Composer, performer, ethnomusicologist, and educator Halim El-Dabh is internationally regarded as Egypt's foremost living composer of classical music, and one of the major composers of the twentieth century. His numerous musical and dramatic works have been performed throughout Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Americas. Among his compositions are eleven operas, four symphonies, numerous ballets, concertos, and orchestral pieces, works for band and chorus, film scores, incidental music for plays, chamber and electronic works, music for jazz and rock band, works for young performers, and pieces for various combinations of African, Asian, and Western instruments. His extensive ethnomusicological researches, conducted on several continents, have led to unique creative syntheses in his works, which, while utilizing contemporary compositional techniques and new systems of notation, are frequently imbued with Near Eastern, African, or ancient Egyptian aesthetics.
Born into a musical family in Cairo, El-Dabh studied piano and derabucca (goblet-shaped ceramic drum), and began composing at an early age. Although trained for a career as an agricultural engineer, his musical talent and immersion in Egypt's cosmopolitan musical life (including village drumming and local festivals, Arabic and European classical music, and the jazz clubs of Alexandria) increasingly led him toward a life in music. An early introduction to contemporary music came in 1932, when the young El-Dabh was able to meet the composers Béla Bartók and Paul Hindemith at an international music conference organized by King Fuad in Cairo. By 1949 El-Dabh had gained such notoriety for his avant-garde compositions and piano playing--among both the general public and the royal family--that the cultural attachés of various nations began to invite him to pursue further musical studies in their countries. El-Dabh chose to apply to study music in the United States, and was one of only seven Egyptians (out of 500 applicants) to receive a Fulbright grant in that year.
Arriving in the United States in the summer of 1950 (and later acquiring U.S. citizenship), El-Dabh traveled to the Aspen Music Center in Colorado, where he met and assisted Igor Stravinsky. After researching Native American music in New Mexico, he began studies with Aaron Copland and Irving Fine at the Berkshire Music Center in Massachusetts. Later, in New York's vibrant musical scene, he developed close associations with many prominent and like-minded figures in twentieth-century music, including Henry Cowell, John Cage, Alan Hovhaness, Leonard Bernstein, Edgard Varèse, Otto Luening, Vladimir Ussachevsky, Ernst K_enek, and Luigi Dallapiccola. During the 1950s and ‘60s, El-Dabh was grouped with fellow composers Hovhaness, Lou Harrison, Colin McPhee, Paul Bowles, and Peggy Glanville-Hicks, under the rubric “Les Six d’Orient” (the term coined by Glanville-Hicks), representing the vanguard of contemporary composers writing music inspired by musics of the East.
Having also achieved renown for his virtuoso derabucca playing, in 1958 El-Dabh played the solo part in the premiere of his Fantasia-Tahmeel (for derabucca and strings), with the American Symphony Orchestra under Leopold Stokowski. Also in 1958, he began working closely with the great American choreographer Martha Graham, composing the epic opera-ballet Clytemnestra (1958), which is considered Graham’s masterpiece; he eventually composed three more ballet scores for her. El-Dabh’s orchestral/choral score for the light show at the pyramids of Giza has been played there each evening since 1961, and is probably his most frequently heard work. His Opera Flies (1971) is the only opera to have been composed on the theme of the Kent State tragedy of May 1970.
In addition to his compositional activity, El-Dabh has also conducted musical field research and recording throughout Egypt and Ethiopia, as well as in Eritrea, Sudan, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Zaire, Central African Republic, Nigeria, Ghana, Senegal, Gambia, Guinea, Mali, Niger, Morocco, Greece, Macedonia, Uzbekistan, Brazil, Mexico, and Jamaica. He has also studied the Native American cultures of the American Southwest and the African American cultures of the southeastern U.S. El-Dabh is also considered an expert on the subject of traditional Egyptian and African puppetry, and has helped to present a number of such puppetry troupes in the United States. While in Ethiopia (1962-64), he formed Orchestra Ethiopia, the first pan-Ethiopian performing group.
In his works, El-Dabh frequently draws on his Egyptian heritage, as in Mekta' in the Art of Kita' (1955), The Eye of Horus (1967), Ptahmose and the Magic Spell (1972), Ramesses the Great (Symphony no. 9) (1987), and many others. He has created new systems of notation for the derabucca, and has revived interest in ancient Egyptian language and musical notation. Many of his works from the 1960s on are also heavily influenced by West African traditional musics, such as Black Epic (1968) and Kyrie for the Bishop of Ghana (1968), and still other works bear the influences of the musics of Ethiopia, Brazil, India, China, Japan, Korea, and other nations.
Also a pioneer in the field of electronic music, El-Dabh began early sonic experiments with wire recorders at the Middle East Radio Station of Cairo in 1944. In 1959 he was invited by Otto Luening and Vladimir Ussachevsky to join the first group of composers at the newly set up Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center in New York, where he created a number of significant works. His Leiyla and the Poet (1959-61), recorded for Columbia Masterworks in 1964, is considered a classic of the genre. A long-awaited CD compilation of many of these pioneering electronic works, entitled Crossing Into the Electric Magnetic, was released in 2001 by Without Fear Recordings. In 2005, El-Dabh was commissioned by the American Music Center's Siday Music on Hold Program to compose a new electroacoustic work to be used for the American Music Center's telephone system.
El-Dabh's recent works include the ballet score In the Valley of the Nile (1999), composed for the Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Company; the piano concerto Surrr-Rah (2000), written for pianist Tuyen Tonnu; and Ogún: Let Him, Let Her Have the Iron (2001), for soprano and chamber ensemble. His most recent project, the opera/theater piece Blue Sky Transmission: A Tibetan Book of the Dead, was presented in September 2002 in Cleveland, Ohio and in New York.
El-Dabh has served on the faculty of Kent State University's School of Music since 1969, and has also taught at Haile Selassie I University in Ethiopia (1962-64) and Howard University in Washington, D.C. (1966-69) He is one of only eight Kent State University faculty members to hold the title of University Professor, Kent State's highest faculty distinction, and is a recipient of the Distinguished Teaching Award (1988). Retiring in 1991, Emeritus Professor El-Dabh continues to teach and compose prolifically, in addition to conducting workshops for children. Presently, El-Dabh is an adjunct professor at Kent State University's Department of Pan-African Studies, where he teaches a course entitled African Cultural Expression. In this course, students are immersed in and participate in a holistic experience of music, art, song, dance, and drama as it is found in the environment of a pristine African village (which El-Dabh experienced during his years of living in villages while traveling throughout Africa).
El-Dabh's music is published by C. F. Peters, and his works have been recorded by the Columbia Masterworks, Folkways, Egyptian Ministry of Culture and National Guidance, Auricular, Pointless Music, Luna Bisonte, Zentrum für Kunst und Medientechnologie Karlsruhe, NCG, Without Fear, Tedium House (Bananafish), Association for Consciousness Exploration, and Innova labels. There are entries on El-Dabh in nearly all major musical reference works, and his work is discussed in books by Akin Euba, Ashenafi Kebede, Adel Kamel, Gardner Read, and others. The first-ever biography of the composer, The Musical World of Halim El-Dabh, by Kent State University professor Denise A. Seachrist, was published by the Kent State University Press in April 2003.
El-Dabh holds degrees from Cairo University, the New England Conservatory of Music, and Brandeis University. He has served as a cultural and ethnomusicological consultant to the Smithsonian Institution’s Folklife Program (1974-1981), and his numerous grants and awards include two Guggenheim Fellowships (1959-60 and 1961-62), two Fulbright Fellowships (1950 and 1967), two Rockefeller Fellowships (1961 and 2001), the Cleveland Arts Prize (1990), a Meet-the-Composer grant (1999), and an Ohio Arts Council grant (2000). In May 2001 he received an honorary doctorate from Kent State University. In 2001, the composer celebrated his eightieth birthday with a festival of his music, which included more than 15 concerts and lectures, both in the U.S. and around the world. In March 2002 he was invited to celebrate his eighty-first birthday with a series of four concerts of his music at the recently reconstructed Bibliotheca Alexandrina (Library of Alexandria) in Alexandria, Egypt.
In 2004, El-Dabh was honored by the Society for American Music with a panel session and interview-recital at the organization's conference in Cleveland, Ohio. In August 2005, El-Dabh was the keynote speaker at a symposium dedicated to the late Nigerian composer Chief Fela Sowande at Churchill College in Cambridge, England. In September 2005, he was the featured performer and presenter at the Unyazi Festival of Electronic Music in Johannesburg and Soweto, South Africa, the first festival of electronic music on the African continent. In October 2005 he was the featured composer at a symposium on African and Asian music at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing, China.
2006, his 85th year, featured numerous performances of his music in the United States, Egypt, and Europe, with a festival taking place at Kent State University. 2006 New Works included the opera, “Thamos, King of Egypt” and “The Symphony for 1000 Drums” performed in early July in Public Square in Downtown Cleveland.
In March 2007 he was the focus of a week-long series of concerts and lectures in Boston, at the New England Conservatory, Tufts University, and Harvard University, and in August 2007 his works for chorus and African percussion were performed by the men's choir of Oxford University at the International Symposium and Festival on Composition in Africa and the Diaspora organized by Akin Euba, at Cambridge University in England.
In February 2008, Halim traveled to Boston where The New England Conservatory celebrated him and performed a reworked version of Halim's masterpiece, "Clytemnestra". This opera ballet was originally performed in 1958 by The Martha Graham ballet company. (see above).
He also conducted a performance in Fort Collins,
Colorado of his “Symphony for 1000 Drums” on August
He has performed at The Haymaker Farm Market in Kent in 2009 and 2010. He also continues to teach African Cultural Expressions in The Pan African Studies Department of Kent State University.
Halim El-Dabh has produced numerous scores, as well as 12 CDs which represent the range of styles of his writing over his lifetime.
More info on Halim and his life can be found at: www.halimeldabh.com