Diamanda Galás Diva of the Dispossessed
Published Mar 01, 2004It's been said the voice of Diamanda Galás resurrects the dead inside the living. She is regularly accused of Satanism, has been denounced as a heretic by the Italian government, and has been called a witch in every town she's ever played in. With her three-and-a-half octave range, she can sing as both a bass and soprano voice, meaning she always wants to have the entire vocal spectrum at her fingertips to carve the aural equivalent of an open wound. "My voice was given to me as an instrument of inspiration for my friends, and a tool of torture and destruction to my enemies. An instrument of truth." Galás is heavily influenced by the concept of "schrei," a term that comes from German expressionist theatre, characterised by heightened awareness, extreme emotional states, and unity of voice and gesture. Galás is well-known for her work with the AIDS activist group ACT-UP, and her defining work is her Plague Mass trilogy of the late 80s, in which she explored the AIDS epidemic by linking it to biblical text from Psalms and the Book of Leviticus. But rather than the morbid freak she's often portrayed as, Galás is an intelligent, provocative artist who says the only reason she sings about death is to show how important life is. In the 1991 Re:Search book Angry Women, Galás says, "I'm doing music for people who are conscious and who suffer deeply. Fuckin' cocktail drinkers have music that expresses what they supposedly go through; why can't people who experience deeper emotions have the same?"
1955 to 1969
Diamanda Galás grows up in San Diego, California in a Greek Orthodox family, to a Turkish-Armenian father and an Armenian-Syrian mother. Galás and her brother Phillip-Dimitri acquire a taste for dark literature at an early age: Marquis de Sade, Friedrich Nietzsche, Antonin Artaud, and Edgar Allan Poe. She inherits her fiery personality from her father, who pushes her into piano lessons quite young. He forbids her to sing, however, telling her that "only idiots and hookers are singers." No television or radio is allowed in the house, and she isn't allowed to date until she moves out at age 19. Galás starts performing at age 12, playing piano both in church choirs and with her father's lounge act. By 14, she is playing with the San Diego Symphonic Orchestra. In 1968 she sees Jimi Hendrix play at Monterey Pop and considers it a "divine calling" to "have to do this shit myself," namely "burning the stage to the ground."
1973 to 1980
Galás moves to Oakland, California, where she moves in with three black transvestite prostitutes, whom she credits with teaching her everything she wanted to know about femininity and the strength of being a woman. One weekend, they dare her to turn a few tricks to raise some rent money. She gets into a few cars but steals from her johns instead. Her drag queen friends save her from getting beat up by pimps. Galás studies biochemistry at the University of Southern California, specialising in immunology and haematology studies she will put to great use later in her career. Upon graduating, she performs a rather wild vocal piece called "Medea Tarantula," while decked out in black leather. After university, Galás starts performing at various psychiatric institutions in California, at the suggestion of friends who think her work will have an affinity with that kind of crowd. They also tell her that this way, the audience can't walk out. She also gigs with free jazz players, including David Murray and Stanley Crouch, while taking operatic training to explore her three-and-a-half octave range. Galás makes her professional debut in Europe while doing post-graduate studies there in 1979, when composer Vinko Globokar offers her the lead role as a Turkish torture victim in his opera Un Jour Comme Un Autre. In 1980, she sings four tracks on an album by Henry Kaiser and free jazz saxophonist Jim French called If Looks Could Kill.
Galás makes her solo debut with the album Litanies of Satan. The title track is a musical interpretation of a Baudelaire poem, taking up one side of the album. The other side is a piece called "Wild Women With Steak Knives." Although Galás once founded an anti-rape, pro-castration vigilante squad called the Black Leather Beavers, the title of the latter track comes from the Greek funeral tradition where women preside over the funerals by carrying large knives. She explains, "It is a ritual of female empowerment, and they use it to inspire revenge for those killed. Believe me, they don't take crap from anyone." Throughout her career, Galás will be accused of both radical feminism and misogyny. She is ruthless in her scathing attacks on the patriarchy, but she is equally disdainful of perceived femininity and maternity in particular. Citing Baudelaire, Wilde, and Burroughs, she admits, "I don't know why, but all my favourite writers are misogynist."
1984 to 1985
Galás releases a self-titled album, again comprised of only two tracks. The manager of 50s exotica singer Yma Sumac tries to book Galás on The Merv Griffin Show, but she declines. Instead, she begins composing a Plague Mass, entitled Masque of the Red Death. She isn't aware at the time that her brother Philip-Dimitri, who is now a successful playwright in San Francisco, has been diagnosed with AIDS. In 1985, in keeping with her belief that childbirth is "obscene," "alien," and "a capitalist enterprise," Galás gets her tubes tied. "I prefer the concept of a woman as goddess. In a shamanistic society, no shaman has children."
Galás describes the concept of a Plague Mass as a documentation of "the process of slow death in a hostile environment." The first two instalments of her Plague Mass, The Masque of the Red Death, are released on Mute Records. The Divine Punishment is written from the point of view of the judging moralists. Saint of the Pit is written in the voice of the afflicted. Red Death is anything but a sentimental and sappy study in bereavement; instead, it is rooted in revenge, which she says has enduring appeal in Greek culture. Galás says the Mass is meant to confront "those who've twisted Christ's teaching into socially sanctioned condemnation of sexual difference." Her brother dies of AIDS the same year, an event she describes as a "personal apocalypse." She dedicates the trilogy to him and her friend Tom Hopkins, another close friend and AIDS victim.
Globus and Golan, producers of the schlockiest movies of the 80s, hire Galás to be the voice of the Japanese assassins and flying weapons in American Ninja 2. "When they had footage of lots of Japanese assassins warming up for killings, there was my voice being the pack leader laughing and screaming and speaking Japanese," she explains. "They gave me permission to write my own text in Japanese, which they never should have done." Instead of saying "I am the Japanese killer assassin," she gets her highly amused translator to teach her how to say things like: "This is not the voice of Charlie Manson. This is the voice of Linda Blair cutting off the balls of Charlie Manson and sticking them in his mouth." The producers don't know any better and leave it in, making the movie much funnier in Japan.
Galás contributes to the much more reputable soundtrack of Derek Jarman's film The Last of England, which also deals with the AIDS plague. The third instalment of the Mass is released, titled You Must Be Certain of the Devil, and it is a call to arms against piety and homophobia. The rousing title track is the closest she gets to traditional gospel music. At the CMJ New Music conference in New York, Galás breaks up the backslapping mood at a panel by saying, "While you're sitting here, having a good time, think about somebody who's lying in vomit bags, lying in perspiration and in dirty old sheets that some people have to clean up. And when you aren't too busy eating pussy and getting autographs, you might go to an ACT-UP meeting tomorrow night. There's a little bit of education for all you homophobes, for all of you impotents, for all of you cowards, for all of you ass lickers, for all of you motherfuckers but that would be too nice for you."
Galás is 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 is trying to stop safe sex campaigns. Thousands protest outside the church, but Galás and few other ACT-UP activists prefer direct confrontation. When O'Connor launches into a speech about "caring for the afflicted and suffering," Galás and company lie down in the aisles while charging the Cardinal with complicity in the plague. The congregation rises and recites the Lord's Prayer (as in The Exorcist) while the activists are carried out of the church on stretchers by police.
Galás returns to church, only this time with an invitation. She performs the entire Plague Mass at the Episcopalian Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in New York City, the second largest cathedral in the world. The performance also includes a new, previously unrecorded section of the mass, entitled There Are No More Tickets to the Funeral. It involves more of a theatrical element, including dousing her naked torso with blood while performing at the altar. She says that until a cure for AIDS is found, she will continue to perform and add sections to the mass. She is diagnosed with Hepatitis C, which she believes she contracted through intravenous drug use when she was a student.
Galás performs The Masque of the Red Death in Italy. The Christian Democratic Party don't take kindly to her presence, especially when they hear the part of the mass she recites in Italian that reads: "I am the Scourge. I am the Holy Fool. I am the Shit of God. I am the Sign. I am the Plague. I am the Antichrist." They miss the point of the work entirely, and assume her use of Biblical text elsewhere in the mass is satirical and blasphemous. Meanwhile, back in the States, a Christian television show puts her on their Satanic hit list alongside Ozzy Osbourne and Slayer. Rather than revelling in the infamy, Galás who takes her spiritual matters very seriously is saddened by the ignorance, arguing that her work is about "people who are crucified by society, people who are considered outlaws, who are really modern day saints." Galás makes her most unlikely guest appearance when she and Henry Rollins sing back-up vocals on a song by the Blake Babies, Juliana Hatfield's indie rock band.
1992 to 1993
As a brief respite from the Plague Mass, Galás releases The Singer, a stripped-down album of blues and gospel standards such as "I Put a Spell on You" and "See That My Grave is Kept Clean." On the surface, this seems like a conservative move until you hear what she does with the material, which is more palatable but still terrifying. Francis Ford Coppola hires her to provide demonic sound effects for his film Bram Stoker's Dracula. She's already in this frame of mind; her 1993 album Vena Cava consists entirely of solo vocal and effects. It takes full advantage of her preferred set-up of electronically processed vocals, involving between two to four microphones and a tape delay system. The lyrics come from a text written by her late brother, composed during the slow destruction of his mental and emotional state while dying of AIDS. That decomposition is reflected in the harrowing, hallucinogenic, nightmarish and nonsensical music, which is meant to convey a state of dementia.
Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones seeks out Galás for a collaboration. He believes it would be an ideal combination: classic rock and Greek tragedy. She pens some "homicidal love songs," and the first thing they agree upon is that there would be no guitars. Jones says, "With a voice like Diamanda's, a guitar would simply be a cosmetic device." Pete Thomas from the Attractions rounds out the rhythm section. Her version of "I Put a A Spell On You" appears on the soundtrack to Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers. Galás makes her second most-unlikely guest vocal appearance, on an Erasure album.
Galás publishes a book called The Shit of God, which she describes as a "scapegoat text." She explains the term to No Alternative Girls fanzine: "This is where the person who's been called a sinner says, Yes, I am all these things that you fear, and it's a mirror that reflects upon your own face.'" Her movie career ends when she is hired to play a tarot card reader in the Al Pacino/John Cusack movie City Hall. She is fired when she refused to cover up her tattoo, which reads, "We are all HIV+" across her knuckles. Her parting words to the director are, "In the age of the epidemic, your movie ain't shit." Galás's 1996 tour is dedicated to her album Schrei X, a 35-minute piece for solo voice performed in quadraphonic sound and total darkness, when she figures ears are at their most vulnerable. It's her harshest work to date, involving sensory deprivation, rape, and a person being continually attacked with no escape. To maintain intimacy, she doesn't perform it for audiences larger than 300 people. Later this year she tours a program of new material and more blues and gospel songs, which are released on the 1998 live album Malediction and Prayer.
Defixiones, Will and Testament: Orders From the Dead is a new piece, a meditation on genocide and denial, focusing specifically on the Armenian and Anatolian Greek massacres of 1915 and 1922. Some of the lyrics draw from texts written by various poets in exile. Galás debuts the work at a Belgian castle where witches and non-Christians were tortured in the middle ages. She won't record and release it until 2003.
Vigilante prostitute Aileen Wuornos is executed in Florida for the murder of seven men. One day later, Charlize Theron is cast to play her in a reprehensible movie called Monster, released in 2004. In a world of Robert Picton and the Green River killer, Galás considers Wuornos a "huge hero" and performs four concerts dedicated to her. As a rape victim herself and an artist who has often tackled the subject of vengeance, Galás's interest in the case dates back to 1996, when she began performing Phil Ochs' song "Iron Lady" in honour of Wuornos.
Defixiones is one of two double CDs released in November, both of which mark her first recordings in five years. La Serpenta Canta is a double live album of covers recorded between 1999 and 2002 at a variety of venues, including the Vogue Theatre in Vancouver. As Atom Egoyan found out when his film Ararat was banned in Turkey, the topic of genocide is still an extremely sore point in the region. A performance of Defixiones in Armenia is cancelled because the owner thinks the people are too timid and conservative to deal with it. Galás is also at work on an opera, Nekropolis, about societal outcasts who are purposely hidden from society. She tells L.A. Weekly, "I never, never do work because I feel that people are going to relate to it. I do it because I feel that I need to do it."
The Essential Diamanda Galás
Masque of the Red Death Trilogy (Mute, 1989)
This two-CD set includes all three original albums of Galás's Plague Mass: The Divine Punishment, Saint of the Pit, and You Must Be Certain of the Devil. These albums are no longer available individually, although a single live disc with excerpts from the St. John Divine show is titled simply Plague Mass. Some of the electronics sound a bit dated, but in no way do they obscure the power or the fury of the work.
The Sporting Life (Mute, 1994)
Perhaps the easiest entry point for Galás neophytes, she assumes a different type of power when backed up by a ferocious rock rhythm section, a force that could make Robert Plant cower like a terrified little girl.
Malediction and Prayer (Asphodel, 1998)
Of her three albums of piano blues, this one features the best cross-section of material: Son House's "Death Letter," the Supremes' "My World is Empty Without You," and Johnny Cash/Shel Silverstein's harrowing electric chair classic "25 Minutes to Go." She also puts music to poems by Pasolini, Baudelaire, and Miguel Huezo Mixco. Her highly underrated piano skills, usually overshadowed by her voice, are on full display throughout.