Music is not a matter of notes, it's a matter of sounds

In this age of supposed diversity the Egyptian composer, ethnomusicologist and electronic music pioneer Halim El-Dabh is overlooked. While still a student in the 1940s Halim El-Dabh experimented with composing using wire recorders. In 1944 he created one of the earliest known examples of electronic musique concrète. The Expression of Zaar manipulated field recordings of a traditional zaar exorcism ceremony, and predated Pierre Schaeffer's work by four years. In 1950 Halim El-Dabh received a Fulbright Scholarship and moved to the United States, becoming a US citizen in 1961. His composition teachers included Ernst Krenek, Aaron Copland and Luigi Dallapiccola. In New York his circle included Henry Cowell, John Cage, and Peggy Glanville-Hicks, and he composed four ballet scores for Martha Graham and was an influential figure in the early days of the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center

Halim El-Dabh came from a Coptic-Christian family with ancestral roots in Upper Egypt close to the border with Sudan. This lineage meant he was dark skinned and as a result he encountered racism in the US. This led him to empathise with African Americans, and he actively supported the civil rights movement. His ethnomusicology research was carried out in Africa, the Middle East and South America. Halim El-Dabh is regarded as Egypt's most important composer of Western classical music, and his output includes eleven operas and four symphonies. He died in Kent, Ohio in 2017.

Another surprising example of experimental music from the margins of our cultural comfort zones has emerged recently. Ahmed Malek (1931-2008) was an Algerian film score composer who is celebrated in his native country for his blockbuster soundtracks, and was long-time conductor of the Algerian Television Orchestra. Habibi Funk is a reissue record label based in Berlin, dedicated to music from the Arabic-speaking world. Its founder Jannis Stürtz explains that the label avoids colonial practices of exploitation and orientalist "stereotypical visual language" and licenses reissues directly from the artists or their families, who receive 50% of the profits. In 2015 when the label was compiling a CD of Malek's film music, the label was given a box of thirty master tapes. As well as film scores there were tapes of previously unknown experimental electronic compositions dating, it is believed, from the early 1980s. Ambient/prog-rock producer/composer Flako (Dario Rojo Guerra) was called in to edit and subtly embellish the master tapes into a CD release for Habibi Funk. The seventeen untitled tracks on Ahmed Malek & Flako – The Electronic Tapes - artwork seen above - provides a tantalising taster that leaves the listener wanting to hear more early electronic music from the Mahgreb - samples via this link.

Musique Concrète pioneer Pierre Schaeffer was a founder of the multi-disciplinary Groupe de Recherches Musicales, the centre for electro-acoustic research established in Paris in 1958. Sound objects played an important role in Pierre Schaeffer's work and he famously said "Music is not a matter of notes, it's a matter of sounds". Sounds are an inescapable part of life, and art is most valuable when life and art meet (or collide!). Increasingly Western classical music has retreated  away from the productive turbulence where art meets life into a zone sanitaire of art for art's sake - acoustically perfect concert halls, tunnel vision programming, approved composers, dismissal of other music genres etc. Pierre Schaeffer, Halim El-Dabh, Ahmed Malek, John Cage and others showed that music is a matter of sounds, if only we can only open our ears to hear it.


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