in statelessness, or the concept of the kafir (referring here to an outsider) in one’s own land. el-Dabh easily travels from the metaphysical to the theoretical, sometimes in the same conversation. His ideas about aesthetic and universal balance coexist with diverse cultural engagement. el-Dabh is simultaneously on the outside and deeply inside music. The coexistence of the sublime and metaphysical along with the practicality of focused and applied work are common themes of Arab existence and elements of avant-garde movements through history.
Halim el Dabh’s official website is www.halimeldabh.com
This article was first published in The Arab Avant-Garde, edited by Thomas Burkhalter, Kay Dickinson and Benjamin J. Harbert, and is re-published here with kind permission of the Author and Wesleyan University Press. The portrait of Halim El-Dabh is published here with kind permission of the photographer James Vaughan.
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|Pointless music issued a surviving excerpt of the composition in 2000 (young 2007, 26).
|see Kay Dickinson’s introduction to The Arab Avant-Garde for further elaboration.