VENGEANCE IS HERS: a conversation with DIAMANDA GALAS (Arthur, 2008)

A conversation with pianist-vocalist Diamanda Galas: Avenging queen of the damned, obvious musical genius and the only person alive who’s a fan of Doris Day and Vlad the Impaler

By John Payne
Photography by Susanna Howe
Make-up and styling by Kristofer Buckle

Originally published in Arthur No. 28 (March 2008)

“Get up off your knees, you weak bastard, and fight!”

Diamanda Galas made her solo recording debut in 1982 with The Litanies of Satan, a bloodcurdling blast of screaming, sighing, sneering, spitting sonority based on texts by the poet Charles Baudelaire. Recorded in a freezing cold basement studio in London after she’d been awake for 24 hours, Litanies is a glossolalic galaxy further perverted by insane floods of reverb, spatial delay, complex signal processing and overdubbing. Twenty-six years later, it remains quite terrifying in effect.

That initial recorded outpouring established Galas as a troubling and troublesome singer of the avant-garde and beyond, one who boasted a multi-multi-octave voice of unparalleled power and technical command along with a contemporary-classical/new-thing piano style the equal to and great leap forward past the storied prowess of your baddest dudes of the modern jazzbo scene. But all that’s just the mechanics of it; her performances have combined these vocal acrobatics with electronics and triple- and quadruple-mike techniques that’d fling the voice around in horrific battles between the Devil, God and all us poor victims – sometimes with her back to the crowd. Her topics? AIDS, rape, torture, genocide.

Galas was born in San Diego in 1955, daughter of a Turkish-Armenian father and an Armenian-Syrian mother. She grew up in a very strict and isolated kind of environment – no TV, no radio, no nothing like that. She wasn’t allowed to wear a two-piece bathing suit, couldn’t go on any dates, not until she left the house at the age of 19. So she and her brother Philip-Dimitri, a future renowned playwright, got real good at creating their own very individual worlds holed up at home, where, interestingly, they both dug the dark stuff from early on: Marquis de Sade, Friedrich Nietzsche, Antonin Artaud, and Edgar Allan Poe, especially.
Diamanda’s father pushed her into piano lessons at a young age, but he forbid her to sing, ‘cause he thought singing was basically for idiots. He’d been a lounge band leader and had conducted gospel choirs, which by age 12 Diamanda had begun to accompany on piano or listened to from the top of the stairs. “Then when people would leave I would sing the music by myself, because I loved this music so much.” By age 14, she was playing with the San Diego Symphonic Orchestra.

Galas was a premed and then biochemistry student at Revelle College at UCSD. Though she became involved in the neurochemistry department at the UCSD medical school, she became aware during this time that what she really wanted to do was to use herself as a guinea pig.

“That was not an unpopular concept in the ‘70s,” she says, “and so that is what I did. This led to a complete destruction of my previous ideals and put me in the perfect place for vocal research later, although at the time I was exposed to Pasolini, Lilly, B.F. Skinner, Janov, Nietzsche and so on. But I had the uncomfortable feeling that I had no idea how to combine research with music-making until the vocal experimentation work was begun six years later.

She enjoyed her biochemistry studies in college, she wasn’t just killing time. “But I ended up spending too much time in the practice room playing the piano and singing and doing things like going into anechoic [silence] chambers and taking LSD and then trying everything with my voice, and getting into a lot of thinking that dealt with sensory deprivation, and that went with using your body as an instrument for your research, how the voice, word came out of it. If I couldn’t hear the reverberation inside, then nobody could hear me outside, and that was the most important thing to me. I didn’t want anyone to know what I was doing. I wanted to be completely free to do what I was doing. That was just an instinct.”

While Galas’ training in biochemistry enabled her to form solid views on medicine, and on music as well (“It trains you in seeing things as paradigms, seeing large situations; it influences the way you perceive things, how things work”), her experiences in school with a sado-masochistic boyfriend held equal fascination, and led to her channeling the discipline’s extremist views into her art. Early performances of her vocal experimental works were done in mental hospitals, fittingly.

“I was asked by some guys in the Living Theater, they said that was what they were going to do and I should do it, too. At that time, I was just standing with my back to an audience and I would not make a sound for maybe 10 minutes, until I felt it was kind of kicked out of me. Then I would do this for 15-20 minutes. And when I did, there were some very interesting responses. The strongest were from women, who really liked the freedom of that, the freedom of inappropriate behavior.” She laughs.

During her school years Galas had played and sang in a weird variety of bands, such as a circa-’74 combo in Pomona that included jazz critic Stanley Crouch along with Butch Morris, David Murray, Mark Dresser and several other heavies of the new-jazz thing. She also served time as an organist at a Holiday Inn lounge, doing Carpenters covers in a band with avant guitarist Henry Kaiser.
Though she’d had extensive formal training on piano, Galas’ vocal techniques were from the start purely instinctual. And at some point a few years into it, she decided that it was important to develop maximum vocal power so that she could sustain long phrases, and sing without harming her vocal cords. In 1979, while Galas was still pursuing a postgrad degree in neurochemisty, Yugoslavian composer Vinko Globokar offered her the lead role as a Turkish torture victim in his opera Un Jour Comme Un Autre. In order to meet the harsh vocal demands of Globokar’s piece, she trained like a boxer, and set her goal of becoming the world heavyweight champ of the voice. Her 1980 work in Paris on the late Greek composer Ianis Xenakis’ extraordinarily complex microtonal pieces quickly sealed her reputation as perhaps the only singer physically capable of performing these works’ devilish difficulties.

The Litanies of Satan and its accompanying piece, Wild Women With Steak Knives, were deliberately titled to provoke, and when they appeared in 1982 they did generate a lot of early controversy about Galas. Wild Women was inspired by the Greek tradition in which women preside over the funerals by carrying large knives. Although Galas calls it a ritual of female empowerment, meant to inspire revenge for the dead, its use for a staged performance resulted in Galas’ interesting early notoriety as both a radical feminist and misogynist.

It was a reputation the bad bitch of new music seemed to relish. As if to further provoke reaction from both sides of the cultural divide, she begin composing her crucial Plague Mass, an eventual trilogy of late-‘80s works including Masque of the Red Death, in which she explored the AIDS epidemic by linking it to texts from Psalms and the Book of Leviticus. Today she calls Plague Mass a documentation of “the process of slow death in a hostile environment” in confrontation with “those who’ve twisted Christ’s teaching into socially sanctioned condemnation of sexual difference.” Her brother Philip died of AIDS in 1986, the year she began the work; she dedicated the trilogy to him and her friend Tom Hopkins, another close friend and AIDS victim.

Galas soldiered on with a series of confrontational and musically groundbreaking performances akin to a new Greek tragedy in defense of the displaced and diseased, whose timeless reversals of fortune were decried with the instinctive bloodlust of a frothing mad dog and the doom of a thousand dark angels. Her late-’80s work included vocal contributions to the score of Derek Jarman’s film The Last of England, which also deals with the AIDS epidemic. She also released the third installment of Plague Mass, entitled You Must Be Certain of the Devil, wherein she rails against bogus piety and homophobia.

Galas’ fame as a virtuosic performer grew of course in large part because of her reputation as a cultural/political agitator. In 1989, she was arrested while participating in a “die-in” at St. Patrick’s Catholic Cathedral in New York City, objecting to what she calls a “war against people with AIDS” by Cardinal O’Connor, who was trying to stop safe sex campaigns. 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. In 1994 she performed The Masque of the Red Death in Italy, whose Christian Democratic Party formally accused her of blasphemy at the recitation in Italian of a section of Masque’s text. In the USA, Christian television shows put her alongside Ozzy Osbourne on their official lists of Satanic celebrities to be purged or blocked from the airwaves.

Galas remained brutally outspoken, calculatingly callous. In 1991’s influential Re/Search: Angry Women anthology of interviews, she ripped a few memorable zingers: “I believe childbirth is obscene. I consider it very alien . . . The myth I always aspired to was that of Artemis or Diana, the goddess of the hunt. She was a warrior and a fighter who had nothing to do with procreation”; “You’re either part of the Resistance or you’re a collaborator” [on AIDS activism]; “I pity weak men: They should be dragged out into the middle of the street, beaten, humiliated, degraded and sodomized by my friends and me just for sport. I love seeing weak men cry—my heart races.”

In all of her pieces, the vocal sound is more than simple beautiful sound, it’s an articulation of suffering – an idea that played a part in Artaud’s theatre of cruelty. The chilling 1993 Vena Cava album of solo vocal and electronic processing effects involved up to four microphones and a tape delay system; lyrics come from a text written by her late brother while enduring the mental and physical degradations of AIDS. Schrei X (1996) is a densely technique-packed 35-minute piece for solo voice, ring modulators and other electronic treatment, performed in quadraphonic sound and total darkness; it deals in sensory deprivation, rape and violence with no escape.

At times Galas seems to be seeking her fate by enacting and fulfilling her own modern Greek tragedy. Her beliefs are in part a byproduct of hearing her father tell her stories of growing up barely second-class in his own country, or worse, his friends hunted down by the Turks, literally pushed into the sea. She has a burning need to set the record straight on our shared history of atrocity. That is the material essence of recent works such as Defixiones, Will and Testament: Orders From the Dead, a solo voice and piano work based on texts related to the Armenian and Anatolian Greek massacres of 1915 and 1922. A grandly ambitious work involving extended passages from the Armenian liturgy, recitations of poetry such as Adonis’ The Desert and various other settings of Middle Eastern poets as well as Galas’ own “Birds of Death” and the gospel traditional “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean,” Defixiones is a harrowing maelstrom of Eastern vocal modes and volcanic piano explosions, as Galas intones “the world is going up in flames.”

If only to prevent devolving into a caricature of her wicked self, or perhaps to take a kind of breather (who could blame her?), by the early ‘90s Galas had begun developing the art of the “homicidal love song” in a series of song cycles, which she’s continued to write or interpret in recent years, beginning in ’94, when she and Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones collaborated on The Sporting Life album (Mute), a very bent and very, very heavy set of “rock” tunes taken to epically bizarre extremes, and funny extremes as well, Galas soul-wailing with abandon while pumping a mean whorehouse piano. The song cycles include The Singer in 1992, Malediction and Prayer (1998 Asphodel) and the live La Serpenta Canta (2003 UK Mute STUMM), which scaled back from the epic proportions of her previous decade’s work to explore equally disturbing nuance in blues and gospel standards such as “I Put a Spell on You,” “Balm in Gilead/Swing Low Sweet Chariot” and “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean.” The latest in the series is the live Guilty Guilty Guilty (out in March on Mute UK).

Today, Diamanda Galas is having toast and tea in the back booth of a restaurant in breezy, sunny San Diego, not far from the waterfront. She’s a tall woman, dressed in black, as you’d expect – heavy black coat, blackest long snaky hair, blacker still eyes that don’t drill holes in my forehead but rather dart and flicker about the room, leaving singe marks across the naughahyde counter stools. She wants to go deep inside her music, to make the how of it understood, so she’s talking and talking, gesturing widely with long spindly arms, then talking some more, there’s so much to say.

Galas expresses herself in forceful and earthy and beautifully direct ways, in a melodious, cackling rasp … While she’s onstage—and probably in most of her daily interactions with people—she is quite an actress, of high, high drama and blackest, gruesomest comedy. Camp is valuable for how it speaks truths obviously, in black and white. But Diamanda’s Morticia-like character tends to stomp on mere camp. She knows too much. She is all the while shockingly human; she sips her tea, and tattoed on the fingers of her hand I see: “We are all HIV-positive.”

ARTHUR: First, tell me a little bit about what set you off on your own musical path. You must have had reasons why you needed to break all the rules.

DIAMANDA GALAS: It was the middle of the ‘70s, and I had come up as both a jazz and a classical pianist at the same time. Doing improvisation without reading first, then reading music. And then after playing classical music for a while, and classical concertos, including Cesar Franck, wonderful, wonderful, and Beethoven, and doing Fats Waller, and then doing things with some guys who had been influenced by Ornette and Ayler and stuff. I just decided that the fact is that the voice is the leader of the band, but I don’t want to be in the jazz ghetto, I don’t want to be in the new-music ghetto, I don’t want to be in any ghetto; I think I’ll just use my own name, and that’s the ghetto I’ll settle for.
In the ‘70s, if you decided that you were gonna do jazz, then that meant that it had to be about music that had this swing, and I’m like, buddy, sometimes I want the music to swing, sometimes I don’t want the music to fuckin’ swing. Like, what the fuck do I care if the music swings?

Photography by Susanna Howe
Make-up and styling by Kristofer Buckle

ARTHUR: From the beginning, you’ve been as concerned with pure tonality as with the subject matter of the words you sang. One listen to the colossal piano sound on Guilty Guilty Guilty makes that clear.

DIAMANDA: It’s like a nine-foot Steinway, then there’s a smaller one, so there’s different pianos. When I play a nine-foot, I like to play a nine-foot, I like to get into the meat of the piano. I don’t wanna play the E-Z Key, Elton John whatever fuckin’ suck-ass pianos, I wanna play the ones with the really hard action where you can really jump into the fuckin’ thing, because it’s like you’re jumping into the piano, you’re jumping into the void, like bambambam! And it’s so great that this woman [the sound engineer] took care to really work in the mastering to get that piano up as close as you could get to a live performance. I told her, “I’ve done these live records and they don’t sound anything like those live performance, and I’m just so sick of it, I can’t even fuckin’ handle one more of ‘em.” [wicked laugh]

People at labels in America have heard this record and they think it’s too freaky for them. All right, far out, man, be stupid. The person who’s importing it in England knows a lot more about what stores are interested in now than a lot of people who would just get this for the first time. So that’s fine.

ARTHUR: You seem to get treated with a lot more respect outside your own country. Now why is that?

DIAMANDA: It’s wonderful for me to go to Italy. The food is wonderful, they give me a beautiful fucking suite to stay in, they treat you like a real artist. They do a lot of advance publicity, like months and months, even in advance of the contracts. And then when you perform, the place is filled, the people understand passion, they understand that you could do in the same concert something that might be perceived by some people as avant-garde, and then a song by maybe fucking Petula Clark, and BB King and then maybe Arthur Brown. They don’t have any trouble with that, and then moving on to Pasolini. Because they’ve always had to be accepting of and interested in many different cultures, and they’re bordered by so many different countries and they speak different languages and they have an education and they actually know how to read. That’ll always separate the men from the boys as far as America’s concerned. People don’t read here. If people don’t read, then something happens to the brain. It stops diversifying, it stops building new labyrinthine cellular structures. It’s like you don’t exist without a vocabulary of more than seven words. Then what’s going to happen? It’s 7 x 7 is 49 and that’s the end of it.

In Mexico, South America, Italy, Portugal, Greece, places like this, everything is fine. Then I come back and I see the garbage that passes itself off as radical shit. Just . . . makes . . . me . . . I see these boys in their mothers’ nightgown at nighttime pretending to be rappers, for the record company. It’s this commissioning by the music industry to sound like a fucking moron so you can convince other people to sound like a fucking moron so they can all be fucking morons together, and make no progress while some fucker who’s sounding like a moron is making a million dollars. And that, I think, is evil. That is an inaccuracy, as inaccurate as if to say that Puff Daddy is anything but a little rich boy who went to Princeton University, got out of there and then pretended this moronic crap. And that just makes me sick, because you have to spend a lot of fuckin’ money to go to Princeton University. That’s the fraternity capitol of the world.”

ARTHUR: How do you go about selecting the material to cover in your song cycles?

DIAMANDA: I choose to do X number of songs that I get inspired by. You find this song, you like this song. I got the words to `Fire’ by Arthur Brown, and I haven’t done it yet, but I’m definitely gonna do that song. I love Arthur Brown. He was just such a monster. Have you seen his videos? His videos are fucking hilarious. I mean, there’s Arthur Brown and there’s Sun Ra [laughs] and there’s Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. I’m just talking about the visual aspect of songwriting, you know. I mean, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and Arthur Brown, my fucking Jesus, my fucking Jesus. He had this hat, this little Egyptian thing, and the fire was coming out of it. I did some jazz festivals in the ‘80s, and they said, `Yeah, Arthur just did a show last night, and he jumped out in the audience — he was on fire!’”

I found this song last night by Sharon Jones, and God! [laughs] Damn! My friend Michael Flanagan, last night he sent me this song “100 Days, 100 Nights.” First I loved the song, then I loved how she was doing it. I couldn’t believe that a band like that would exist now. It reminded me of Howard Tate, that kind of power. Then I saw the words and I said, `I’m doing it.’ So that’s how it works.”

ARTHUR: Your decision to interpret the old standard “Autumn Leaves” on Guilty Guilty Guilty was inspired. It’s so beautiful.

DIAMANDA: My friend Bradley Pickleheimer is a drag queen from West Hollywood. He picked me up from the airport two years ago, I was in his car, and he played me “Heaven Have Mercy,” Edith Piaf singing it. I think it was written for her. I couldn’t believe how beautiful it was, and the orchestration, and these Eastern European chord progressions. And I continue to try to describe to people who don’t know what I’m talking about, I say, “You guys keep talking about such and such song, and you always talk about the singer instead of the guy who wrote them.”

People always say, “’Autumn Leaves’ is a Billie Holiday song,” and I say, “It’s a Joseph Kosma song, all right?” And everybody always says, “Well, nobody would have ever heard it if it weren’t for Billie Holiday.” But that is just not true, because it was huge in France, with Edith Piaf. Nobody needed Billie Holiday to hear that song. Nobody knows that Joseph Kosma had written lyrics, and he and Chopin had written a lot of chansons, and he knew that whole tradition: If you listen to Chopin, if you listen to Liszt or you listen to Cesar Franck, you hear the same chord progressions in the songs, which were incredibly emotional, and you don’t even need to know what the words are to know what the song’s about. When I heard Chet Baker singing “The Thrill Is Gone” – not the B.B. King song – I said, “My god, I know exactly what that song is.” I knew immediately what the song was about.

ARTHUR: But those chords you’re playing on Autumn Leaves! What exactly is going on there?

DIAMANDA: Well, at the period of time I was working on a lot of the arrangements to the songs on Guilty Guilty Guilty, I was getting into these films and hearing their songs by different singers, because some of the arrangements you could only hear on the film, for some reason, like Imitation of Life [1959; music by Frank Skinner and Henry Mancini]. I’m just going to think about a movie that Doris Day was in, Love Me or Leave Me [1955].

Love Me or Leave Me, I don’t know who did the orchestration, but it’s just gigantic. [Percy Faith and George E. Stoll are credited for the music.] When I heard the orchestral introduction, I just said, yeah, that is definitely gonna influence my interest in the song. Well, it ended up influencing the beginning to `Autumn Leaves,’ which is written in the key of A minor, and so it starts out [sings it], and then you go into these diminished chords, you know, then you go into the major chords, then you go back to A minor seventh, D major … [hearty laugh]

It comes from years and years of playing these songs with my father’s band, and then after that in bars up in Santee, California, wearing a gold-sequined, low-cut dress playing the piano, and then the drummer was this guy with an Afro wig on, singing Charley Pride songs . . . ugh!”

ARTHUR: A great song is seen as a good piece of material to work with, like high-quality clay might be in the hands of a sculptor.

DIAMANDA: If you start off with a song, you master the changes, then you find out what the story is that the composer is trying to tell. Then you look at the words, that’s next, and then you sing the song. When you have a song like “Autumn Leaves,” which has all those changes already in it, those changes are telling the story before the words are. Well, Johnny Mercer wouldn’t say that, but, whatever. I worked with my brother on exactly two songs, and he was so brilliant. I’d give him the changes and he would just have the words right away. My brother could take any chord changes and just get the rhythm, and bam! He was fuckin’ brilliant with words. I don’t know how he did it.

ARTHUR: Listening to the new album, I said, damn, this is the best piano playing I’ve ever heard. John Paul Jones says you’re his favorite pianist, too.

DIAMANDA: He always says that in his interviews. [She almost blushes; not quite] He is the most generous musician in the world, he really is. That’s another person who doesn’t want to be a woman onstage. A lot of these guys, they really wanna be bitches. He’s the opposite.

ARTHUR: How did you two create the music on The Sporting Life?

DIAMANDA: We did this kind of trade-off where he would give me the rhythm and then I would put the changes on top of that, and then put the words on top of that; or I would give him the changes and then he would just lay down the rhythm. Or I’d give him the rhythm and the changes and then he would say, “No, I think the bridge should be this.” I wrote a lot of them, but then he layed down a lot of the rhythms. In “You’re Mine,” he put a bridge in there that I would never have thought of, just a total rockabilly bridge, and I was like, “Wow, that’s just slammin’.” ‘Cause I was getting into this modal thing, and I was going on and on, and he says, “You know, that’s a little bit repetitive,” and I says, “What?” [She laughs.]

ARTHUR: Your admiration for singers seems to have a lot to do with how skillfully (musically) they could interpret and manipulate, even mutate, the words. That’s an art which should not be left in the hands of lightweights.

DIAMANDA: I never liked Judy Garland, never. And then I saw her on The Judy Garland Show, and Peggy Lee was on it, and they were doing different songs and then a duet. Judy Garland sang “Never Never Will I Marry” . . . Wow. And there was this rhythm thing, dun do do do do, “never, never . . . will I marry” dun do do do do. Wow! That chick’s slammin’. I can’t believe that she’s singing like that. It was a total distortion of the song. She knew the changes, but then took it into another thing.

Then I took it another step. Because when these singers like Peggy Lee, when they sing a song they have to sing it straight first. But she knew the changes, she was a great musician, and then when she takes something out, it gets my respect, because you’re still hearing the song; you’re still hearing what the song is about. It’s not like some shit-ass alternative bands who’d take the song, “`Autumn Leaves,’ oh, autumn leaves, I like those words, oh wow, that’s in A minor, I can do this fast, then it’s like another minor chord,” suddenly it’s three chord changes, duh duh duh, “gloomy autumn leaves—oh yeah, it means deadly in French, wow man,” and then suddenly it is dead, it’s fuckin’ horrible, it’s like the worst fuckin’ thing you’ve ever heard, and they’re, like, all attitude-y about it, like arty. You motherfuckers, why don’t you just write your own songs? Don’t touch that shit.

Because that shit is actually classical music, I mean classical to the jazz repertoire, but classical music also, and classic, and just leave ’em alone.

ARTHUR: Tape’s rolling, Diamanda, go for it.

DIAMANDA: And usually they’re doing it like they want to be so influenced by Billie Holiday. It’s so funny, ‘cause they’re doing it back-asswards anyway – you don’t do a song because you wanna sound like Billie Holiday; you go to a song because you go to the song. I can’t even listen to Billie Holiday. I heard Billie Holiday for years, I can’t even listen to her, because there’s just so many other singers out there that nobody’s ever heard. She did what she did with that voice, and it worked really well. But there’s Lorez Alexandria, there was Dinah Washington, Carmen McCrae, there are millions of things happening that are fantastic, and people don’t hear about them – or maybe they want it just pretty. Like Sharon Jones, you know, she used to support herself as a prison guard at Sing Sing.”

ARTHUR: Some people might be surprised to hear about your high regard for Doris Day.

DIAMANDA: My favorite subject in the world is Doris Day. Here we have a woman who people thought of as just a pretty face, a dancer and a Pollyanna. I don’t care about that; what I know about this woman is, she had the most incredible legato I ever heard in my life, for pop music or jazz or whatever. And they don’t call it jazz when she does it, they look at her and think “pretty little blond white girl, so she’s not a jazz singer.” Well, that’s a bunch of shit, because she is, man. Legato legato legato—her phrases aren’t chopped up because they have to be, because she’s run out of breath—uh uh, if she decides to finish a phrase, it’s because she decides to finish a phrase. I really respect that, because she could take those phrases the way Peggy Lee could listen to an Ellington song that nobody else would ever sing because they couldn’t hear it, and she would sit there and she would do that line of an Ellington song and then she would write the words to it. She would write the words to it, but she’d sing the head of it and the words to it, in the right time, not missing a single page, ‘cause she could hear it.

And that’s amazing. I mean, these broads don’t get credit. Their image is so flashy that people aren’t looking beyond it. And then Doris, the timbre of her voice—ahhhh—there’s a stone for it, this emerald quality. I’m not saying that I like all the songs she sang, or had to sing, all those real stupid purebred Pollyanna fuckin’ Christmas songs or whatever, I’m not interested in that. But when she’s singing beautiful songs, where you have a full orchestra, and the voice is not supposed to be fucking around or doing that horrible scat singing that I hate.

ARTHUR: The Curse of Ella . . .

DIAMANDA: Yeah, though when Ella’s doing it, when she takes it to its most far out, when you hear the multiphonics and it could be part of the Korean vocal tradition, then I love it. But if it’s just straight-up scat singing, I mean, that’s just, I’m like why? When I hear singers now doing that, I’m like, you know what? You should shut up. Someone should take your skull and just bury you like the Indians would do, in the sand with your face looking up to the sun, and then tell you, right as you’re about to die, you can’t ever sing scat again.

Really, it’s so insulting. It truly insults Ella Fitzgerald, as far as I’m concerned, because she was diabetic, and she had to play in Stockholm and then go to Berlin the same night, she did two gigs a night, and then, under the circumstances, the way they traveled in those days, with diabetes? She was an incredible workhorse; she was a workaholic and a great singer.

I’ve studied about Ella Fitzgerald, I really respect her as a musician. But I just hate scat singing, with the exception of some of Betty Carter’s stuff—not all of it, ‘cause it tends to sound all the same after a while. I just don’t like it, because I’m like, Why would a singer ever want to sound like a horn player? Why would you want to make those double-stops, why would you want to interrupt your vocal line or legato unless you had to already? It’s hideous. Awful.

Photography by Susanna Howe
Make-up and styling by Kristofer Buckle

ARTHUR: On Guilty Guilty Guilty, you do a version of Ralph Stanley’s “O Death,” – which you say is a love song, too . . . for the Grim Reaper. In “O Death,” there’s an interlude in the middle that seems plonked down on top of the song, like it wasn’t meant to be there yet appears somehow related, you just can’t put your finger on it. You’re doing that with your voice, but it sounds like a hovering spacecraft. Is that an example of what you call “multiphonics?”

DIAMANDA: I was reading something about a doctor who heard the sounds of people in the military when they were suffering really horrific stuff, and he heard these sounds. Roy Hart, this English singer, ended up doing a tape that I heard, where he sang the words “I am Dionysus,” and he sang it from the lowest possible voice, which is the bass, to the highest. That really was impossible—no woman can do that, because you have to be a male to go that low with the kind of power that he had. Unless you’re gonna rip your throat apart.

ARTHUR: Just for the record, your own range is what? It’s been reported to be up to eight octaves.

DIAMANDA: Oh, they’re just fuckin’ liars. I don’t think they know what they’re talking about. I don’t even know what it is. People say three octaves, four octaves, five octaves – I have no idea what it is, but I sure know it’s not eight octaves. I mean, maybe when I go into multiphonics, it’s a detached octave down there.

ARTHUR: If you’re getting overtones in there, you might say it’s eight octaves going up the other way. Dogs are barking.

DIAMANDA: This is what I do: I get onto a note, I sing it in a very relaxed vocal production, but you know exactly where the breath is all the time, and you know where the resonance is, it’s right up front, but it’s got this diaphramatic thing going, constantly giving it air, and it’s very relaxed. You have to have the throat completely open; if it’s tight you can’t make a sound at all. And then what happens out of that tone is you can resonate tones that go much lower than that.

I don’t know what I’m doing, really, it’s just that I can feel that the resonance is in the sternum, and then the nose, and then once that goes, you can somehow get higher notes from that first note, then you’ve got like three of ‘em going. So then it’s more a sensation, and you have to have the correct sensation, you have to be very relaxed to do it. And when you do it, it’s a blast, it’s really easy. And it’s very healthy for the voice, because there can be no tension in the vocal cords.

ARTHUR: You had to have trained a lot to reach a point where that kind of facility with the voice was possible.

DIAMANDA: It’s mandatory if you want to extend the voice, doing the kind of work I do, to know what you’re doing technically. I learned it from having a father who’s very musical and who also sang and who would talk about Sinatra learning from Tommy Dorsey, learning from breath, you know, what a trombonist has to do in order to do long phrases. But also later on I was studying, because what I was trying to do was theoretically impossible, in many ways. It was an attempt to be able to do a lot of what horn players do with circular breathing – but voices, we don’t have circular breathing.

There are lots of people who do this, all over the world. I don’t know where they do it in the Middle East or in Greece, but the closest sound may be in Georgia — in the Black Sea area there are a lot of interesting parallels, because they have these looow bass choirs, and maybe some of them are doing something like that. My father’s father was from the Eastern part of Turkey, and I’ve heard a lot of music from that area that has some of that quality.

ARTHUR: When you hear it played back, does it sound different than it does inside your head?

DIAMANDA: It’s a sensation in your skull, it’s great, it’s just intense. And it sounds louder because it’s amplified, obviously. I have so much fun with it—I can literally sing, like, a semitone scale, just for a laugh. And I do it sometimes right in the middle of a piece. I’m just having a blast improvising.

ARTHUR: In live performance, your music seems to contain then release enormous waves of mind, muscle, sex and heart. Is that because you’re filled to bursting, or are you a channeler of some kind? A bit of both, I expect.

DIAMANDA: God, there’s this shithead out there, Mike Patton. He imitates me. He imitates everybody. That motherfucker short fuckin’ midget, he was at all my shows in the ‘90s. He wrote in Wire magazine that I don’t improvise. I just laughed. I go onstage completely empty, and for what I do you have to be vocally wound up. There are all these people who just go onstage and make weird noises, do whatever they can do to get through the performance, and that’s fine. But for me, I have to have phrasing, and go between multiphonics or bel canto or all these things, and I can’t be, “Oh, I’m going from the high voice to the chest voice to the multiphonics,” I can’t be thinking like that onstage. So I have to be ready for it, and the technique is good, and I can’t have a lot of chattering going on in my head. And then I just go onstage and play.

ARTHUR: And it’s just you and a piano, which is amazing, considering the orchestral sound you’re making. A full band would most likely just screw it up, anyway.

DIAMANDA: With my Bosendorfer, with the black keys I can do the drums as well; it’s almost like it’s not even tonal anymore, it’s like Fedex to the office on the black keys. With the piano, I can change all the rhythm, but all the notes are a function of the rhythm. So they’re not superfluous, they’re a function of changing the rhythm. So I’m changing the rhythm or then playing either the solo stuff or the changes here and then maybe doing a kind of tonal thing, and then kind of laying the boards over that.

It’s like that Hitchcock thing, where you just keep it clean and you know why you’re there at a particular time. And you know and I know that those blues guys like John Lee Hooker and certainly Howlin’ Wolf, they’d be changing the rhythm all the time. It’s not like what I hear blues people doing now, this stinky fucking line that just goes on and on and on, and at the end of the song I’m like, “Well? And so what happened?”

ARTHUR: What happened is that now you are ten minutes older.

DIAMANDA: Interestingly enough, since 9/11, a lot of people coming from the Middle East are saying there would be no blues if there were no muezzin singing, and I said, “Well, you know, the reason I won’t argue with that is that music comes from Byzantium, from the mixture of all these cultures in the Middle East, including Anatolia, Turkey, Greece.” Where did the music of Islam come from? Well, it came from the Arabs, originally. Who did the Arabs get it from? The Arabs took it from the Greeks. They all changed music together in that melting pot of the Black Sea and Egypt and Turkey; in all those Arab countries, there was this exchange of music. So you have this bending of the tones, and you don’t just have a five-note scale—what is that? All these taqsims and the makams, all these scales.

And that is what I hear when I listen to most interesting blues music, which I feel is from Somalia and Ethiopia right now, because they have to get up there and be really good qaraami singers—the improvised music of that whole part of the world—and then they have to be pop singers and blues singers, too. So they get up and they start the solo with the qaraami, then they go into the song, and they go back into the qaraami. The qaraami is sung by church singers also. But these are real singers—I hear it and I think about where the blues is, what the Americans have done to it since then, which is just: repeat.

ARTHUR: Though they seem to specialize in it, that overly reverent regard for musical genres’ classic forms—stylizing them till they petrify hard enough to put them up on museum shelves—is not an exclusively American problem.

DIAMANDA: But when people try to get into this ethnic purity thing, like with Wynton Marsalis or Stanley Crouch, it’s the same thing that people do when they think about Armenian music—“Well, this scale or sound here is probably Turkish.” And I say, “How do you know if it’s Turkish or not?”

ARTHUR: A lot of musical idioms and techniques do get called Turkish; Western music critics use “Turkish music” as a big umbrella term.

DIAMANDA: That’s what Turkish imperialism is. They are a very rich country—in between what they get from America and what they get from Israel, they do real good. They can afford to have plundered the Assyrians, the Kurdish, the Greeks, the Armenians and many Arabic cultures and call it Turkish. They have borrowed from everyone, and other cultures as well have taken from them. But there is no such thing as a united Turkish music. That is just a bunch of shit.

This whole thing about insults to Turkish people, in Turkey they put people in jail for it. If you say you’re Assyrian, that means you’re insulting Turkish people; if you speak Greek, that’s an insult to Turkishness. And still, those two cultures melted into music that is now called Turkish music. Anatolia was a huge area that was inhabited by many cultures, and now they call it Turkey. And they say it’s “The Land of the Turks”—only because they killed everybody else off that lived there before.

ARTHUR: Of course, modern Greek musicians frequently refuse to sing certain songs because they think the song’s roots are in Islam. But in reality, they don’t know where that song came from.

DIAMANDA: There are a lot of people who refuse to perform certain music because they think they’re performing music by the enemy tribe. And they’re not. It’s part of their own music. The Turks employed Greeks, Armenians, Assyrians and Jews to compose music for the sultans. Then they called it “Turkish music.”

ARTHUR: The imperialistic impulse, taken to its worst extremes, leads to genocide of varying shades of evil, such as the prohibiting of musicians from singing in their own languages. This is related to the issues you addressed in Defixiones, to a lot of outcry and protest in the U.S., Europe and Australia.

DIAMANDA: The U.S. doesn’t want to recognize the Armenian genocide because it’s going to bed with Turkey. Now is not the time to discuss an Armenian genocide, and now will never be the time to discuss these things “because we have our national security to think of and that of Armenia,” said the Clinton administration. Selling billions of dollars of attack helicopters to Turkey to safeguard its national security and that of Israel—these things get in the way of settling an old score of minor players, so to speak.

Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres called the Armenian Genocide Resolution “meaningless” and said, “We reject attempts to create a similarity between the Holocaust and the Armenian allegations. Nothing similar to the Holocaust occurred. It is a tragedy what the Armenians went through, but not a genocide.” Peres did this in April 2001 while asking Turkey to support Israel against the Palestinians, and going into business with them in their purchase and possible co-production of the Arrow anti-tactical ballistic missile interceptor—developed by the U.S. and Israel—and while discussing the sale of Turkish water to Israel. Turkey threatens not to renew the mandate for U.S. forces using the Incirlik air base in southern Turkey to patrol the no-fly zone in northern Iraq—if there is any mention of “an Armenian genocide.”

We have a lesser but nonetheless painful situation with our leaders in Greece, who are so crazy about peace with the Turks that they turned in [Kurdish separatist rebel leader] Abdullah Ocalan as a gesture of friendship. It is never the time to give any kind of importance to people of no importance.

The Armenian Genocide Resolution was blocked by the combined interests of Turkey, Israel and the United States. The same genocide denial will occur with the Anatolian Greeks and the Assyrians, who were starved to death and slaughtered in death marches under the guise of deportation. [More than one million Greeks were forced to leave their Asia Minor homeland in 1922-1923, during the Greek-Turkish exchange of ethnic minorities.] Now that the Eastern Christians have been finished off, the Kurds have become the new irritant to the concept of the national [Turkish] order. When the Turks buried the Greeks in mass graves, they said, “We don’t know what happened to these people. You are exaggerating the numbers of deportees.” And we know what happened to the Greek Cypriots: Los Desaparecidos.

Some of the Greeks in power, they don’t need the Turks to fuck them, they fuck themselves. They just say, “Okay, we want to be Europeans, too,” and a lot of people I know who are Greek activists, Armenian activists, Assyrian activists, Kurdish activists, we have to fight that all the time, because it’s like saying, “Okay, I accept you killing my culture.” The analogy is very close to the way the Indian culture was killed by the Spanish culture: “You don’t exist, you don’t exist. We are raping your culture, you don’t exist.”

As I wrote in the proclamation she for a memorial ceremony in London for Hrant Dink [the assassinated Armenian-Turkish journalist], “Robbery is not just the robbery of money or human flesh; it involves the soul murder of cultures which will soon die if they have no more songs to sing. Especially in the desert. And survival in the desert has been proven to be perilous.”

ARTHUR: You seem to derive some of your greatest joy in the stories of people you admire, many of whom we aren’t normally supposed to admire.

DIAMANDA: Turkey is truly a sultan’s country, ‘cause that was the whole sultan thing, going to the countries like Romania, where Vlad the Impaler was in charge, and saying, “We need 500 boys for the army”—for fucking. But that’s why Vlad was impaling all his own people; he said, “You steal from your neighbor and I can tell you that the only way to get our country to be morally strong enough to fight the Turks is if you fear me.” He got people fuckin’ terrified so they could fight the Turks.

ARTHUR: Vlad the Impaler was a political hero?

DIAMANDA: He did it with big ol’ stakes, they went right through the asshole, right through the larynx. People took five days to die. He said, `You’re not afraid to be decapitated anymore. I’m gonna give you something to be afraid of.’ Gotta respect a man like that.

ARTHUR: Your 2002 dedication of three concerts to Aileen Wuornos—a Florida prostitute convicted and executed for multiple killings of several johns Wuornos claimed had raped her—was done for related multifarious reasons.

DIAMANDA: I can understand why some person who gets no justice from the law goes around having to kill. Most street prostitutes get raped several times a year, or they get stood up for their money or they get beat up afterward. After so many years of what Aileen Wuornos was doing, that was what you call critical mass, like, okay, that’s it. And after one murder, what’s another six? It’s just academic.

ARTHUR: Yet you speak for the dead. At least that’s what the press releases say.

DIAMANDA: People say that, but I don’t know what they mean. [laughs] I’ve felt dead enough in my own life. Not to glamorize it too much. But 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. I’ve heard it said you have to go through a wall, and you have to push very hard to go through it. So you have that amount of force to get through it. Also, 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, and blood is too close.

But a song is in a sense a point of being really alive, really very vitally alive. I find it interesting when I hear people say I’m doing dark subjects, because I think, well, maybe they’re thinking that because what I’m doing is the opposite of being dead. And maybe I have to be extremely energized, or I’m fighting to get away from something, just getting away from that depression, so I have to fight harder than other people, and maybe that struggle is evident.

ARTHUR: I think of another hero of yours, the great singer Patti Waters from back in the ‘60s. She had a kind of woeful sound.

DIAMANDA: She was . . . morose? Yeah, maybe in an inward, introverted sense. But I’m afraid of that word – as in unending.

ARTHUR: There’s a kind of sadness that makes you want to do things, and a kind where you don’t want to do anything.

DIAMANDA: There’s the kind where you don’t want to do anything but sit in the middle of a bunch of trash on your floor… I know a lot about that. [laughs] I think it’s just a real misanthropic, kind of an asocial thing. I’m the person who doesn’t go out, that kind of person who—I just want to do my own music and just be left alone and let’s not all get along type of thing.

ARTHUR: You’ve called Xenakis a hero, too. What did he represent?

DIAMANDA: Xenakis as a Greek was a hero, as a Greek resistance fighter, which is what in fact he was in the war. But he’s a hero to me because he represents a lot of things to me. He really annoyed and shocked lot of people in the new music world. Very radical figure, as far as I’m concerned. He had his own experimental laboratory in Paris for his work, he had his own system of how he operated. And he didn’t work for performers, he composed the work and then performers chose to do them. He was really his own man.

When you actually get a chance to do what it is you know how to do, you remember who you are. And the rest of the time you can literally walk around feeling like a weird homeless person. Like what do I do, actually? Who am I, actually? And that stuff makes you mentally ill. Because living on the edge like that pushes you into places that we’re all too vulnerable to in the first place.

ARTHUR: In the beginning of “O Death,” we hear a woman singing in the old Greek tradition typical of a dying soldier’s prayer on the battlefield—when he calls for his mother.

DIAMANDA: While you’re alive and healthy, you believe that you don’t need something—but, you know, we’re all good gamblers, and we say, well, if there is a god, I’ll take you. [laughs] It can’t hurt.

7 thoughts on “VENGEANCE IS HERS: a conversation with DIAMANDA GALAS (Arthur, 2008)

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