Remembering Halim El-Dabh (1921-2017): A Citizen of the “Fourth World”

According to Tommy McCutchon, “‘Fourth World Music’ has become a dominant sub-genre designation for any music that combines avant-garde electronic processing with a mélange of world music aesthetics.” But Halim El-Dabh (1921-2017) was a citizen of the Fourth World throughout a three-quarter century career as a composer, teacher, and musical thinker.

Written By

Frank J. Oteri

Frank J. Oteri is an ASCAP-award winning composer and music journalist. Among his compositions are Already Yesterday or Still Tomorrow for orchestra, the "performance oratorio" MACHUNAS, the 1/4-tone sax quartet Fair and Balanced?, and the 1/6-tone rock band suite Imagined Overtures. His compositions are represented by Black Tea Music. Oteri is the Vice President of the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM) and is Composer Advocate at New Music USA where he has been the Editor of its web magazine, NewMusicBox.org, since its founding in 1999.

I still remember the first time I heard recordings from The Columbia Princeton Electronic Music Center that were issued in the early 1960s on Columbia Masterworks, as major a label as it got back in those days. (In fact, the head A&R guy there, Goddard Lieberson, was so powerful that he had the nickname “God.”) But by the time I got my hands on these LPs, bought for a pittance in a second-hand shop in the early ’80s, their liner notes’ claim of this being the music of the future seemed somewhat quaint. There was, however, a track on one of those records that didn’t sound at all like either wishful thinking from the past or a never-arrived-at future; it was just plain weird, but in a wonderful way. It was Leiyla and the Poet by an Egyptian-born composer named Halim El-Dabh.

El-Dabh came to the United States on a Fulbright in 1950, studied with Ernst Krenek and Aaron Copland, and wrote scores for Martha Graham. He was subsequently invited to work in the electronic music studio at Columbia University by Otto Luening and Vladimir Ussachevsky, after having already pursued electronic music independently. (Over a decade earlier in Cairo, he had already experimented with manipulating sounds using wire recorders at least four years before Pierre Schaeffer “invented” musique concrète.) To my 1980s ears, the 1959 piece he created at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center, Leiyla and the Poet sounded like a bizarre amalgam of psychedelic rock and the emerging global “world music” that was being created by traditional musicians from across the globe. But of course, Leiyla and the Poet predates all of those developments, too.

For decades that was the only piece of his I had ever heard, even though I treasured it. Then, at some point a little over a dozen years ago, Halim El-Dabh showed up briefly at the offices of the American Music Center to give us a copy of Denise A. Seachrist’s 2003 biography of him, The Musical World of Halim El-Dabh. After reading the book, I learned that in the late 1960s, El-Dabh accepted a tenured position at Kent State University in northeastern Ohio and, though he continued to travel around the world to teach and perform, it remained his home for the rest of his life. I had hoped to listen to more of his music, which is woefully underrepresented on commercial recordings (though there are some intriguing samples of it in a CD that accompanied the biography and on his website), and to eventually do a talk with him for NewMusicBox. But it never happened. On September 2, 2017, El-Dabh died at the age of 96, just a few months after attending the premiere of one of his recent compositions.

Back in June 2017, Tommy McCutchon, founder of the vital Unseen Worlds record label, conducted an extensive interview with Halim El-Dabh which might contain El-Dabh’s final in print reflections on his three-quarter-century involvement with musical traditions from around the world and finding ways to connect them together. In his preface to the interview, McCutchon stated that although the term “Fourth World” is now acknowledged as “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,” another example (which also predates it) is the “fully integrated cultural representation” in “the work of Egyptian-born composer, educator, electronic music pioneer, and ethnomusicologist Halim El-Dabh.”

‘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.

For El-Dabh, however, this lesser-known beyond was where he and his music lived his whole life, and it was how he taught music to all people:

“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.”