THE WOMAN WHO KNOWS TOO MUCH
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?