Music for a Holy War Holiday
While the buzzing, humming, looping experimentation of dissident 20th-century composers like Otto Luening, John Cage, and La Monte Young held promise, they always seemed more like angry math equations (artists out to prove a point) than actual music. But as the digital age seeped into cool pop music in the mid-'70s (Kraftwerk, Gary Numan) and then spilled into bubble-gum new wave pop in the '80s (Depeche Mode), the musical temper tantrums of our century--rock and roll, experimental jazz, and those angry, crazy-haired math composers--finally came together in a lovely and surprising 20th-century conclusion.
Ultimately, and ironically, our century of angry artists seems to have created a new style of lovely romantic music in the form of peaceful electronica from folks like Tosca, the Thievery Corporation, and Kruder & Dorfmeister. However, I use the word "seems" because the music in the electronica section at the CD store is ultimately disappointing. Kruder & Dorfmeister, for example, is nice to fuck to, but as music goes, from which listeners should expect more complexity of emotion and ideas than a druggy make-out session, it doesn't offer a whole lot.
How fitting then that the early electronic compositions of visionary Egyptian composer Halim El-Dabh were uncovered in a cluttered storage room on unraveling reel-to-reel tapes at the close of the century, and released this holiday season under the hip downbeat title Crossing into the Electric Magnetic. The early electronic music of El-Dabh (and by early, I mean 1944), heard in the context of what's occurred since, is magically transformed into both a precursor curiosity and a beautiful set of electronica tunes.
El-Dabh's story is remarkable. An agriculture major at Cairo University in 1942, El-Dabh submitted an amateur solo piano composition to a contest sponsored by the Egyptian Opera House. The 21-year-old won first place. However, his music remained a pastime, and when he graduated from Cairo University he took a high-paying job at an agriculture firm. Luckily, his hobby led him to experiment with wire recorders (an early and failed rival of tape recorders), which he discovered at a Cairo radio station in 1944. His unbelievable recording from that year, "Wire Recorder Piece" (which is on Crossing into the Electric Magnetic) is a fever swirl that predates (by four years) history's first official "techno" piece, Pierre Schaeffer's "Musique Concrete."
Told that his weirdo experiments paralleled the work of the avant-garde musicians in America at that time, El-Dabh sought out music by American composers at the U.S. Embassy in Egypt. In a wonderful twist of fate, he ended up with a stack of Native American recordings. Music scholars say El-Dabh's discovery of Native American music ultimately served to distinguish his electronic experiments from the mathematical compositions of his peers. By contrast, El-Dabh's were more shapely and rhythmic constructions that incorporated traditional stringed and percussion instruments.
Psyched about what seemed to be going on in America, and on the heels of acclaim for his 1949 solo piano composition about displaced Palestinians ("It Is Dark and Damp on the Front"), El-Dabh headed to the Juilliard School of Music in New York on a Fulbright. Disappointed with what he found there, he ditched Juilliard for the University of New Mexico, where he studied Native American music.
El-Dabh couldn't hide, though. And by the mid-1950s he gravitated back to the American East Coast, where he did a pivotal stint at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center, hanging out with early electronic gurus like Otto Luening, Vladimir Ussachevsky, and John Cage. During this time, he also studied with better-known music luminaries like Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein.
Some gorgeous results from El-Dabh's time in mid-20th-century America's Bohemian epicenter include his 1958 opera-ballet Clytemnestra, written in collaboration with Martha Graham, and his unbelievable electronic opera from 1961, Leiyla Visitations, which makes up the last haunted 24 tracks on this CD.
El-Dabh wound up teaching, first at Washington, D.C.'s Howard University from 1966 to '69, and then, as fate would have it, at Kent State University from 1969 to the present. (He turned 80 in March of this year.) Kent State came to national attention in May, 1970 when U.S. National Guardsmen opened fire on anti-war protesters, killing four students. El-Dabh was walking across campus when the killings occurred. In response to the tragic events, he retreated to Maine that summer, where he wrote an opera in collaboration with a group of high-school students, titled The Opera Flies. One of the arias in the opera is sung by a character based on Mary Ann Vecchio, the girl seen kneeling over a dead student and screaming, in the famous news photo of the Kent State tragedy.
El-Dabh's scattered biography (a Google web search includes weird anecdotes about parties at Timothy Leary's house) leads ultimately to the impending release of Crossing into the Electric Magnetic. The disc features pieces recorded in 1959 at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center, including mystical and creepy outer-space numbers like "Meditation in White Sound," "Alcibiadis' Monologue to Socrates," and the chimey, rhythmic "Electronics and the Word." There's also a piece from 1961, "Venice," that's reminiscent of Steve Reich's early field-recording experiments from the mid-'60s. And there's the aforementioned wire-recorder experiment from 1944, a gem. The centerpiece, though, is the music from El-Dabh's electronic opera, which features the composer's own sad, sonorous, echoing voice, sonar signals, distorted ouds, percussion that sounds like metal, and beautiful, shadowy, shifting dream music.
So, why give such eerie music to someone for the holidays? Well, one hardly needs mention that this season will always be remembered in the context of our recent collision with the Middle East. In a lot of ways, America's newfound consciousness of that "other" world is having an effect opposite of the one desired by the Taliban. Rather than drawing a line in the sand, September 11 is unraveling the boundaries between East and West. Indeed, there seems to be a growing desire in our country to understand and appreciate the Arab world.
Here, then, is Halim El-Dabh, an Egyptian who crossed worlds back in the mid-20th century, injecting his Egyptian folk sensibility into the avant-garde music of the West. The Taliban would be mortified to acknowledge that El-Dabh's cross-cultural electronic soundscape even exists. In that light, his clanking electronic grooves are the perfect sounds to acknowledge this Holy War Christmas.