A Guide to Diamanda Galás’ Work

Five works that transformed Diamanda into an avant-garde icon

May 3, 2016

“I am not a Goth — I’m a Greek. Goth means German. Being a Greek is not a geographical reality, it’s a spiritual reality. Greek people are always talking loud, they’re screaming all the time, it’s part of the culture that came up with Greek tragedy. That’s why I love this psychotic art form. Every tragedy that comes out is the avenging of someone by revenge — the mother whose son has to be killed, who killed the daughter, who killed the father. It’s so close, these things, blood is too close.” – Diamanda Galás

The Diamanda Galás story is a spectacular saga starring one scabrously sharp-tongued artist who doesn’t just happen to be a volcanic vocal virtuoso and audaciously original piano player. Via music, words and visual hyperdrama, Galás proffers insight into important things that the rest of us might not have bothered – or more likely have not had the imagination – to think about. That includes the Armenian, Assyrian and Anatolian Greek massacres of 1915 and 1922, the connection between multiphonic vocal techniques and sado-masochism, how both Vlad the Impaler and serial killer Aileen Wuornos were political heroes, and how music was irrevocably changed by the likes of Friedrich Nietzsche and Doris Day, Ornette Coleman and Franz Liszt, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and Led Zeppelin's John Paul Jones.

For the past four decades and counting, Galás has been called a spokesperson for the unspeakable. She’s made it something of a personal crusade to mercilessly probe the whys and wherefores of some of the most horrific events and phenomena of our time, including AIDS, mental illness, rape, torture, genocide. Her art takes extreme positions, because she believes it’s too late not to. She curses a lot, and when she does, it sounds justified. But this sort of musical mastery doesn’t just happen – the driven Galás has worked herself to the bone. Believe it.

The material is supremely eclectic. Yet it’s all connected by the way it probes passion.

The San Diego-born Galás studied both classical and jazz music in school. She not only accompanied her father’s gospel choir and joined his New Orleans-style band, but also performed as a piano soloist with the San Diego Symphony at the age of 14. She went on to play with various groups that included heavies of the new-jazz thing, such as a circa-’74 combo in Pomona, California that featured jazz critic Stanley Crouch along with cornetist Butch Morris, sax man David Murray and bassist Mark Dresser. She also helmed the organ at a Holiday Inn lounge and did Carpenters covers in a band with avant-guitarist Henry Kaiser. In Santee, California's stinky bars she shone in a gold-sequined dress, playing the piano and singing Charley Pride songs with a drummer who wore a big Afro wig.

Though she’d had extensive formal training on the piano, Galás’ vocal techniques were instinctual from the start. A few years into her singing career, she decided it was important to develop maximum vocal power so that she could sustain long phrases and sing without harming her vocal cords. This is something she began refining in 1979, while she was still pursuing a postgraduate degree in neurochemistry. That same year, French/Slovenian composer Vinko Globokar offered her the lead role as a Turkish torture victim in his opera Un Jour Comme Un Autre. That chance offer would prove pivotal to her career: In order to meet the harsh vocal demands of Globokar’s piece, she trained like a boxer, and set her goal on becoming the world heavyweight champ of the voice. Her 1980 Paris performances of the late Greek composer Ianis Xenakis’ extraordinarily complex microtonal pieces quickly sealed her reputation as perhaps the only singer physically capable of performing these devilishly difficult works.

The Litanies of Satan and Wild Women With Steak Knives were sensational, virtuosic works that generated much early controversy about Galás when she released them in 1982. Not easily deterred or argued with, she soldiered on with a series of confrontational performances akin to a new Greek tragedy in defense of the displaced and diseased, whose timeless reversals of fortune she decried with the instinctive bloodlust of a frothing mad dog and the doom of a thousand dark angels. In 1988, she released the third installment of Plague Mass, entitled You Must Be Certain of the Devil, where she railed against bogus piety and homophobia. In the late 1980s, her work included vocal contributions to various scores and films, including Derek Jarman’s film The Last of England, which also deals with the AIDS epidemic. Galás also contributed her voice and music to Francis Ford Coppola’s iteration of Dracula, Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers, Spanish/Nicaraguan filmmaker Mercedes Moncada Rodriguez’s El Immortal (The Immortal), and others by the likes of Wes Craven, Clive Barker and Hideo Nakata.

Diamanda Galás - "You Must Be Certain Of The Devil"

Galás has remained brutally outspoken, calculatingly callous, and musically far beyond any of her contemporaries. A Diamanda Galás performance is a tour de force, an admixing of multiphonic vocal depravities, sometimes with electronics, to fling the voice ‘round in wicked wars between the Devil, God and all our wretched souls in between. She may choose to prick ears with some not-so-whimsically chosen redefinitions of the blues or tragic old country tunes, maybe some film-score fluff or other farflung stuff. (She will also play the piano unlike anyone else on Earth – watch her left hand.) The material she composes or covers, often imbued with Middle Eastern and Eastern European modalities and sonorities, is supremely eclectic. Yet it's all connected by the way it probes passion.

Diamanda Galás has an equally passionate fan base, arguably one of the most rabid and fiercely loyal fan bases in existence. This massive cult, largely concentrated in Europe, Australia and the USA (and more recently in Mexico and South America), follows her activities with intense interest and packs the houses at her sold-out concert and festival performances worldwide.

But why such a perfervid love for the brutal, intense Galás? You might say that her fans can identify with her in the same impassioned way she addresses the issues she, and by association they, care about. And, of course, there's the matter of the searingly, utterly original music she composes, sings and plays. To say that Diamanda Galás is larger than life is an understatement: It could very well be that she and her music are life itself.

Ahead of her performances at the Red Bull Music Academy festival in New York, we offer a guide to her most critical works.

Diamanda Galas - "Litanies of Satan"

The Litanies of Satan

Galás made her solo recording debut in 1982 with this bloodcurdling blast of screaming, spitting sonority based on Charles Baudelaire’s poem of the same name. Litanies — which was recorded in a freezing basement studio in London after she’d been awake for 24 hours — is a glossolalic galaxy perverted further by fiendish floods of spatial delay, complex signal processing and overdubbing. It established Galás as a troubling, troublesome “singer” of homicidal love songs, and one who boasted an unnaturally multi-octaved voice of ungodly power and technical prowess. Years later, it remains a terrifying work of art.

The Litanies of Satan and its accompanying piece, Wild Women With Steak Knives, were deliberately meant to provoke. Wild Women, for instance, was inspired by the Greek tradition in which women preside over funerals by carrying large knives. And although Galás describes the piece as a ritual of female empowerment meant to inspire revenge for the dead, its use for a staged performance resulted in Galás’ early notoriety as both a radical feminist and misogynist. It was a reputation the bad bitch of new music seemed to relish.

Diamanda Galás - "There Are No More Tickets To The Funeral"

Plague Mass

After the controversy sparked by her performances of The Litanies of Satan, Galás began composing her crucial work Plague Mass – as if to further stoke reactions from both sides of the cultural divide. The eventual trilogy of late 1980s works came to be known as the Masque of the Red Death, and explored the AIDS epidemic by linking it to texts from Psalms and the Book of Leviticus. Galás calls Plague Mass a documentation of “the process of slow death in a hostile environment” that directly confronts “those who’ve twisted Christ’s teaching into socially sanctioned condemnation of sexual difference.” To further intensify matters, the year that she began her work, in 1986, her brother Philip died of AIDS. She would later dedicate the trilogy to him and her close friend Tom Hopkins, another AIDS victim.

Galás’ fame as a virtuosic performer also grew around this time, in large part due to her reputation as a cultural and political agitator. She was arrested while participating in a “die-in” at St. Patrick’s Catholic Cathedral in New York City in 1989, while objecting to what she called a “war against people with AIDS” by Cardinal O’Connor, who was trying to stop safe sex campaigns. In her work, Galás charged the Cardinal with complicity in the plague. In 1990 Galás performed the entire Plague Mass at the Episcopalian Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in New York City, where she doused her naked torso with blood while performing at the altar.

A few years later, during her 1994 performance of The Masque of the Red Death in Italy, the Christian Democratic Party formally accused her of blasphemy at the recitation in Italian of a section of the Masque text. Around the same time, Christian television shows in the United States placed her (alongside fellow hellion Ozzy Osbourne) on their official lists of Satanic celebrities to be purged from the airwaves. Galás had arrived.

Diamanda Galás - "Vena Cava III"

Vena Cava and Schrei X

Here's the rub about Diamanda Galás: If any artist is going to get up on a stage and sing her guts out about the annihilation of an entire class of people exposed to violence or disease, or throw down a somebody-done-me-wrong-and-why-am-I-such-a-loser kind of thing, and said performer is at all concerned with preaching the authentic truth – well, she’s got to have the playing chops and genuinely advanced musical ideas to back that stuff up, too. Galás proved that when she released the chilling Vena Cava, comprised of solo vocal and electronic processing effects, in 1993. Her performances on this recording involved up to four microphones and a tape delay system, which added scarifying sonics to her multitimbral vocal techniques. The words she sings on the album, drawn from a text written by her late brother as he endured the mental and physical degradations of AIDS, are equally as powerful.

She followed up this feat several years later with Schrei X (1996), a dense, 35-minute piece comprising solo voice, ring modulators and other electronic treatment that’s meant to be performed in multichannel sound and total darkness. Given that the album thematically deals with sensory deprivation, rape and violence with no escape, darkness is the only setting appropriate for it. Both of these recordings are dark in tone and subject matter, but it’s interesting how joyfully exhilarating they become when the attention is focused on the disciplined mastery of Galás' execution.

Diamanda Galas - "My World Is Empty Without You"

Malediction and Prayer

Galás once called serial killer Aileen Wuornos – the Florida prostitute convicted and executed for killing seven johns whom she claimed had raped her – a hero, and dedicated an impossibly heart rending version of Phil Ochs’ “Iron Lady” to her on her 1998 album Malediction and Prayer. She went a step further and dedicated three concerts to Wuornos in 2002. When asked about her affection for Wuornos, Galás said she understood why a person who gets no justice from the law goes around having to kill, pointing out that many prostitutes are raped several times a year, get stood up for their money, are beat up by their clients, or all three.

After so many years of what Aileen Wuornos was doing, said Galás, that was called a critical mass: “Like, okay, that’s it. And after one murder, what’s another six? It’s just academic.” There is a kind of brilliant perversion at play in Malediction, an album that offers a broadened context for Galás’ concept of “homicidal love songs,” which includes chilling takes on songs by the director Pier Paolo Pasolini, Son House, Shel Silverstein and poet Miguel Huezo Mixco. And then there’s her devastatingly dirge-y do on the Supremes’ “My World Is Empty Without You.” It's hard to think of something else that's so wonderfully draining.

Diamanda Galás - "Birds of Death"

Defixiones, Will and Testament

Galás' vocals resonate more powerfully than just a simple, beautiful sound. Her voice is an articulation of suffering – an idea that played a part in Artaud’s theatre of cruelty. At times, Galás seems to be enacting and fulfilling her own modern Greek tragedy in her music. Her beliefs are a byproduct of hearing her father's stories of growing up barely second-class in his own country, and how his friends were hunted down by the Turks and literally pushed into the sea.

Her burning need to set the record straight on our shared history of atrocity is the material essence of recent works such as Defixiones, Will and Testament: Orders From the Dead (2003), a solo voice and piano work based on texts related to the Armenian and Anatolian Greek massacres of 1915 and 1922. It's a grandly ambitious work that involves extended passages from the Armenian liturgy, recitations of poetry like Adonis’ The Desert and the settings from various other Middle Eastern poets, as well as Galás’ own “Birds of Death” and the gospel traditional “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean.” Ultimately, Defixiones is a harrowing maelstrom of Eastern vocal modes and titanic piano explosions, as Galás intones that “the world is going up in flames.”

Header image © Courtesy of Double Day and Cartwright

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