Sunday, December 01, 2013

Interview with Halim El-Dabh

"With the electric magnetic I feel that I am everywhere. I am with the creases of sound waves. And of vibrations riding the tapestry of time.

I was embraced by thunder and lightening at birth. Then at age of 7 days I was awakened by human voices mixed with musical instruments and loud noises. All reflect simple and complex moments of creation."
Halim El-Dabh


Halim Abdul Messieh El-Dabh was born on March 4th 1921, in El-Sakakini, a district in Cairo, Egypt. Since he was young, his life was full of music. Halim's parents, brothers and sisters all played musical instruments, so it was natural that he became interested in music also. The piano that the family owned was his first choice. Halim's brother Adeeb was a very well-known musician in Egypt in those days. His family moved to Heliopolis (another district of Cairo) in 1932, the same year that Bushra, another of Halim's brothers, took young Halim to the Cairo Conference, organized by King Fuad. Many very well known musicians, from different parts of the world, attended the Cairo Conference which in turn added new possibilities to Halim's musical horizons.

Following the steps of his father, who worked in agiculture, Halim attended the Fuad I University (now Cairo University), where he graduated with a degree in Agricultural Engineering in 1945. At that time Halim's music already had an audience in Cairo. He had increased his music knowledge and interests, so he conceived the idea of mixing both things, agriculture and music. He began to study on possibilities of controlling and preventing bugs and pests from attacking wheat, corn, beans, etc. through sound. Soon Halim's research lead him to the Middle East Radio, a small independent radio station in Cairo, which had recording machines and wire recorders. As one thing leads to the other, in 1943 Halim began to experiment with those recording devices and the radio station studios, altering the sounds that he recorded. In 1944 Halim decided to record the ceremony of the Zaar (a female religious ceremony), he then treated the recordings he made on the ceremony using studio techniques and electronic devices and voilà, the first piece of tape manipulation that we know of, in the world, was born! (Note that it happened four years before Pierre Schaeffer released his first published works in France). The Expression Of The Zaar was Halim's only piece to be published from this period, but he created another pieces of tape manipulation mostly of street vendors in Cairo.

In 1949, Halim El-Dabh was invited to perform at All Saints Cathedral in Cairo, and after a well received concert he was invited by an official of the USA embassy in Egypt to study in the USA. In the next year, 1950, Halim moved to USA on a Fulbright Fellowship. In USA Halim studied composition with some of the greatest names in music of that time: John Donald Robb and Ernst Krenek (at the University of New Mexico), Francis Judd Cooke (at the New England Conservatory of Music), Aaron Copland and Luigi Dallapiccola (at the Berkshire Music Center), and Irving Fine (at Brandeis University). Later on, Halim moved to New Jersey and became part of the NY music scene of the '50s. In the middle of the '50s, Halim was invited to MacDowell Colony for a period os time, in which he wrote his piece Symphnies In Sonic Vibrations. It was this piece and mainly the way that Halim El-Dabh explored the sounds of the piano at MacDowell Colony which attracted the attention of two of the greatest names of electronic music of that time: Otto Luening and Vladimir Ussachevsky. More than being attracted by Halim's wonderful music, both became acquainted with the fact that Halim El-Dabh was working in the electronic music field for more than ten years prior (since 1943). Professor Luening and professor Ussachevsky (along with professors Roger Sessions and Milton Babbit) founded the famous Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center and after Halim finished his MacDowell Colony period, they invited him to work at the electronic music studio. Soon Halim began to create his electronic music pieces at the studio. His 1959 piece Leiyla And The Poet is one of Halim's most famous piece from that time. Halim also collaborated with Otto Luening on the works Diffusion Of The Bells and Electronic Fanfarre (both 1962). To translate in a few words, Halim wasn't only the first person to release a tape manipulation recording in 1944. He is also one of a few people who helped to create the golden days of electronic music in the '50s!

Halim El-Dabh's nomad roots inspired him to travel the world during his lifetime, to research and record music and people from various nations (including a trip to Brazil, in 1982). Aside from that, Halim taught at a number of educational institutions, including Haile Selassie I University (now Addis Ababa University, in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia), Howard University (in Washington D.C., USA, from 1966 to 1969) and Kent State University (in Kent, Ohio, from 1969 to 1991). Halim has lived in Kent, Ohio, since the late '60s, where he continues to reside with his present wife Deborah El-Dabh.

I've contacted Halim to do this interview via email, a few weeks ago. In fact, I've contacted his lovely wife and music manager, Deborah, who was very gentle in replying to every email that I wrote. I've sent the questions and Halim recorded in video the answers and then a lovely professor, Laurel Myers Hurst, gently conducted the interview and made the transcription of Halim words from video to text. I will be always grateful to those two people, Deborah and Laurel, for making it possible for me to become a little bit closer to this great man, Halim El-Dabh! There's a song by Elton John, called "Your Song", in which he sings "how wonderful life is while you're in the world". Well, that's my feeling in having this opportunity to contact Halim, Deborah and Laurel: how wonderful is to have the chance to share with you this big and crazy world, full of music and full of life! Thanks Halim, Deborah and Laurel!

Photo: James Vaughan
Interview with Halim El-Dabh, as told to Laurel Myers Hurst:

1- What are your earliest musical memories and how was your first contact with music?

HALIM EL-DABH - The day I was born there were storms like never before. My mother told me there was thunder and lightning, hail and snow that were totally uncharacteristic for the season. It was all brought down with the thunder. Thundering is my first exposure to sound.
At my seventh day naming ceremony, subuh, all the community and musicians came and circled around me. They put me on a strainer, the kind of sieve that separates wheat from chaff. As I listened to the sound of music around me, all the negativity was strained away from my body exposing me to the new world. The force of the community singing clarified me for whatever was to come. All the people sang, walked around and danced seven times they walked around me when I was only seven days old. That was my earliest exposure to real music.
As the youngest of nine children, my parents and even my brothers and sisters experimented with me by sending me to different schools. They wanted me to get off to a good start, so from three years old I went to Jesuit school. There I learned many French songs. I remember many of them to this day. The one that comes to mind immediately is about a little ship on the sea that wanted to travel, but he couldn't navigate. He couldn't get moving. My education was very broad, and included wisdom learned at home and at Arabic-speaking school.
At home we had a piano, lutes, violins and drums. My brother Adeeb played piano. Adeeb also played some violin. Bushra played violin and an Egyptian lute, and my cousins played lute. Some of us played guitar-like lutes. We had a lot of musicians. My father sang, he always liked to sing. My mother played an instrument similar to the accordion that had no keys. It's an old instrument. That instrument is related to the ancient water organ, the hydraulos.
At that age, I wasn't taking formal piano lessons. As a child, when I played piano I was imitating my brother. He became a very well-known pianist on the radio. In that day we had many small, independent radio stations. He always improvised and played anything he heard and then performed the pieces for the radio and other audiences. He played with the silent movies sometimes. So he was an inspiration to me, and I tried to follow after him. The piano was very attractive to me, and some of the drums caught me attention, too. I didn't get to play the violin, but I got to play the piano and compose on the piano.
As my piano skills improved, I had a lot of audiences whenever I did what I did. That was probably an encouragement to me, having an audience. Whatever I did people wanted to hear.
My older brother, Bushra, recognized my musicianship. Of course Adeeb was involved in his piano technique. Then Michael, another brother, dragged me to improvise for his figure skating. He loved to figure skate and whenever he went to skate he would say forcefully, "Play something while I'm moving!" So I used to think of things to make it alive. It was very immediate and spontaneous. Michael would sit me down and say, "Here's a piano and there are drums, I'm going to skate and do figures!" He actually put me into action, exposed me to the world.
Bushra always wanted me to go to a conservatory, which eventually I did by the time I was 15 or 16. At eleven years old I was on my own, writing, struggling to know the notes and write music down on my own. It's amazing, isn't it?
I started at age eleven to write some music in reflection on my visit to the big Cairo Conference of 1932. I was writing, of course, before the conference, so my brother, Bushra, took me to the meeting organized by King Fuad. The king invited very well known musicians from all over the world to Cairo: Béla Bartok, Hindemith (who was in charge of the recording sessions), Jaap Knust (who was in charge of the theoretical basis of the meeting), Henry Farmer and Rodolphe d'Erlanger. D'Erlanger wrote a six volume work on Arabic music and was considered one of the first European experts on Arabic music.

2 - About electronic music, what first exposure to electronic devices you remember?

HALIM EL-DABH - My first exposure to electronic sound devices was back in 1943. As an agriculturist studying pest control, I wanted to see if sound-emitting devices could control tiny beetles that attack wheat, corn, alfalfa and beans. I thought that rather than getting rid of the beetles, we could distract them. I used to experiment with clanging together iron rods like bells; then I tried scratching the rods together to see if it discouraged the bugs. About the same time, I was using mirrors and sound to keep bees from flying away from their hives. When the bees tried to leave their colony, the mirrors pushed sunlight on them and they went back to their hives rather than emigrating. You don't want your colony emigrating. You want to keep it in.
Then came my contact with Middle East Radio in Cairo, a small independent station. The station was rich with a number of different sound devices and recording machines. After the Cairo Conference, there was a great consciousness about sound recording. Local musicians had a strong desire to record music, so there were a lot of companies in Cairo that imported a variety of machines. I recall Marconi from Italy, Poussant from Denmark and Telefunken from Germany. Middle East Radio also had a wire recorder available for sound experiments. I used electronic and physical manipulation of the sound and the studio to create various wire recordings. I could tune the sound-emitting devices to filter out various harmonics in a tone or to eradicate the fundamental tone. I could apply voltage control to the tone to change it's quality and create various rhythmic pulses. I even changed the physical qualities of the recording studios by moving panel walls within the studio, altering the subtleties of echo and reverberation to suit me. Then I recorded the resulting sounds on the wire recorder. All these capabilities were available around the radio station.

3 - In 1944 you recorded "The Expression Of The Zaar", the first tape manipulation piece. How was it recorded and manipulated?

HALIM  EL-DABH - I was interested in how sound related to many things. It started with those little teeny bugs, but I also became interested in sound and healing, especially the healing ceremony of the society of women called Zaar. The Expression Of The Zaar was recorded on a wire. The wire recorder looked like the other recorders, but the recording medium was hair-thin and spooled around the reels. I recorded the input of the Zaar women's voices, and then played back through the devices of reverberation, voltage control and echo. I separated the fundamental tones of the voices as a method of manipulating the content; I experimented with what happened to the sound of the voice when I took the fundamental sound out. Suddenly, without the fundamental tone, I found an entirely expression of the sound, I exposed a different sound by eliminating parts of the components. This is how I created The Expression Of The Zaar. By overlapping the overtones, I got different resulting sounds. I created a lot of different musics at that time, but only one to be published was Ta'abir al-Zaar. I should dig out the other ones. The Expression Of The Zaar was saved because I continued with it and rerecorded it before it disappeared.

4 - How was your life before you moved to the USA in the early 1950s?

HALIM EL-DABH - My brother Bushra had a baby grand piano, and his house was near our house. When he traveled, he said, "You go to my house". On the second floor, his house opened up to all the neighbors' houses in back of them. When I opened his rear balcony doors the balconies of the other homes were arrayed about me like a vast arena, with every family waiting expectantly in their boxes. So he left that piano for me and at 2:00 AM every night I started playing. I had this huge audience in the back of the house waiting for me to play the piano, and of course I did all sorts of sounds on the piano. I did clusters on the piano and strummed it. I had approval, and audience and appreciation. That kept me playing.
The word traveled around, and I was invited to institutions to talk about my music. I was part of elementary and high school small ensembles, then at the university we also organized a small ensemble. The works we played in school were standards of the repertoire. Added to that, I had numerous exploratory adventures in music outside of school. I improvised a lot for my brother. I have five brothers and three sisters. My sisters played, too. My life was really full of music. Then we had groups that got together to listen to contemporary music. I was exposed to Pierrot Lunaire, and I was listening to Schoenberg at age of 14. I was so excited. My mother was sort of crazy with it, asking, "What's going on?" I said, "Look at this sound! Pierrot Lunaire!" Pierrot Lunaire drove me crazy, and I heard Stravinsky's Rite Of Spring, too.
I started mixing with people with international interests. I lived in Heliopolis, a suburb of Cairo. We got together many times to experiment with music and ideas at the YMCA. The YMCA was an intellectual center for concerts, philosophy, different ideas, sports, meetings, for everything. I experimented with a lot of my music there. I played some of my compositions in art exhibits at the YMCA and at other institutions of art. They had a chamber for me in the art studio. People walked in and listened to my music as part of the exhibit. They did that for The Expression Of The Zaar and It Is Dark And Damp On The Front. Whatever music I had, they exhibited it. So I had a lot of recognition and support when I was growing up.
I started taking formal lessons at the age of 15, and I continued to do that at the Schulz Conservatory. I got involved with other practical conservatories like the Tiegerman and Hickmann Conservatories. Hickmann was interested in ancient Egypt, so I used to frequent his conservatory. Hickmann was trying  to compare the clarinet to an ancient reed instrument. He thought clarinet originated in Egypt, and he brought examples of the clarinet and bassoon to the conservatory. It was very interesting.
I also frequented the Institute of Arabic music in Cairo, a huge institute. They had a piano with a 24 tone scale. In fact, I played that instrument with one of my compositions at the United Nations. It was done with a Syrian woman who created a grand piano like the one in Cairo with 24 pitches to the octave and terraced keyboards.
I experimented with piano, drums, with the voice, my voice and other voices. Especially the voice was a main thing. The voice attracted me a lot.

5 - How was it to work at the famous Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center in the 1950s and how was it to work with Otto Luening and Vladimir Ussachevsky?

HALIM EL-DABH - The story starts back in 1955, 56. I was invited to the MacDowell Colony in Petersboro, New Hampshire. I had a cottage there with a piano. The MacDowell Colony brings composers and artists to the settlement, leaves them alone and does everything they need. During the time I was there, the library had a grand piano so I used to go there and lock the door and change everything. I took wires, connected them to the piano wires on the instrument, tied them up and bottled them in the wall. I wanted to get a great variety of string sounds, and I wrote Symphonies In Sonic Vibrations during this period. Who walks into this library which I transformed? Both Luening and Ussachevsky. They looked and exclaimed, "What are you doing here?" The minute they saw what I was doing they said, "This guy should come to Columbia University with us".
After I finished MacDowell Colony I was invited to Columbia University with a grant to use their studio and work there. As the years went by, Luening and I collaborated on several compositions like Electronic Fanfarre and Diffusion Of Bells. So we collaborated using machinery and RCA electronic recorder that they put there. I was invited, and then I became a member of the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center. So after that visit they saw me, what I was doing, and dragged me to Columbia University. They saw how I was dealing with sound and sound vibration.

6 - Can you talk more about the RCA sound synthesizer?

HALIM EL-DABH - The synthesizer was an innovation that gave us a larger expansion of sound manipulation. We used punch cards to input and receive sound from the machine. It took up a whole wall, it was huge. We were able to get very clear sounds of whatever we synthesized whether it was trumpet, violin or any other sound. I especially liked to input my voice. Luening did an input of his piccolo to transform it. I did an input of my drum to transform it and then took the sounds back from the synthesizer. The members of the Music Center made a pact not to imitate or recreate the actual instrument sounds, since we understood those sounds could put live musicians out of work.
The synthesizer has to do with mathematical manipulation of sound. Babbitt was involved much with it because he is more mathematical in his thoughts. Babbitt most wanted to work with the synthesizer, but I worked with it by taking the sounds and further manipulating them through a series of Ampex recorders in the studio. With ten Ampex machines, their remote controls and speaker rods outside the room in the hallways, I ran tapes from the Ampex recorders out into the hallway in a looping form. I had quite a number of loops, and as they played I recorded what I wanted from the loops. It was something. I had loops all the way down the hallway, spreading out before me and then coming back to me. With the remote controls and all these loops, I danced! It was fabulous! I said, "Wow!"
These loops would come and go, and I ended up with the recorded result. I took the resultant recording and played it again. I called the process "generation", because the first generation is kind of crude. When you do this you must work through generation after generation. I tracked the tapes from one generation on the wall. I lined them up in groups by various generations until the whole wall would be covered with generations of tape. I could come to the wall and pick up from them as I wanted to and mix them again. By the time I came to four or five generations of interaction I began to feel comfortable. In the first generation, you could hear the raw sound of the instrument; to finish you have to go deep into the sound. You really have to go deeply into it.
I was glad to be invited by the trombonist George Lewis to see the old Ampex recording suite in about 2005. After working with the Ampex machines, the Columbia-Princeton Music Center had Moog synthesizers, but I never used them. I used the RCA to some extent, but never without extensive manipulation of the resulting sounds. I mostly relied on my own filtering and alterations of sound recordings, especially voltage changes. I also did a lot with white sound. White sound has enormous possibilities because everything is in there.

7 - You've traveled to Brazil in the 1970s and the early 80s, right? What are your memories of those trips?

HALIM EL-DABH - I planned to travel to Brazil in the 1970s, but I actually traveled to Salvador, Bahia, in 1982 and '83. I was there to research some of the Afro-Brazilian music and so I was involved with the candomblé ceremony. I got to know many people and was able to participate in various candomblé rituals. Some of the rituals were in areas that reverence Ogun, and in the mountains of Petropolis there was Exu. In Bahia there was Shango. One of the terreiros, the high places, had the Preto Velho sitting by to talk to. The Preto Velho was the old, wise black man. They called me Shango Kao. I'm not certain of the meaning of Kao. Maybe the people were calling me Shango of the East because I was struck by lightening and Shango is the God who is supposed to do that.
I had a really great time and visited the island of Itaparica where I got the witness the Egunguns' ceremony. That was an incredible experience.
Basically, all the time I spent in Bahia, Petropolis, Itaparica and Rio de Janeiro I played music with the people. I played with the percussionist Djalma Correa. I played at the Sala Cecilia Meireles with him and several other musicians in Rio to a packed house. I played piano and they played percussion and clarinet. It was a great experience. I never slept during the Carnaval. I attended every event and traveled from Rio de Janeiro to Bahia to see Carnaval there.
I had a full and rich experience of Afro-Brazilian culture, ceremonies and music. I participated a lot in the music part of Brazil when I was there. I received a very generous and kind reception from the people I met. They made it wonderful for me to carry on research.
I had contact with an parliamentarian named Nascimento and his American wife. He was part of the tradition I was studying. I also had contact with the University of Brazil at Salvador. I talked there about the retention of Yoruba culture in Brazil and its relationship to Egyptian culture. I was very involved with scholars in the university at Rio de Janeiro, so I had very full and active life in Brazil.

8 - What are you doing nowadays, and what are your plans for the future?

HALIM EL-DABH - I'm energized that there is excitement about electronic music. Having done electronic music on the frontier of the field with Ta'abir al-Zaar, I am still searching for new ways to transform sound and to utilize electronic music. In 2001, I completed a work called Signals And Connections for the American Music Center in New York. That's a crazy piece. You hear it on the phone when you call up the American Music Center.
Right now I want to explore more the sound of the human voice. I've always been interested in the range and power of the human voice, the elements within it really have no end. I'm still interested in the voice and how its transformation has an effect on us, as a creative work and as an art form. I'm just settling down to get my equipment back into shape.
All sounds still fascinate to me, from the sounds of cicadas and beetles to everyday noise. More that ever I want to work with the sounds of humans, of nature and of everything around me to communicate and share with the world.

Photo: James Vaughan
Photo: Christo
Update: Halim El-Dabh, Deborah El-Dabh and Astronauta Pinguim in Kent, OH (USA), on July 28th, 2014 (photo by Laurel Myers Hurst):


Visit Halim El-Dabh's website: www.halimeldabh.com


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