By Jon Randall and Wesley Joost
LET'S NOT CHAT ABOUT DESPAIR. LET'S NOT CHAT ABOUT DESPAIR.
"Do you tremble at the timid steps / or crying, smiling faces who, in mourning, now have come to pay their last respects? / In Kentucky Harry buys a round of beer / to celebrate the death of Billy Smith, the queer, / whose mother still must hide her face in fear. / You who mix the words of torture, suicide and death / with scotch and soda at the bar, /we're all real decent people aren't we, but there's no time left for talk
PLEASE Don't chat about Despair
A funereally dark stage - you can barely make out a river of glassy, raven hair. The only light - three tiny, hypnotic dots of red reflect off the lip of her glossy black Grand. With rumbling jangly blues and subdued classical piano playing, laying the foundation for an astonishing three-and-a-half octave voice, Diamanda Galás mesmerized an ecstatic audience at Berkeley's Zellerbach Hall. Never before at any opera or rock performance have we seen such an enthusiastic and adoring response (or a gathering of such cool well-dressed people). For once, the screams of "Brava" were fully justified. Truly brave, she bared her soul and her spirit.
During the conclusion of Insane Asylum, a song about the terror a boy feels during his incarceration, she released a shrill of insanity and despair we will never forget. Again, truly bravura. With a flawless technique she took her voice where only Yma Sumac has gone before -- twice! Both coloratura freak-outs were identical, prefectly executed, for all their incredible elaboration.
Galás is an international vocalist, composer, and performer who was first seen in Europe at the Festival d'Avignon. At Avignon she sang in Vinko Globokar's opera In Jour Come Une Autre, based on the Amnesty International documentation of the arrest and torture of women for alleged treason. From there she went to Paris to record two solo works, Wild Women With Steak Knives and Tragouthis Apo to Aima Exoun Fonos (Song from the Blood of Those Murdered).
In San Francisco, 1984, she began developing Plague Mass. Her biographer comments, "As her past works had more than indicated, Diamanda's passion and commitment is to the ideal of challenging injustice, of insisting that art must have a deeply relevant meaning on every level of existence. It was probably unavoidable, then, that her next major work would be on the far reaching subject of AIDS."
"When I began the trilogy most of my so-called artistic and business associates tried to discourage me," she revealed in June 1988. "They said it would be a bad direction. After Wild Women With Steak Knives, Song From The Blood Of The Murdered and Panoptikon I guess they were hoping that I'd get soft and do something more polite. Well, the music world is full of cowards, idiots, impotence and homophobia. In the face of that level of resistance to my intuition, that attempt to sabotage my vision, I've had to say, 'The Mike Tyson of the voice does not waste time talking about bullshit.'"
In all Galás has recorded eleven albums, including her most recent Schrei X. which alternates extreme high-energy vocal work with absolute silence. The work takes place in darkness, and uses texts from Galās, Job and Thomas Aquinas. Yet for the novice Galās listener we recommend her album for voice and piano, The Singer.
We spoke with her in the very merry Christmas season.
Goblin Magazine: Are you feeling full of Christmas cheer?
Diamanda Galás: It's rather nightmarish in New York at the moment, but for me Christmas would be a nightmare in any city of the world.
Goblin: Are you going to do a Christmas album? We could see you with a little red Santa hat.
Galás: Such a dire proposition. I don't see it happening in the near future.
Goblin: You do some amazing work speaking in tongues. What are your influences? Did you have to observe schizophrenics to get such a genuine sound?
Galás: No, when you have the fortune of being an educated paranoid, you don't have to actually watch anyone. I've been doing that work for so many years now. It is not influenced by anyone, it's just work I've been doing from the very beginning. I never call it anything. People call it things and I let them call it whatever they want. I've been to conferences where they got different people who spoke in tongues and tried to get them to speak together -- which was completely insane. Because the idea of it is very alien to wanting to communicate with another human being. It's in a sense a very anti-social instinct. So the conference was a complete failure because people just looked at each other saying: who the fuck are you?
Goblin:Have you ever studied your vocal patterns to see if there's any linguistic structure to it?
Galás: That's a very interesting idea. I haven't listened to my work the way a lot of people have. I don't know what it is but I have a problem listening to it and it makes doing records very difficult. I just want to do it and leave the studio. I haven't done that kind of analysis-- perhaps some day I will, or someone else will do it for me.
Goblin: You have mentioned that your work is highly structured. What kind of structure, since you're formally trained, do you tend to use to give unity and formal structure. Sonata form?
Galás: I'm sure that I would do that simply because I've spent so many years playing sonatas. When you play that music it's just something that gets into your blood and you naturally understand these kinds of forms, these ABA forms, ABCA forms, or whatever they are. They're just there. What I realize I do is combine certain kinds of pre-studio work, which really is a lot of writing about timbre and the text information. Then I go into the studio, take notes on what was discovered there, go home and eventually hone down the direction of the work...... If someone were to look at the notes of Schrie X they would just not believe it because there is so little clear writing there. I keep a lot of it in my head and in my voice. The voice remembers .... hahahahaha ......
It was something I discussed once with Lukas Foss. He expressed a real worry that when I die the music is going to die because I didn't notate it. All I can say is yes, probably, because I don't know how to notate it. I never studied composition I just performed many piano works music up from five years old into graduate school. I know what kind of devices I'm using structurally just as any artist is aware of them--but I don't know how to write the work so that another singer could do it.
I stopped singing for other composers because what I realized is that-- 1) the performer had to spend an immense amount of time in what often turns out to be a very anal activity--this indulging of the "composer's" every "musical" whim, and 2) the performer most often has to do a lot of musical improvisation in order to make any sense of the work. Having done that enough times and not being credited for it, I decided if I'm going to be experimenting with my voice I might as well write my own music. The career of Cathy Berberian bears testament to this. She was never credited as the co-composer of works such as "Sequenza" and "Visage," for example, which were collaborations between Berberian and Luciano Berio. She was a great improviser....
Goblin: What kinds of drugs are you fond of?
Galás: My options at the moment are quite limited, since I have Hepatitis C. In the very beginning, however--LSD-- I used to go into an anacohic chamber, which is like a padded cell, and do work because I wanted to be sure no one heard me on the outside . I wanted it to be a very private activity. I didn't want it to be listened to by anyone tripping out outside the door. Methedrine was naturally a big favorite, as well, but I think some of the best stuff I've done hasn't had to do with drugs. I think working with drugs was just a natural part of experimenting with any possible thing I could get my hands on. I still talk about doing this record Speed Screams that has a bunch of thirty second performances , and a nice nurse standing by to administer and troubleshoot each performance. In a sense , however, I did that with Schrei X--clean, as it were.
Goblin:It's one of your most intense records.
Goblin: Aren't there commercial problems with your record company when something is so difficult it probably won't sell very much?
Galás: Of course, that's implicit. Daniel Miller (who heads Mute Records) and I have had these discussions before. He has always been a fan of the most unlikely people, a lot of electronic composers. While he recognizes that certain works are not going to sell, he still knows the worth of them. Miller is the only person who would ever have said in 1986 or in 1996, "Certainly I will support your trilogy dedicated to the AIDS epidemic." And this was my first project recording for MUTE.
Goblin: Do you see yourself in the tradition of Greek Orthodox mourning women?
Galás: Yes. This is not something I thought about when I initially did my work but yes, definitely. It occurred to me afterwards and many people have told me this. I used to do performances in Europe and have people from North Africa , Ethiopia, and Uganda come backstage to talk to me about the work; and they would ask, "where did you come into this tradition of singing? This is a tradition that would be interesting to the people of my country." It's very strange. My mother knows a lot about our relatives and background-- the Maniatic tradition of the funeral mourning. But my performance approach was not an academic one.
Of course later I read about it and this "inheritance" and it made a lot of sense.
Goblin: It seems as if it goes back to Medea; there's that tragic persona that's very, very Greek.
Galás: My fathers people are from Anatolia, in Turkey. As Middle-Easterners I think there are certain things that must just be genetic and instinctual. I really don't know what they are.
Goblin: You and Maria Callas are both such strong Greek singers.
Galás: Callas was such a great singer and an innovator of Western operatic performance in the sense that people like Baudelaire, Poe,and Nerval were innovators of their disciplines or Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane in theirs. They take their work to such a point of intensity that it's recognizable as, but transcendent and transgressive of its original form. And in the case of Callas somehow it seems as if operatic performance was something that most people had never paid that much attention to but suddenly were...... Of course ,when most singers approach that music, you might say with equanimity, "Well, that's opera--who wants to listen to it?"
Goblin: Are you afraid of damaging your voice like she did? She basically sang on her vocal capital as opposed to her vocal interest, as they call it.
Galás: I love someone asking me intelligent questions about the voice. Can you imagine anyone in "alternative music" discussing "vocal capital?" You can be sure that no one discusses it. I just read an interview with Leontyne Price. What a magnificent voice, and a presence. She is singing her ass off now and the reason for that is that she always knew how to sing and not sing on that capital. She knew how to project her voice and she could sing anything. I know she went through a period where people said, "You are an opera singer." and she said, "No, I am a great singer. I can sing anything I choose, Jazz, Blues, Soul . . ." Marilyn Horne also can sing anything. She is a great inspiration.
Goblin: Like your re-creation of spirituals are really great. You're there.
Galás: Spirituals are American classical music. I am an American, and I am one of the masters of this form. I take it seriously and I have taken this music into another place because I recognize what were and are the political imperatives of the music. Probably one of the only singers who would understand a lot of what I have been discussing about is Nina Simone. Lonesome, lonesome cowboy.
Goblin: I think Nina Simone became the lesbian Judy Garland.
Galás: What a wretched thing to be called. The idea of the singer representing herself as a victim is truly, truly well-loved in certain parts of the male gay community, but in the "queerest" circles it's considered a very tired thing.
Goblin: What did you say your vocal technique was again?
Galás: I said I was trained in bel canto, which ultimately was the technique that Wagner wanted his singers to use because it was the only technique that would cut through that huge orchestral sound. He wanted singers to project the sound through the skull with all the facial bone resonances you need to sustain a line in bel canto. I studied that in my twenties because I had to continue to be equal to what I heard as an improviser; otherwise I'd either be a liar on stage or I'd stop performing. In order to make a career, just like an opera singer, I can't just perform once a month and lose my voice. I had to build up a lot of stamina, a lot of power, a lot of physical wisdom about where the sound is placed. So I never hurt my voice singing.
Goblin: Do you consider yourself a mezzo soprano with a lower extension or an alto with an upper extension?
Galás: How unusual. Really, you have to know how many stupid questions I get asked to know how incredible this conversation is. That is a very interesting idea. Many people who know about voices have asked me about this. They asked me if I was a soprano who had an unusually low extension with a baritone sound.
I think I would be considered a lyric spinto soprano, but the projection of my voice has a very hard edge to it that cuts like a knife. I like thinking of it as a mezzo with a higher and lower extension, but, in fact,the voice in its proper place is all one scale that can be shaded or produced in ways which give the impression of different vocal instruments. That is a choice, however: it should not be a limitation imposed by bad technique.
Goblin: Some of your lyrics are satanic, do you literally believe that Satan exists as a personality?
Galás: I would say I have nothing to do with the Anton LaVey school of Satanism. I have often called it Las Vegas Satanism and I often regret that because I hear he's a very charming gentleman. The thing that I'm talking about is a very very ancient form of Satanism -- as considered the enemy of the religious-political Book of Laws of the day. Satan in the Old Testament is always perceived as the enemy of society, someone separate from society by choice or by inheritance, or both.
Goblin: The rebellious angel.
Galás: Exactly, and that's what Baudelaire is referring to when he says, "O Prince de l'exil, a qui l'on a fait tort, Et qui vaincu, toujours te redresses plu fort, O Satan, prends pitie de ma longue misere!"
"Oh Prince of Exile, who endurest wrong, Yet growest,in thy hatred, still more strong, Satan, at last take pity on our pain.î The voice of ignominy. And "that" is the voice of the dispossessed. That is what I am talking about. I'm talking about it in the same sense that people have talked for ages about the burning of witches as the scapegoats of a community. That's what the title of my book, The Shit Of God ("Sono le feci dal Signore") refers to. The Shit Of God are God's "mistakes," the ones the lawmakers want to warehouse outside of the city .... and those persons who are uninterested in breeding for the state.
Goblin: So you wouldn't say that Satan is an actual consciousness that does things, he just exists in human kind.
Galás: I wouldn't say yes or no to that. I have different feelings about that as most Greek people do. The ancient feeling of the Greeks was always that they had one claw in hell and the other in heaven and that's how they kept their balance. I would never deny any power that I could harness.
Goblin: Are you affiliated with any political group at all or are you completely free form in that area?
Galás: I'm pretty free form. I was affiliated with ACT UP and I always consider myself to be friendly with New York ACT UP. Obviously the various ACT UP organizations behave differently. Primarily I think my status as an individual is the one I find most powerful.
Goblin: Do you vote even?
Galás: Well, I must tell you, in the last election I did not. I just thought it was academic. I must tell you on the things that I work on I'm very, very selfish. I can say, "oh that's not my issue. My issue is the AIDS epidemic." None of these people are going to do anything about it unless they're directly involved with the underground which pushes people to make decisions on how much money is spent on AIDS anyway. Whether it's one president or another it seems to not change the status of the AIDS crisis. So I admit to being apathetic about racehorses and models.
Goblin: Do you still feel AIDS is genocide?
Galás: I think it is certainly in the sense of it being treated as an unimportant disease. But also in the sense of research irresponsibility. Clearly, a lot of people coming back from the Gulf War and Vietnam can talk a lot about chemical biological warfare experiments and how things can and will go wrong. The research of Evan Cameron from Canada --known for his sensory deprivation and psychotropic drug experiments on mental patients, the military, prisoners, etc.---and who was sent to Germany by the CIA to study Mengele's "research" ---bears witness to prioritizing biological warfare over health care.
There are too many variables involved for this epidemic NOT to be the result of some sort of chance operation and sloppiness. I don't think of AIDS as some sort of an innocuous evolution of a virus. This is a very, very long discussion that I've had with many other people.
Goblin: There's a Gay activist in a new play that just opened in Berkeley who just walks around saying, "Fuck you! What have you done about AIDS recently?"
Galás: Good for him. It's very easy to do one thing everyday. It doesn't have to be dramatic. It can just be one day delivering a meal to someone who is sick, or one day sending flowers to someone who's sick, or another day helping someone locate professionals of alternative therapies, etc. People tend to think of assistance as an all or nothing proposition and that's why there's so little community action.
Goblin: Are you still interested in starting vigilante squads?
Galás: Definitely. I don't see any way of getting out of that. Aileen Wuronos is one of my heroes and is erroneously considered a serial killer. She is a woman who was basically trying to earn a living and was exploited by the police force (at that time considered to BE the Green River Killer, for example) who are known to exploit and beat prostitutes because prostitutes have no political power whatsoever. Wuronos did what different prostitutes who didn't get caught sometimes have to do. She reached critical mass, and just decided that she had to run every aspect of her life. And I am with that woman two-hundred percent. I dedicate Iron Lady to her. That's why I sing it. (It was facetiously sung to her by her first lawyer.)
Unfortunately, in order to do certain types of things you have to have a lot of money behind you. If you don't you just go to the joint for twenty years and disappear into the system and there's no point in that. You have to have a plan, money, and do it properly. Unfortunately most women are not in a position to take real action when it comes to rape and street harassment.
And if they were then something would change.
Goblin: Have you studied martial arts?
Galás: I haven't studied martial arts; I have worked with a weapons expert in the Navy who taught me a few things about guns. I have a .38 special Smith &Wesson that I bought in San Diego years ago.
Goblin: That's more effective than martial arts.
Galás: What's nice about it is there's no human contact at all. As a piano player I don't have to hurt my hands. I've had stun guns and I think pellet guns are the way to go. The police force is working a lot with that because they make so many mistakes they don't want to go to jail for killing the wrong person. These guns should be made available to all women.
Goblin: Is there any thing or any person that really makes you guffaw?
Galás: I laugh quite a bit. The person who made me laugh the most was my best friend Carl Valentino, the possessor of a most profound gallows humor. He would say things that were unbelievable, and I miss him for that ----among so many other things. He had no reverence for one person or another on the basis of status or whatever opportunity he might be able to make of them. Carl would go with me to my concerts and other events and protect me from officious individuals by saying things that were very inappropriate and sometimes quite insulting --and I would always laugh.
Goblin: What do you think of Goths -- who seem to be a very large part of your audience?
Galás: I think it's very nice the way they dress. You can never tell anything about a person from the way they dress, but, on the other hand , if someone wants to give me respect and spend a lot of time in front of the mirror looking beautiful for my concert I have no objection whatsoever. In fact my Carnegie Hall concert was the first time Carnegie Hall had what looked like an opera audience for years. These rich people who go to see opera and classical performances now show up in sweat pants. With my audience a lot of them came in full drag . I heard they were devastating ......... I'm always delighted to know that my audience is doing well.
Goblin: Do you think a particularly unhappy childhood is enough to spawn a life of creation?
Galás:Yes, and I think that's who a lot of my audience is. And that's why I think a lot of the statements that appear to be dress statements are more than that. There is something very bleak . . . I talked to someone who has worked in the club scene in New York for many years and he says that years ago people used to make fun of Goths. Then they realized that a lot of them were kids from New Jersey--- coming to see these performances--- who were otherwise effectively isolated from everyone. Their parents were very conservative, or absent, many of them had very little money .... and they would make any kind of statement they could make in order to keep a sense of individuality and independence. It's something that people cannot discern easily.
Goblin: You said in one of your interviews that you would commit suicide if you couldn't perform anymore, but you don't sound very suicidal.
Galás:I can think of a period when I would have said that and thankfully I don't . . . I can't honestly tell you, if I didn't have a way to extrovert the things that I think about, I would end up ultimately in the position of depression: the position of defeat: when you've got your head up your ass eating your own shit for breakfast. The concave position. That's what depression is. So, yeah, I would have killed myself somehow.
Goblin: Do you think your art appeals to people who are as hysterical and extreme as it often is.
Galás: I think it appeals to people who are cold blooded as well. For example I don't think anyone would consider William Burroughs to be hysterical and we have a deep admiration for each other. I admire his absolute coldness of presentation. With me he would admire the opposite. The word hysteria as we all know comes from the word uterus and if somebody really wants THAT then I'll give it to them, but then that's what I would call it and when they heard it they would NEVER forget the meaning of the goddamn word. It would be a sound/sensory experience.
Goblin: When you perform are you yourself or are you literally possessed?
Galás: I am a different aspect of myself. If you read about Nijinsky you know that when he came off stage he was an entirely different person than when he was onstage. That's a professional. If you come off stage and you're the same way you are onstage, you're probably not very good, unless you are Jussi Bjoerling, who could sing in his sleep. It's as if you're onstage for the first time and you're nervous and afraid and you do your job just like a middle -weight or a heavy -weight, and then when you're done you can sit down and have a conversation with somebody or you can shut up. You don't have to keep hitting people all night.
Goblin: Well we hope you get through the Christmas season okay, everyone seems so depressed this time of year.
Galás: Well they should be, if you have to go to a drug store and listen to some fucking soul singer singing jingle bells it's enough to make you want to blow your head off. It's very, very vile. I said that to the clerk today at the drugstore and she looked at me in horror. "I'm shopping at your store, I'm a customer, please turn those jingle bells down. I find it hurtful and offensive." She told me I should thank God for my good fortune.
Maybe she was right.
The Diamanda Galas Website