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The earliest electronic music in the Middle East

The date is 1944 and the place is Cairo. Some claim that Halim El-Dabh’s ‘Wire Recorded Piece’ is the first genuine work of pure electronic music to be composed anywhere in the world. We are sure some of you will dispute that, so we’ve limited the claim to a regional one.

Listening to it, you can be quite sure it could not have been written in any other part of the world.

El-Dabh, then a student at Cairo, Egypt, produced this music piece using samples taken from an ancient Egyptian “Zar” ceremony. He edited, manipulated and arranged these sounds to create the earliest piece of electronic tape music. He first presented his piece at an art gallery event in 1944, predating Pierre Schaeffer’s musique concrete recordings by four years.

Having borrowed a wire recorder from the offices of Middle East Radio, El-Dabh took it to the streets to capture outside sounds, specifically an ancient zaar ceremony. Intrigued by the possibilities of manipulating recorded sound for musical purposes, he believed it could open up the raw audio content of the zaar ceremony to further investigation into “the inner sound” contained within.

According to El-Dabh, “I just started playing around with the equipment at the station, including reverberation, echo chambers, voltage controls, and a re-recording room that had movable walls to create different kinds and amounts of reverb.” He further explains: “I concentrated on those high tones that reverberated and had different beats and clashes, and started eliminating the fundamental tones, isolating the high overtones so that in the finished recording, the voices are not really recognizable any more, only the high overtones, with their beats and clashes, may be heard.” His final 20-25 minute piece was recorded onto magnetic tape and called The Expression of Zaar, which was publicly presented in 1944 at an art gallery event in Cairo.

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