Ask any musical connoisseur about the label “Fourth World”, and they will tell you it is the conceptual invention of American composer Jon Hassell, used to describe a particular style of ambient music he first popularized in the late seventies in collaboration with Brian Eno. “Fourth World Music” has since become a dominant sub-genre designation for any music that combines avant-garde electronic processing with a mélange of world music aesthetics. In it, familiar reference points intersect at an unlocatable place in the listener’s imagination, where the intellect is allowed to thrive. We can easily locate the Third World in popular culture, news, and travel, but the Fourth is the lesser-known beyond. It is not unlike four-dimensionality: we all know what 3D is, but the concept starts to get fuzzy when we talk about a fourth dimension.
Lesser well-known is that the term Fourth World Music likely derived from long-standing Native American mythologies referencing multiple worlds existing within, alongside, or before our own. We know the Navajo consider the present world as the Fifth World, the Fourth having just preceded this one. Rather than a heavenly afterward, the Fourth World is more of a former life. Like the origin of the term Fourth World Music, there’s not a great deal of historical information readily available about where the concept originated and how it is used in Native American culture. The practice of refusal in providing information to outsiders is intended as among Native Americans as a cultural safeguard. America knows very well what seamless cultural appropriation looks like, yet examples of cultural representation that are born from within a fully integrated American cultural experience, but that do not seek to fully integrate their cultural representation, are far rarer.
One such example is the work of Egyptian-born composer, educator, electronic music pioneer, and ethnomusicologist Halim El-Dabh. El-Dabh's contributions to his chosen fields have been celebrated widely at many different points in his career, yet the lasting impact of his work has been only selectively memorialized. His place in the highest ranks of the American tradition remains highly uncertain, even though he has lived and worked primarily and consistently in the United States for over sixty years. In the process of assimilating, El-Dabh brought with him not only significant compositional and creative skills, but the very template for cross-cultural exchange. In a series of phone conversations conducted last year, I spoke with Halim El-Dabh to explore questions about his career, what it means to explore another culture and to represent his own in the United States, and how he sees his legacy as a composer.
The idea of perception seems to be kind of an important thing, right?
Yeah, I'm really curious how identity and perceptions work into your music, and how you think about it yourself when you're composing, or when you're thinking about the perception of the work, how you expect other people to take it, how you would like other people to see your work, versus, maybe, how they do in actuality.
In other words, do they call me American or Egyptian, things like that?
Yeah, how do you think of yourself as a composer?
Well, I'm a composer and I am kind of excited about people's traditions. My creative sense, probably, comes from my interest in the philosophy of ancient Egypt. Very much so. It seems to come in in a lot in my work, but I am open to experience—traditions as I travel and people's traditions, people's thoughts. They don't have to be my thoughts, but their thoughts, which are very rich thoughts. I see the world as very rich with culture, so I enjoyed very much traveling. I enjoyed the richness of culture in the United States. It's a very rich country. You've got traditions: bluegrass, jazz, Native American, Black American, Mexicans. It seems like a very rich country, America, and I look at America as incredible, you know? When I came to America, my first trip was in 1950. It was very different from now.
What was your state of mind when you first came to the United States? Were you thinking this was going to be a temporary adventure, or were you hoping to stay here?
I viewed as America as a very important place, highly evolved. It looked so beautiful, and I came to learn about and to encounter Americans in the embassy, and I thought people in America would like my music right away. I felt like people would be excited to know what I discovered, and I wanted to learn from them. I was interested in the traditions of the Native Americans, and the fact that there was jazz in America. Jazz musicians used to come through Alexandria. Alexandria had a lot of nightclubs overlooking the beaches, and they would invite musicians from all over the world. They liked to invite early jazz musicians from the United States. So I was very excited to be in the United States. It seemed like I arrived and people were so friendly—it was like they all said, "We were waiting for you."
I was so excited to meet Louis Armstrong and attend his performances in Albuquerque. I attended the university there, and I met quite a number of musicians, interesting people. I met Ernst Krenek, one of the twelve-tone composers, and I wanted to meet Igor Stravinsky and Schoenberg. I don't know if I have to tell you the elaborate story of how I ended up in Aspen, Colorado, arriving with Igor Stravinsky to the performing ground?
You ended up in the same car as him, right?
Yeah, he picked me up with his chauffeur. But I wanted to meet Schoenberg so bad, but by the time I got to Los Angeles Schoenberg was [dead]. But I did meet one of his followers, Krenek, and I met Elmer Bernstein, and he wanted me to work in the movies, but I wasn't that interested. But he said he wasn't able to write his own music. He had to write things that people asked him to do.
The background I come from, there's a lot of life. People don't know that Egypt had a musical renaissance. Cairo, Egypt were really bubbling with music. I wrote music for a film there and there was a market there. I was working as a composer, but I was interested in farming because my degree was Bachelors of Science in agriculture. I worked for an agricultural company that was working to improve lands and aid development, and in the process I learned a lot about music. Every time I went somewhere in the country, the people invited the local musicians to meet me, so I had big crowds. I had a wonderful time doing my work and learning music at the same time. Through agriculture, I learned how to create noise. I created noise to discourage the teeny beetles from attacking plants, like the corn and wheat. I had the feeling that noise would make them discouraged, and they would stay away from the plants.
You not only gained respect for local musicians and native music this way, but also for the usefulness and universality of music?
Yeah, exactly. I was looking at music in a very open and universal way.
Halim El-Dabh’s magnanimity and inventiveness are the through-lines in his career. It’s difficult to look at any area of avant-garde music-making that he was not at the very forefront of, in some way or another, at some point in his career. Presently, he is most frequently cited in relation to his electronic music. He joined the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center as a visiting composer upon its founding in 1959, and his startlingly unique electronic music piece Leiyla and the Poet from the same year, subsequently featured on the 1964 Columbia Masterworks compilation of work from that studio, stands out as a highlight. Further, since an excerpt of his 1944 work The Expression of Zār was released on CD in 2000, as Wire Recorder Piece, he has increasingly gained credit for being perhaps the first composer to use the techniques that Pierre Schaeffer would later formalize as musique concrète.
The work was created with a wire recorder Halim borrowed from Middle East Radio in Cairo. He then recorded, processed, and arranged sounds of the strictly all-female Zār exorcism ceremonies, which he captured by appearing at the ceremonies dressed as a woman. Yet The Expression of Zār, whose full historical significance mostly remains to be appreciated, was for many years not listed by El-Dabh among his major works. While recent attention has brought welcome credit to El-Dabh, lumping him into the currently trendy fascination for the early pioneers of electronic music threatens to reduce his richly varied career to that one historical incident.
El-Dabh’s introduction to wire recorders actually came alongside his exposure to the practice of recording indigenous music. In 1932, when Halim was eleven years old, his brother took him to a presentation by Béla Bartok and Paul Hindemith, who were in Cairo presenting music captured on wire recorder from their travels in Cairo for the First International Ethnomusicological Conference, organized by King Fu’ad. For an impressionable young person, there was little to discourage a direct association between these two accomplished composers and their practice of wire-recording. It’s easy to imagine Halim was taking that precedent to the next logical step when he decided to artistically process his recordings of Zār ceremony.
You said you knew from Egypt that people in the United States would love your music as well. Did you see yourself more as a musical traveller, or did you really feel like you were integrating into American culture?
I was feeling, actually, like I was feeling my culture with them. My heritage and the philosophy from ancient Egypt carried me a long way. Actually, people who listened to my music were looking for my traditions. They were not looking for me interpreting American culture, or playing American music. They actually were pulling out of me my Egyptian culture. So there was a lot of interest when I worked with Martha Graham. She was very interested in Egyptian culture. Even though she was into ancient Greek culture, the ending of her Clytemnestra is really Egyptian, not Greek. The directional aspect of the ending of Clytemnestra is Egyptian in concept. Anyway, most of the support I got was really just helping me connect with my Egyptian roots.
And now you've been here so long. How long have you been in America permanently?
I first came in July 1950 and I went back to Egypt after playing at the Boston Festival of the Arts, then came back again on invitation from Irving Fine at Brandeis. The Albuquerque experience ended with me at Tanglewood, where my recognition comes from, with a work of mine called It is Dark and Damp on the Front that I did in the old cathedral in Cairo. That really changed my life, you know, that one piece. That's my connection to America, because that work was very hard to be included in that cathedral, because they only played very advanced classical music in that cathedral, nothing else. But, I was surrounded by a group of friends that always challenged the situation. They liked to challenge everything, and they challenged the cathedral. They told them, "There is an Egyptian composer and his work should be heard." And, to make a long story short, I ended up playing my composition there, on a nine foot Pleyel—thirty-five minutes of my works, in a very prestigious part of Egypt, and the world, because the audience was mostly people visiting from Europe. Overnight, I was proclaimed an "International Composer." That kind of shook me.
Then I was invited to France, Italy, and after an encounter with the cultural attaché of America, he determined I should be an American. So, all of a sudden I was invited to the States, and It is Dark and Damp on the Front fell into the hands of Aaron Copland, who thought that any musician who writes music like that should be his private student. So, I ended up in Tanglewood, and this is how I met Copland, and studied with him, and met Leonard Bernstein. Then I became interested in Irving Fine and Luigi Dallapiccola, the Italian composer. I also had a good time with Alan Hovhaness when I was in Boston. We had a good friendly relationship for awhile.
When was that that you were close with Hovhaness? What time period?
Around 1952 to 1955. He was crazy about a work of mine called Monotone, BiTone and Polytone for Wind Instrument and Percussion. It was played at Juilliard. John Cage also said he loved the work, and because he loved it he was criticized.
The connection here between Alan Hovhaness and Halim El-Dabh is significant. Unlike El-Dabh, Hovhaness was American-born, but in his music he strongly foregrounded his Armenian heritage. Not only was he one of the 20th century’s most prolific composers, but at one point he was also one of the most widely performed, and even took top billing over Igor Stravinsky at the behest of conductor Fritz Reiner on a 1958 RCA LP that featured both composers. Yet Hovhaness was the subject of disrespect at the hands of Copland and Bernstein, two composers who themselves appropriated culturally specific music—Copland with Shaker music and Bernstein with blues and jazz. During the playback of Hovhaness’ recording with the BBC Symphony Orchestra of his first symphony, the two interrupted the proceedings and mocked his style as “dirty ghetto music.” Fortunately, El-Dabh did not have to endure a similar treatment.
In 1956, while taking advantage of a six-month stay at the MacDowell Colony, where he completed work on Mekta’ in the Art of Kita, he impressed Otto Leuning and Vladimir Ussachevsky, who were also in residence at the time.
They saw me doing my sound sonics experiments at the library there, an empty library there, and I was taking wires and put them in the wall, hammered them in, and attached them to the piano strings and created all kind of sounds. It was empty, nobody's there, so I just walked in and tried to create some kind of place for me to make electronic sounds, attaching a string to a piano string and hammering it to the wall. Anyway, Luening and Ussachevsky walked in and said "What is this crazy guy doing? He should be at Columbia University." So, one event led to another event. That's my life.
I used to meet with Henry Cowell and John Cage in Cowell's apartment, off Broadway, I think, near 110th St., not far from Columbia University. And, we used to meet once a week. Cowell liked to play the Indian tabla. Cage was playing an assortment of instruments and then they used to have a shakuhachi, a Japanese flute. I played some whistles and drum. It was very interesting.
Playing together in that friendly atmosphere, did you find that your approach to making music was similar?
Yeah, I found that, because I like to improvise. I improvised a lot in Egypt, before I came to the US, while I was working in agriculture. I improvised in Egypt with noise. I did some installation artwork in Egypt, actually, with my recorded material. My Zār piece was given in an art gallery, in a separate room, and people could enter the room and listen to it in relation to the art.
So you had a sound installation piece before you were composing with the electronic medium at Columbia? That would have been in the early '40s?
Yeah. As I said, in the late 1930s I did work with noise, to discourage crickets. I loved beetles. I used to have a collection of beetles. Everyone was mad at me, but I had a collection of beetles, from very, very tiny to huge size, because I have a relationship to the cycle of the soil and a relationship to the universe, in a way. I didn't want them to eat the corn.
How would you generate the noise for them?
Agricultural materials that you use for agriculture, scrap metal. Wind would move the scrap metal pieces so they hit each other.
So you made sound sculptures to produce the sound?
Yeah, I would take pieces of scrap metal, hang them from a pole, and they would have, like, wings to them. When the wind came they would vibrate and hit the pole and create noise.
So, it wouldn't be recordings, it would be actual metal scraping?
Impressively, at the same time as he was making headway at Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Studio, El-Dabh was simultaneously rising to the peak of his popularity other areas, too. In 1958, he earned wide acclaim scoring Graham’s magnum opus, Clytemnestra, and in 1960 his Sound and Light of the Pyramids of Giza, composed in 1959-60 at La Radiodiffusion Française in Paris, was recorded and installed permanently at the pyramids, where it still plays nightly.
So, I'm interested in discussing your time in Ethiopia. You helped found the Yared Music School there somehow, right? And Orchestra Ethiopia?
Yeah, the Orchestra Ethiopia. Orchestra Ethiopia I created from villagers. When I arrived in Addis Ababa, I visited the drinking houses where you find musicians and I put a sign in the paper that I wanted to work with Ethiopian music, that I wanted to learn, and I put a sign in the market place. And before I knew it, I had a crowd of musicians, singers, camped in front of my house in Ethiopia that the government had helped provide me to teach there. So I ran to the president of the university, Kassa Wolde Mariam, "Kassa Wolde Mariam, I'm in trouble here! I want your help. I want you to put these guys as teachers in the University." He said, "What? Those garbage [players] out there?" I said, "Wait a minute, you've got the greatest musical heritage outside of the walls of the university. You can't say that." So, I convinced him to give jobs to each musician to teach at the school.
So, those musicians, where did they end up teaching?
They were not holding the entire group as one, they would travel and perform and teach at the university or, I think at the Yared School, there was a connection there, too.
What years were you there for?
I was there from end of 62, '63, '64. So I was away for about three years. During that time I met Haile Selassie, and I spent some time in monasteries, learning about their songs and traditions, to try to compare between the chanting style of Ethiopia and that of Egypt, their similar chant.
It sounds like your method was not so much teaching as organizing, then. Is that right?
Well, what they wanted me to teach them was European music, and what I taught them was their own music. I taught them the expanse and ability and purpose and reality of their instruments. I wasn't organizing them. I was learning their tradition, and giving back their tradition with enlargement, with a wider scope, with a universal scope, showing them that their tradition can expand. When I sat down with a high priest with the begena [a type of lyre] and I started playing with his instrument, you know, roughing it, he said, "Oh, we used to do that in the ancient time." So, I was bringing knowledge of the instrument back to them in a deeper way. I was interested in rejuvenating both the tradition and myself, into that experience. So, I wanted to know more about it and had them experience it. I wasn't trying to impose anything. My relationship was one of enhancement. That was an education in itself.
So you were encouraging them to connect with the deep history of their own music.
Exactly, and the things that they forgot to do, that were part of their culture, but that they had put aside. It's like they said, we used to do this, we used to do that, but it was drying out. So, I stimulated the culture. When I was there, I wanted to compare some of the traditions in the Coptic Church in Egypt and the Coptic Church in Ethiopia. I was seeing how much of the folklore, the traditions of Ethiopians, connects, and how to feel the traditions, the rich traditions of Ethiopians—people of different tribes, they have so many different tribes. So, what I did was combine different tribes that had different traditions, and created an orchestra of traditional people, that played traditional instruments, with cross-tribal characteristics.
Some of them, actually, when they first got together, were almost warring-like, but once I got them into the music, they were very excited in joining in. The governor of one of the estates invited me to stay to work, because he said his workers don't even want to plant anymore. They kind of wanted to not do anything. But the moment I came to the villages and brought the instruments out, it would make them start farming, doing things like that. The fact that they gathered around me and made stories about my travels in their songs and everything—and you can imagine the sound from all the instruments—it was really very, very unique. I never had an experience like that again.
You mentioned that they wanted you to teach the Ethiopian people Western music. What is your own perception now of what makes up Western music and how engaged do you feel with Western music now? How much of it is just "your own" music, or something else?
I don't like the idea of separation, and looking at it as something different. I don't like that about Western music education. The way you start at school, the children have a natural rhythm. Teaching everything in 4/4 or 2/2 [meter]—I think there's more to teach [than that]. I’ve met with a lot of elementary schools, and the kids have natural rhythms, a variety of natural rhythms. So, why should I hammer in them certain rhythms they're really not used to? When you talk about Western music, that's a huge tradition you're talking about. The influence of Western music is huge. We just have to look at it in a variety of ways, and enhance in certain ways. Think of Bartók, he tried to enhance a lot of that; Hovhaness, actually, too. He was enhancing a lot of things.
Do you know about my involvement with a high school in D.C.—the Hawthorne School? They're no longer there, but the entire school, they helped generate a lot of operas, both Greek and Egyptian, even though they are not a music school. I used to take my scores to them and everyone in the school—I think the student population was about a hundred and fifty, a hundred and seventy-five—everyone in the school became involved in the opera. I had several Egyptian operas and an opera on Kent State, and what happened there—we don't call it Kent State. They were all high school-aged, and every teacher was involved in teaching the script that I wrote, and the music that I wrote. Whether they were teachers, whether they were janitors, secretaries, whoever was there got involved in the opera.
It was an experience like no other. I bought fifty drums from Egypt, they shipped them over—clay and animal skin. People played horns, and whatever they had in their home. It was really an amazing experience. A school that's not a music school, engaged in a production of several of my operas at a very high level. What I'm saying here is that the energy of the work, the energy of this high school, can be so powerful. They are so hungry for advanced art and music, but then there are all these printed materials for teaching them music that unfortunately don't advance them as much.
Halim El-Dabh’s work with the Orchestra Ethiopia and the Hawthorne School operas represent some of the most important activity of his career. Halim was not just educating these groups; he was investing the whole of his entire artistic practice in these unconventional groups in true collaboration for long periods of time. In a true teaching style, the success of the final product was less important than the process, and yet the level of investment, trust, and cultural exchange brought the circumstances to the level of high art. In the case of the Hawthorne School, a synchronicity between the schoolchildren and El-Dabh occurred especially around the production of Opera Flies, written in response to the Kent State Massacre. Composed in 1971, Opera Flies is a work of continuing significance, given the current unchecked American gun-violence epidemic. The shootings occurred on May 4, 1970, less than a year after El-Dabh had accepted a position on the faculty at Kent State. El-Dabh was beside himself with grief and had no interest in tackling the subject in his work, but following the persistent invitations of Eleanor Orr, the co-founder of Hawthorne School, alongside her husband Sandy Orr, and the students of the school, El-Dabh took a look at the incident “as if through a prism,” layering reflections of the killing of four unarmed students by National Guardsman.
The action of the play occurs around the attempted purification killings of the “flies” by Kounia, a woman obsessed with cleanliness. The tragedy eventually culminates in the epilogue “Jello,” in which nearly all are covered in quivering gelatin, a symbol for the futility of inhumanity. “It’s all about man’s rights versus social control,” says El-Dabh. Unlike the later operas, which were performed exclusively for the Hawthorne School and surrounding communities, Opera Flies made a brief tour in its first year, making its way to Kent State, as well as the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) and the Anderson Theater on Second Avenue in Manhattan.
I should get my energy back up and come [to New York]. Deborah, what do you think of that?
Deborah, El-Dabh's wife and manager, has other ideas: “Halim, it’s very difficult...” After a brief moment comes Halim’s counterpoint, “Or, maybe it’s not!” served up with a good-natured guffaw that is at-once both extremely assured against and accepting of Deborah’s very practical concern for his age.
Halim El-Dabh’s optimistic musings on returning to New York at 96 are in keeping with his history of bridging difficult musical expanses, and distance from New York has yet to slow him down. Among other activities, in 2016 he released a new album with collaborator Ron Slabe, titled Sanza Time.
It seems like you're still quite busy.
Well, I'm writing a microtonal work called Lilly in the Valley, for bassoon, guitar, and drum. So, I'm exploring microtonal sound. This is a new experience for me, because I experienced microtones in the ethnic music of Egypt, but I'm looking at it differently now—expansion of spaces, expansion of time elements. Looking at sound in a different way, experience as microtonal feeling. It's not about whether you can hear it or not. It's about feeling it and understanding the spaces of sound.
I'd just like to do some more work. Something with harps, maybe I'll get a commission to do it. I feel like with the harp sound, I could create a vibration in the atmosphere, like ancient Egypt does. They used to play three hundred harps, and I want to create things with harps, sound, the environment. I'd like to have a hundred harps, but I'll start with ten. I had one thousand drums in Fort Collins, Colorado not too long ago—a great atmospheric energy.
So it's the energy and vibration that I'm working with. That's what I want to materialize, with the harps, with new sounds of the orchestras. This is the thing I want to express more, the energy that comes from the frequencies of colors, and how to relate to it and how to materialize it. There's a huge energy there. It's always good to work with musicians in an open way, to explore the relationship of color and art to sound and noise and elements of vibrations, to project them, to create a vibration that is positive and in line with the Earth's positive vibration. Maybe that's too much to ask for?
You know, the philosophy of ancient Egypt says that everything in life, everything in the environment, has a feeling, and that's a whole different thinking process than our modern Western one. For them, the sun itself had feelings, and it can reflect back and forth.
When Halim El-Dabh speaks about his investigation of “energy and vibration” and the universality of sound, it is tempting to think his perspective aligns neatly with that of New Age music. However, El-Dabh is actually quite far removed from the genre. He is rigorously dedicated to pursuing a musical investigation of the ancient knowledge held within his Egyptian heritage, as much as he is dedicated to making sure America receives the credit for inspiring and facilitating that worldview. The seemingly paradoxical quality of that relationship would be taken as straightforward, were it not for the fact that America remains ill-equipped to share American identity with that of other nationalities, such that El-Dabh, a U.S. citizen since 1961, would be accepted as just as American a composer as Bernstein or Copland.
Do you think of yourself as an Egyptian composer, or American composer, or Egyptian-American composer, or do you not think of it very much in relation to your work?
Yeah, well, I don't think I'm an Egyptian-American. I take pride in the fact that I'm an American composing with America, because I look at America as a universal concept—it's the land of everybody, expanding to become bigger and bigger. I feel there is so much cultural richness in America. There is so much cultural richness in Egypt [too], and I see the connection. So I became part of the fabric of America from an Egyptian input, but I am part of the fabric of America. So, I think of myself as an Egyptian American.
Halim El-Dabh pronounces “Egyptian American” slowly the second time, and with more intention, a non-hyphenated joining of the terms, as if to minimize the blending of the two words together. As Akin Euba notes in his foreword to Denise Seachrist’s biography The Musical World of Halim El-Dabh, it is historically the case that composers like Halim El-Dabh, who represent a non-Western cultural identity with fidelity, are quickly forgotten after their death, no matter how celebrated they were during their lifetime. There is no advantage for Americans to dissociate Halim El-Dabh from his Egyptian heritage, any more than there is to associate the concept of Fourth World with Jon Hassell over and above those Native American origins. Favoring an imaginarily pure American invention over a shared international historical knowledge is a negative sum game. While America has made many efforts to embrace other cultural identities in order to combat racism, the practice of tokenism—cursorily celebrating American cultural icons with foreign heritage—risks transform the term “embrace” into an -ism of its own. If we are to avoid “embracism” hollowing out the American experience, it is imperative we ensure that Americans like Halim El-Dabh are made party to our highest honors and that they become a much more prominent part of our history books.
Tommy McCutchon is the founder and operator of the record label Unseen Worlds. A native of Corpus Christi, TX, he now lives in New York and works as a specialist at Columbia University, Rare Book & Manuscript Library.
Banner image: Halim El-Dabh with Oromo Cowgirls in Ethiopia (courtesy of Halim & Deborah El-Dabh)