Egyptian American composer, pianist, percussionist, ethnomusicologist and teacher Halim Abdul Messieh El-Dabh was born in Sakakini, Cairo on 4 March 1921 into a large and wealthy Coptic family. He studied agricultural engineering in Cairo, but also studied, performed and wrote music informally.
In the early 1940s he began experimenting with magnetic wire recorders to manipulate sound, and wrote The Expression of Zaar, one of the earliest known pieces of musique concrète or tape music, including a recording of an ancient zaar exorcism ceremony. The resulting work was presented in 1944 at an art galery in Cairo.
After a successful performance at Cairo's All Saints Cathedral in 1949, he was invited to study in the USA, where he went in 1950 on a Fulbright fellowship. This enabled him to study composition with Ernst Krenek, Aaron Copland, Irving Fine, Luigi Dallapiccola and others, and he was soon part of the New York 1950s music scene, alongside John Cage, Henry Cowell, Peggy Glanville-Hicks and Alan Hovhaness.
In 1958 he worked with Leopold Stokowski, playing the darabukha, an Egyptian hand drum, in the first New York performance of his Fantasia-Tahmeel for darabukha and string orchestra. He also worked with Martha Graham on Clytemnestra, the first of four ballet scores, which became one of his best-known works.
In 1959 he began working at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center, producing eight electronic works in his first year there, and later becoming one of the Center's most influential composers. In 1961 he obtained US citizenship.
He travelled to various countries, including Brazil, Egypt, Ethiopia, Guinea, Mali, Niger, Senegal and Zaire, recording and documenting traditional music. In the 1970s he also researched the traditional puppetry of Egypt and Guinea.
Halim El-Dabh died on 2 September 2017 at his home in Kent, Ohio, USA, aged ninety-six.
A selection of M&V articles about Halim El-Dabh
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