In Conversation with Denise A. Seachrist
An interview with the author of The Musical World of Halim El-Dabh
AMANDA MACBLANE: Like most people for whom this book is written, I was barely familiar with El-Dabh’s music but wasn’t necessarily aware of how significant he is. I was particularly surprised to find out about how much attention he was getting from the press and from the musical community during his time in New York. He was able to live as a composer in the U.S., which is not any easy task.
DENISE A. SEACHRIST: He was on the brink of great fame, I’m convinced. I mean, people were talking about him, and he was, of course, a rarity because he was an Egyptian. And then when he was at that peak, he just packed up the family and went to Ethiopia and walked away from it. That’s part of the fascination too, I think.
AMANDA MACBLANE: And in many ways, that move was important because it made El-Dabh someone who was not just a composer, he also contributed so much to the legitimization of ethnomusicology and of music scholarship in general.
DENISE A. SEACHRIST: Absolutely.
AMANDA MACBLANE: So what drew you most to him as both a composer and as a person?
DENISE A. SEACHRIST: Well, I was getting my Ph.D. at Kent State and, he was not a professor of mine, but I started the degree in ’89 and he retired—although he’s still an adjunct professor—in ’91. So I went to the retirement concert that they had and I got to know him a little bit. But I was ignorant of his significance because I was more on the musicology side than the ethnomusicology side. We really sat down and started to talk because he was going to be one of the entries in the International Dictionary of Black Composers. That came out in about ’95 and at that point, I already had my Ph.D. and I was teaching at one of the regional campuses of Kent State. So I was a brand new professor at that time and so the Chicago University Press put out this call for people who would be willing to write entries and his name was on the list. I thought to myself, well, this would be great because I need to launch my career [laughs] and he’s here. So I volunteered to write his entry and he said ‘Sure, come to my office.” And we sat down and started to talk and I looked at his scores and fell in love with the piano works and I found him so charming and engaging.
AMANDA MACBLANE: From the biography, it seems you’re not the only one to find him charming!
DENISE A. SEACHRIST: He has that charisma. He does. And he’s so open and willing to share and talk music. While I was doing this, he started dropping names without intentionally dropping names, and I became so fascinated and I said, “Halim, why hasn’t anybody written your biography?” And he laughed and said, “Oh, I don’t know. Maybe you’re the one to do it!” So I wrote the entry for that dictionary, and then one of our colleagues, Terry Miller, who is in the ethno department had known Halim since ’74 really encouraged me to do it. So I said to Halim, “Well, do you want to?” And he said, “If you think it’s something you would be interested in, come on over!” And so that’s how it got started, just with a series of conversations and then really interviewing him on a regular basis. Then he gave me access to the treasure trove of his life, and Halim is the kind of person who throws nothing away. It was just cluttered chaos.
AMANDA MACBLANE: Ironic, considering he moved so much!
DENISE A. SEACHRIST: I know! I can’t believe that. You’re absolutely right, because I certainly would have streamlined my life. But that was glorious.
AMANDA MACBLANE: So he obviously provided you with a lot of material.
DENISE A. SEACHRIST: Exactly. And then I was able to find programs that he had saved and go into the microfilm versions of The New York Times and look up the reviews, so there was a lot of tedium in that sort of thing but then just putting your hands on these little things. Like touching the letter that Eleanor Roosevelt had written to his first wife.
AMANDA MACBLANE: I loved that letter.
DENISE A. SEACHRIST: I kept looking at that and saying, you know, there’s probably a presidential library that would like to have it. It’s that sort of thing.
AMANDA MACBLANE: I thought it was so telling of the times that she was so concerned about the possibility of war that she sought the advice of Eleanor Roosevelt. [laughs]
DENISE A. SEACHRIST: And I think Halim told her to do that just to quiet her down a little bit. [laughs]
AMANDA MACBLANE: Well, she certainly seemed to have had a stressful ride with Halim.
DENISE A. SEACHRIST: Oh, I cannot imagine. Being a woman, I think of what all she did, and he just kind of did his own thing. Once he laughed and said, “I think it was hard being married to me.” And I tried to temper it and said, “Well, you know, Halim, it’s difficult to be married in general.” But wherever life took him, he was willing to go.
AMANDA MACBLANE: Now, this is a huge question, I recognize that, but to you, what do you see as El-Dabh’s biggest contributions to scholarship? He’s a fascinating composer, but I’m also very intrigued that he found such a natural place in the education system, something that he never thought he’d be interested in.
DENISE A. SEACHRIST: You’re right, that is a huge question and I don’t know if I fully have the capacity to answer that. I think that it is telling that when he did go to Ethiopia and he was immediately offered this job at what was Haile Sellassi University—I think now it’s Addis Ababa University—he realized that they weren’t teaching the students anything about Ethiopian music and he thought that that was a crime. So he felt compelled to come in to teach them—an Egyptian teaching them Ethiopian music and going into the heart of the matter and not sanitizing at all. Going into the tea houses where people were telling him not to go and wanting to make it real and find the voice of the people. The administrators at the university wanted him to teach Bach and Beethoven and Mozart, and he said, ‘Well, then hire a European and have them come in and do that.’ And I think that’s what he does. He brings this voice that is a universal voice and part of that I think is that Halim does not label himself in anyway. He’s very proud to be Egyptian; he sees himself as a black man; he sees himself as an American. I’ve had the opportunity to be with him in Europe, and he becomes very cosmopolitan and very European. He has that chameleon-like quality that I refer to in the book and so he’s able to tie everything together. So he doesn’t necessarily label himself and he doesn’t like other people to put the labels on him either. He likes to find the voice and use Western instruments but give them an African voice. And I think there’s a freedom there. He was doing things before other people were thinking of doing them…I remember when I first heard Clytemnestra, that big piece with Martha Graham, I kept thinking, why am I not teaching this? Or why am I always going back to The Rite of Spring, when this piece is evocative of so many of these rhythms and ideas?
AMANDA MACBLANE: The example that you site of Halim going to Ethiopia and teaching Ethiopian music to Ethiopians, reflects a similar problem in American academic institutions, where it is not necessarily the norm to learn about American composers.
DENISE A. SEACHRIST: I think so. We have this plethora of talent and musicians and composers and they’ve been marginalized. I went back to Egypt with Halim when he went back for the dedication of the library in Alexandria and that was fascinating because there was a symposium that they had for young Egyptian composers and they adored him. I mean, it was as if someone had said, “Here comes Beethoven.” They were really looking forward to it. They knew of him, they knew his significance, but they didn’t really have access to his music. So it was really wonderful to watch him interact with these composers who were in their 20s and 30s and 40s, sharing ideas. There was this great sense of connection and pride and that was a really wonderful thing to see.
AMANDA MACBLANE: So why does he not receive the same attention in the U.S.? I know this is a question that you attempt to answer throughout the book, but to me it seems like he was at quite a disadvantage being an immigrant yet considering himself American, and being a person of color in what historically has been a white male European domain.
DENISE A. SEACHRIST: Also the Arabic-ness of his name. I think of Alan Hovhaness, who was a contemporary and Halim worked with Hovhaness and they did that one concert together. I even refer to some of the Hovhaness techniques and ideas because you hear that in El-Dabh. But with Hovhaness, he had Alan for a first name [laughs] and then you have “Halim El-Dabh” and you just don’t know where to put him.
AMANDA MACBLANE: Also, he did seem to identify closely with African Americans, thinking particularly of his time at Howard University and in a time in the U.S. when everything was so divided, that was a very a risky position to take. And now having an Arabic sounding name is definitely problematic. And in addition, his personality that led him to jump quickly from one thing to the next went against the grain in a domain where obsession is revered. He would just move on.
DENISE A. SEACHRIST: He never let that bother him and there’s the reference in the book with John Robb. Robb was frustrated because Halim to a certain degree was self-taught. I mean, he did go to the Sculz Music Conservatory in Cairo, but he created his own style and he admitted to me that he never liked to practice. He just like to compose and be inventive and utilize the piano in different ways; he was reaching inside and plucking the strings and beating the side of the piano and treating it as if it were a drum or a rich orchestra and dealing with the harps and the zither traditions of Africa. So when he was taking that formal composition class and he wanted to write orchestrally in full score and Robb wanted the piano reduction, Halim refused to do that. And in the heat of passion, the statement was, “Well, you’re just an African.” Halim and Robb became very close friends afterward, but Halim said that this man regretted the remark immediately, but it was already out there, and so he said, “Well, thank you. That’s the best compliment anyone has every given me and I love you for it.” And I think that’s how he’s always approached things.
AMANDA MACBLANE: He came from a family that was very well off in Egypt. He was treated incredibly well, almost to the point where I perceived that a lot of people were envious of him. He seemed to have gotten a lot of special attention.
DENISE A. SEACHRIST: Yes, he did, and I think over time he came to expect that and he expected people to take care of him. And he still does to a certain degree. You know, he and I are getting ready, we’re going to a symposium at the University of Cambridge and every once in a while I’ll get a phone call from him saying, “What do I need to do about this?” or “How do I get my ticket?” And he’s perfectly capable of these things, but he just likes people to take care of him. And again, he attributes that to being the youngest of nine.
AMANDA MACBLANE: And he was incredibly babied by his mother and by everyone else in the family.
DENISE A. SEACHRIST: That’s right. I do think that even though he was well-treated, I’m sure a lot of those young musicians that he first met when he went to the University of New Mexico wanted to be his friend because they wanted to be his friend. I mean, he was different. He was unique. And when you’re dealing with issues of prejudice, people overcompensate by wanting to prove that they’re not. So he was kind of safe. Halim is not particularly dark-skinned, so I think that sort of plays a role too.
AMANDA MACBLANE: I’m also curious to know—you mentioned this before and I think it comes through in the book—that Halim rejects any sort of labeling of himself or his music. But a lot of times with language, writers have to depend on these labels, these short concise ways of describing things. I’m just curious to find out what difficulties you had writing about someone who really refuses to submit to limitations of language to describe who he is and what he creates. I’m sure that must have been a challenging process.
DENISE A. SEACHRIST: It was and you know, it was advantageous for me to write about this man who was still living, but, on the other hand, that was sometimes problematic too, because he was always evolving. And sometimes I would find something, he would tell me something and then I would find something that would disprove his memory. You know, his memory is wonderful, but sometimes he would get the idea wrong. And it’s also hard because his music is not well-known and that is the purpose of the book. And the fact that Kent State Press worked with me to get the CD out is wonderful, because it just says it so much better than I could say it… Sometimes in order to explain the way something is, you need to compare it to something that’s very well known, and Halim doesn’t like that. He doesn’t want to be compared to Bartók for example, even though you definitely hear some in that wonderful work for piano, Mekta’ in the Art of Kita’. But he says, “No, no, no, no…Bartók is like me!” [laughs] And so that can be problematic in trying to find where he fits in.
AMANDA MACBLANE: I feel like you get a better understanding of his music because you describe the significance of these works without relying on that crutch of comparison. I think it makes him come out truly as an individual. And obviously the CD is indispensable. It’s great to listen while you’re reading, with the cues!
DENISE A. SEACHRIST: Well, I’m hopeful that his works will start to be recorded now. He has so much on old reel-to-reel tapes and I’m amazed at the quality of them. So there’s a wealth of material there to be worked from.
AMANDA MACBLANE: Well, this leads me into the next area. This book in many ways is a work of advocacy. Reading it gets you excited about his music and gives you the desire to learn more. But what else needs to be done in order to get his music to the point that you think it deserves to be at in terms of saturation and preservation?
DENISE A. SEACHRIST: Well, airplay would be good! I think that would be wonderful. I think this is the first book, and I there could be many other biographies that could come from this and that would be great. Halim has also been nominated for the National Medal of Art. And my understanding is that the group who makes the decision is meeting in July. I’ve been following that. I was sort of the one who got the university to make the nomination and all of the upper administration is very much behind this and then one of our state senators, Senator Voinovich wrote a letter of recommendation as well. And so he’s been at least nominated and now it’s up to the committee. If he does get it, it will be announced in the fall, and quite frankly, if he would get it, that would be just a wonderful thing because then more people would want to know about him. I think people are fascinated that it’s his music that’s played at the Pyramids. But you know what was frustrating for me, too, Amanda? Why didn’t Martha Graham write about him in her autobiography? I do refer to the fact that they had a falling out, but still, how could she not mention his name? There’s the story! We need an investigative reporter to find the truth.
AMANDA MACBLANE: I have a feeling that Martha Graham should not have been in charge of writing her own biography [laughter]. She seemed to have been a bit of a personality.
DENISE A. SEACHRIST: Well, I think that’s the case and I think that’s probably true of most autobiographies. I think that this biography is pretty sympathetic toward him. There was one review and the book was praised highly by looking at the scholarship and the research, but the only negative comment that has come into print so far, and it really isn’t much of a negative, was something like, “Seachrist seams to be less objective in dealing with his personal life.” And that’s true because packing up the first wife and the two little girls, and just dragging them hither and yon, and being in Boston and saying, “Well, I’m going to New York, if you want to come, come.” That’s tough.
AMANDA MACBLANE: Well, I kind of disagree with that critique because I think it would’ve been less “objective” had you not slipped in the things about how Mary felt in the marriage. It did affect him and the things he did, even though he continued to go on and do anything he wanted to. I thought that it was actually a very important part of the book even though, in some ways, it makes Halim seem a bit hard, a bit selfish, but I think it was something that he had to deal with in his personality and with his personal relationships. And it wasn’t just with her that he had a difficult relationship. With other people too whether it was with Martha or with Otto Luening, they were often kind of abruptly ended often by his wanderlust. And a lot of that came from his very strong personality and his ability to say, “No. This is what’s best for me.” You can’t separate the experiences of his life from his compositional output.
DENISE A. SEACHRIST: And his best music is not when he reacts to something. For example, May 4th, 1970, at Kent State was a major traumatic event in the history of the United States and to him, the irony that his wife said, well, let’s take our adolescent girls to Kent and away from Washington DC which seems so disruptive and difficult, and then of course they arrive in ’69 and that happens that first year. The work that he wrote about that, Opera Flies, I don’t really think it’s his best work. He needs to address those issues, but I don’t think that’s when he’s at his best. I think his best work is when he takes Egyptian mythology and stories and gives them that voice. Those are his best works. But I think the other works are important and that’s part of his creativity too. He just wrote a piece called, it’s for heavy metal rock band, but he called it Obsessions for Oil and My Name is Peace. He has a need to make a musical commentary on these social issues, which I think is important.
AMANDA MACBLANE: I’d like to find out a little bit more about you… I know from reading your bio that you have a degree in vocal performance and in musicology. It seems you do a million things at Kent State.
DENISE A. SEACHRIST: Well, I am at one of our regional campuses—Kent State has 7 regional campuses. I primarily teach non-music majors, which is wonderful, because they come in with no preconceptions except they think it’s going to be an easy course and then they’re shocked when they find out that it’s a real course. But that’s what I do. But in terms of my research, my primary research deals with communal groups mainly in Pennsylvania and their music traditions, like the Shakers, the group Ephrata, and my dissertation was on an offshoot of Conrad Beissell’s Ephrata Cloister, the group at Snow Hill. I work with Moravian music and things like that. So that’s where I’ve done most of my publication. And then Halim was just a very happy accident and has taken me in directions that I never intended to go, but that’s been a joy, a real joy, and has given me a better understanding of the contemporary world that I probably would not have been aware of, and it’s really been a wonderful experience. I’ve met some really fascinating people as a result of that.
AMANDA MACBLANE: So what’s peaking your interest now?
DENISE A. SEACHRIST: I’m very fascinated by world music and that’s probably one of my most popular classes—we have a class called Music is a World Phenomenon—and so engaging with contemporary composers who are trying to mix different things and find a different way has been fascinating for me too. I’ve enjoyed that very much.
AMANDA MACBLANE: And there’s certainly a lot of them out there.
DENISE A. SEACHRIST: Oh, exactly. I love reading biographies and it’s really fun to put the pieces together and then try to take it back in to the more traditional music appreciation courses where we still do talk about Bach and Beethoven and Mozart, to give a new life to those composers, because I don’t just teach the music in those courses. The music is not necessarily what is important; it’s the reflective voice of the culture, and the context of the music. So I like to tie all the threads together.
AMANDA MACBLANE: And certainly when you’re teaching a class that’s rather homogenous, what better way to get them connected then to show them that the music of Bach and Beethoven in their historical context, but also remind them that there are people working here too, reflecting their culture and situation.
DENISE A. SEACHRIST: I just finished teaching a summer course, and I was talking about Ellen Taaffe Zwilich and Ruth Crawford. And Ruth Crawford spent about the first seven years of her life in East Liverpool, Ohio. So you mention that and then that gets people’s attention. That’s just 30 miles away.
AMANDA MACBLANE: It’s not just dead Europeans.
DENISE A. SEACHRIST: Exactly. And they forget that. They also get to see that they can travel or they can become more aware of the world. Because that’s one thing: with the news media, they’re not focused; they don’t hear about something unless the news makes it presentable. For most of the people, if you want easy news you just get such a miniscule amount and if you really want to know what’s going on in the world, you have to seek it out, and sometimes the students that I have don’t even know where to begin to look and I think that’s important.