A profile of composer Halim El-Dabh
I put the record on my turntable and let the needle find its groove.
The crackling friction of aging vinyl was soon drowned out by a ghost-like electronic flute sound. Then, an Egyptian lute joined in, chattering away through an echo chamber. Suddenly, the room was full of manic, layered voices that urgently began chanting over a barrage of drum sounds, flutes, and waves of primitive electronic tones. To my teenage ears, this was more than just a piece of music; it was the sound of a man setting fire to everything that I had ever known about music.
I was listening to Halim El-Dabh's "Leiyla and the Poet" from the Columbia Records album, Electronic Music Masters. While a lot of early electronic music sounded like random beeps and buzzes, this piece was a truly remarkable composition. It was an excerpt from a multicultural opera that was constructed with a complex barrage of manipulated tapes, pure electronics, and electroacoustic instruments. There was clearly a logical system at work but it wasn't like any other thought process I had ever encountered. "Leiyla and the Poet" was the work of a brilliant (and possibly disturbed) man.
I wanted to hear more recordings by Halim El-Dabh but nobody seemed to know where I could find any. In fact, none of the people who were familiar with electronic music knew anything about Mr. El-Dabh except that he was an Egyptian composer who helped to pioneer electronic music in the 1950s. I imagined that he was an eccentric genius that lived in a palace somewhere in Egypt.
A few years later I enrolled at Kent State University and began my studies in psychology. While I was there, I took a couple of music classes. I had an intense interest in music but I was disappointed to find that the first class I took was a complete bore. Day after day the professor would drone on with all the enthusiasm of a group of mourners in a funeral procession. Fortunately, things were about to take an interesting turn.
One day the professor was in the middle of another half-hearted lecture when a man with wild eyes and colorful clothes suddenly burst into the room. The man was chanting gibberish and beating on a drum with wild abandon. He proceeded to tell us about his run-in with a group of "extremely polite" highway robbers that he met in Jamaica. As soon as the story was over, the strange man rushed out of the room, leaving the class stunned and confused. That was when our professor explained that we had just met the legendary Halim El-Dabh.
I have known Halim El-Dabh for fifteen years. In that time, I have been repeatedly dragged through the looking glass with him, into a world of magical thinking, wild drumming, electronic chaos, and university recital halls. I may never find my way back to the real world. This is just fine with me.
Halim was born in Egypt in 1921. He originally intended to work in the agricultural field but music called him with a louder voice. His reputation grew quickly when he began winning competitions, performing on live radio broadcasts, scoring film soundtracks, and making music by manipulating wire recording devices.
The turning point in Halim El-Dabh's career occurred in 1948. He received international acclaim after he played his piano composition It is Dark and Damp on the Front at the Music Center of the Cairo All Saints Cathedral. The world press ranted and raved about this brilliant newcomer and -literally overnight- Halim became a famous composer.
Soon after, the Egyptian government sent Halim around the world so he could study the music of different cultures and represent Egyptian culture. He was sent to Europe for a year to study with Nadia Boulanger but he "forgot" to actually attend the training. Instead, he spent the year meeting an endless parade of musicians and artists and falling in love with various women in the creative community. He later stated that he was very lucky to have missed out on his chance to study with Boulanger.
Halim eventually received a Fulbright grant and was given the opportunity to study at the Juilliard School of Music. "Juilliard? Which tribe is that?" he asked, as American Indian music was the only American music he was familiar with at that time. Halim decided to pass on the offer to study at Juilliard so he could go to New Mexico and study Hopi, Zuni, and Pueblo music while taking courses at the University of New Mexico.
While he was studying in the United States, Aaron Copland invited him to study at the Berkshire Music Center in Massachusetts. Halim studied with Copland for two summers, had his pieces premiered at Juilliard, and began composing on a free-lance basis around the country.
In the mid-1950s, electronic music pioneers Vladimir Ussachevsky and Otto Luening invited Halim to record in the newly constructed Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center where many of the fundamental concepts of electronic music were being developed. They were impressed with his work with manipulated recordings from the 1940s and they wanted to see what he could do with the latest technology of the day. Halim composed and recorded several groundbreaking pieces in the Columbia-Princeton studios including the piece that would eventually end up on Electronic Music Masters.
While many composers of electronic music at the time worked with a calculated, mathematical approach, Halim'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.
Halim could have stayed at Columbia-Princeton and devoted his life to electronic music. Instead, he decided to travel to Ethiopia to work with Haile Selassie. Later, he went to Egypt and other places in Africa to live with and study a variety of different cultures.
In 1969 -after years of rootlessness- Halim became a professor of ethnomusicology at Kent State University, where he remains as a professor emeritus to this day. He continues to compose works for symphonies, chamber music groups, solo instruments, prepared piano, sound sculpture, and virtually every other instrumental format you can imagine. He has composed several operas and four ballets for legendary choreographer Martha Graham.
Over the years,Halim has had adventures and collaborations with a lot of influential people, including Timothy Leary, Andres Segovia, Marilyn Monroe, Igor Stravinsky, and Ringo Starr. At the same time, he always goes out of his way to get to know the doorman at the concert hall or the custodians at the University. Everyone who comes into contact with him goes home with a unique story.
By the time I met Halim, he had already racked up an impressive collection of Guggenheims, Fulbrights, honorary Ph.D.s, and tribal accolades. I approached him after one of his recitals and told him that I wanted to release his early electronic works on the small record label that I was running out of my home at the time.
I knew that Halim had already turned down an offer from Columbia Records so it was pretty presumptuous of me to think he would give these historic recordings to a nobody like me. Still, he and I hit it off right away. He invited me to a party that was being thrown in his honor and in the middle of the celebration he told me that I could help myself to his historic electronic recordings. We scheduled a day and time to meet at his office.
When I arrived for our meeting, Halim was standing on the steps, playing an invocation for me on an Ethiopian flute. He led me back to his storage room: a whirlwind of books, uncashed checks, notes, manuscripts, souvenirs, musical scores, and slides that he had accumulated over a lifetime of travel. He pointed to a rat's nest of unraveled reel-to-reel tapes that contained everything he ever recorded on that format. It included field recordings, recital hall tapes, and the early electronic works.
Over the following months, I dug through these amazing recordings, most of which were unlabeled and damaged. A lot of the tapes I found were either raw source material, incomplete sketches of sound, or recordings that were completely decayed. Some of them were off their spools (they were just handfuls of tape, shoved into boxes), and several others were held together by hundreds of bits of aging scotch tape.
Most of the restoration project was done at the Kent State Audio Visual Department. The woman who ran that department, however, got increasingly annoyed by the strange sounds that poured from her machines while Halim and I catalogued nearly a hundred hours of electronic music. All of this became too much for her when Halim and I decided to do a tape-manipulation jam session. She kicked us out of the Audio Visual Department and told us that we were not allowed to return.
I finished the restoration project in my home studio. From the tangle of brittle, faded tape, a remarkable musical vision began to emerge. Halim had made environmental recordings in the Basilica San Marco, sound sculpture pieces in an art gallery in New York City, and barrages of multicultural electronic pieces at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center. This material was easily the best music I had ever heard from the embryonic days of electronic music.
The collection of recordings that I restored was orignally released on my own label. Since then, they have been rereleased on CD through Without Fear Recordings.
Every now and then, my phone rings and I find Halim on the other end of the line. He always seems to be surprised and baffled to hear my voice. I often suspect that he dialed my number by mistake and then had to find a reason to justify the call. These conversations always lead to a new advent
Halim is a man who is rumored to have been born on the steps of the pyramids in a flash of lightning; he is the man who drove backwards on the 9th Street Bridge during a New York rush hour; he is the man who composed the music that is performed daily at the Giza Pyramids; he is the man who annoyed Madonna (the pop star, not the Holy Mother). Halim is an incomprehensible combination of shaman, court jester, and academic genius. You can't turn down an invitation from a man like that.
Last night we had a big jam session for Halim's 81st birthday. He played drums for hours and danced with every woman in the room. Late into the evening I headed home to get some sleep. As I turned to wave goodbye, I saw Halim sitting in the middle of the room, surrounded by young women and playing the hell out of a drum.
He is probably still there now.
© 2002 Mike Hovancsek
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