Diamanda Galás - Biography
Shrieking, keening, wailing, gnashing, cooing: Diamanda Galas sings avant-garde arias to the damned. With a startling, three-and-a-half octave range and a disturbing array of imagery, the Greek-American vocalist and pianist vivifies worlds of anguish, pain, persecution, suffering, cruelty, and redemption. Her work addresses AIDS, genocide, and terror unflinchingly, with a self-righteous rage that few can match; yet she also tackles standards from the sorrowful albums of raw Americana, making them her own. Insistently, for three decades, she has attacked the duplicitous and empathized with the victimized. The female anti-Virgil in a Hell on Earth, Diamanda Galas offers a narrative that both reaches catharsis and shreds carotid arteries.
Born in San Diego to Greek Orthodox parents, she was encouraged as a musician from an early age, on a variety of instruments, and grew up as a pianist. At the age of 14, she performed Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 1 as a soloist with the San Diego Symphony. In 1979 she moved to Europe where she performed in the opera Un Jour Comme un Autre by Vinko Globokar; its subject matter was the torture of a Turkish woman, as described by Amnesty International. This would set the theme for much of her work to follow.
Her first recorded release was The Litanies of Satan (1982 Y Records). The title track begins with a furious attack of vocals more rattlesnake than human, ricocheting back and forth in hard stereo separation; when this gives way to discernable language, it happens with a furious shriek, spitting rage. The other track is as unruly as its title: “Wild Women with Steak Knives (The Homicidal Love Song for Solo Scream).” Processed through tape manipulation, her voice becomes an attacking swarm of hornets.
Next was Diamanda Galas (1984 Metalanguage), on guitarist Henry Kaiser’s sorely missed label. "Panoptikon," alludes to British law theorist Jeremy Bentham's proposal for a particularly cruel form of prisoner/captor interaction. On “Tragouthia Apo to Aima Exoun Fonos” (translated as "Song from the Blood of Those Murdered") she memorializes those killed in the 1967 Grecian military coup, applying a rich background of texture while delivering staccato recriminations and pleadings that are chilling in their sincerity and complexity.
That same year, Galas move to San Francisco to undertake her first major work, The Plague Mass, a trilogy meant to give a voice to those dead and dying of AIDS; coincidentally, her brother, the actor and playwright Philip-Dimitri Galas, was diagnosed at this time as being HIV-positive. She describes the work in strident terms: “[Some people] believe that I'm doing this out of hysteria, not cold, clinical interest. The Greek tradition is not about whimpery tears of sorrow; it's a vendetta culture. You're never going to see me get up and sing, 'Oh, the suffering of my people, isn't it awful.’” When her brother succumbed in 1986, she tattooed a challenge on her fists: “We are all HIV-positive."
She also graduated to the record label Mute, which continues to release her work. The Divine Punishment (1986 Mute) was shortly followed with Saint of the Pit (1987 Mute), the latter being a varied set of interpretations of writings by French poètes maudits, including Tristan Corbière, Charles Baudelaire, and Gérard de Nerval, accompanied by a wild arrangement of keys.
You Must Be Certain of the Devil (1988 Mute) expanded her audience. It was recorded with a significant budget at legendary Studio Hansa in Berlin, former host of the Bowie/Eno pairings. Her version of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” is harsh yet haunting. The single, “Double-Barreled Prayer,” takes no prisoners, with a steady beat that brings it closer in tone to the menacing rhythms of Cabaret Voltaire. And when Galas appropriates and redirects the familiar Christmas lines —
They know when you’ve been sleeping,
They know when you’re awake . . .
— you know that Goodness Sake has nothing to do with it. The video for the song makes this doubly apparent, as she writhes and screams, naked, covered from head to toe in blood. “Ho, ho, ho” it’s not.
In 1989, Mute gave Galas the royal treatment, re-releasing her entire catalog on CD, with The Divine Punishment, Saint of the Pit, and You Must Be Certain of the Devil bound together lavishly as Masque of the Red Death. An excellent live summary of this material followed, with Plague Mass Live, 1984-End of the Epidemic (1991 Mute); it was recorded in concert on October 12 and 13, 1990 at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, in New York City.
Galas next moved in an unusual direction by releasing The Singer (1992 Mute), a collect of blues and gospel standards. It’s traditional music in Galas’ inimitably unconventional style. She explained this record’s links to her earlier work: "I have intentionally re-appropriated these blues, gospel, and spiritual pieces in the context of the AIDS community . . . My appropriation of this music is in service of those voices who are crying in the darkness, who are actually saying these things. What people are going through now is hardly a remembrance of past misery, hardly a vague abstraction of pain." When she covers Screamin’ Jay Hawkins “I Put a Spell on You,” and shrieks, “. . . because you’re . . . MINE,” you can definitely feel the pain.
Vena Cava (1993 Mute) was a companion to the Plague Mass that addresses clinical depression and AIDS dementia, which originally appeared at The Kitchen in New York City. The same year also found her on a very opposite coast, providing vocals and sound effects for Francis Ford Coppola's remake of Bram Stoker's Dracula.
Galas then made another unexpected step towards accessibility, by pairing with Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones. They first released a single, “Do You Take This Man?” (1994 Mute), followed by a full-length CD, The Sporting Life (1994 Mute). The material reflects Galas’ interest in swaggering murder ballads and the like, and operates with a raw and sleazy sense of humor. The arrangements are definitely rock-based, with a nasty rhythm section propelling it along; it’s reminiscent of the punk-blues swing of Nick Cave and the Birthday Party.
The Sporting Life is certainly emblematic of Diamanda Galas’ strident views on gender and female empowerment. Of the recent Lilith Fair scene, she opines,”[It’s] what I call 'four-string gash' music. I can't stand those fucking broads! I can't stand that women's music shit. I think the problem is, they're taking too many anti-depressants, too much Prozac and they're seeing their therapists who convince they deserve to be onstage playing and singing about their problems and that anybody should be interested." Mopey folkies: consider yourselves warned.
Galas next released the soundtrack to a theater piece, Schrei X (1996 Mute). Originally performed entirely in the dark, The Chicago Tribune described it as “claustrophobic in its intensity.” Malediction and Prayer (1998 Mute) extends her interest in more conventional, song-based material.
However, she continued to develop large-scale works that address human tragedy on a grand scale, while politicizing the personal. Defixiones, Will and Testament: Orders from the Dead (2004 Mute) is memorial tribute the Armenian, Assyrian, Greek, and Hellenic victims of the Turkish genocide. ("Defixiones" or curse-tablets, are buried beneath Greek gravestones, warning against removing the remains of the dead.)
Diamanda Galas continues to represent the suffering and abused of the past by bring pain into the present. La Serpenta Canta (2003 Mute) is another live album full of haunting, harrowing moments. Her most recent release, Guilty, Guilty, Guilty (2008 Mute) again renders classics — including songs by Ralph Stanley, Hank Williams, and Johnny Cash — in her own, thoroughly unique manner.
Describing a performance of Williams’ “I Feel So Lonesome I Could Cry,” journalist Alex Vartay both describes Diamanda Galas’ specific approach, and summarizes the magnificent mood she is able to conjure: "With its stark visual poetry and coyote-howl tune, this is one of the world's great songs, especially when delivered at a death-march crawl and sung with spectral intensity. Judicious touches of digital delay turned Galas' voice into one long wail, in a performance that was so spooky I swear the temperature in the room dropped several degrees."
Chilling in her intensity and unwavering in her fury, Diamanda Galas continues to summon the ghosts of the dead and provoke the consciences of the living.