The sound of Diamanda Galás

Is it music? Can you bear to listen?

Diamanda Galás. The snarls ascend slowly, half-octave by half-octave glissandos, each broken by the breathy outbursts. She’s screeching now.
  • Diamanda Galás. The snarls ascend slowly, half-octave by half-octave glissandos, each broken by the breathy outbursts. She’s screeching now.
  • Image by T.J. Enge

With the lights out, what you first hear is a deep intake of breath amplified, a whooshing intake of air that is stored in silence for a second, maybe more, as if warning is being served. Then the air is cracked by wild, rapid tonguing and simultaneous shrieking that alternates with a high operatic warble. A staccato babel interrupted by a nearly out-of-control coloratura soprano that is defeated by the babel that is defeated by the soprano, again and again and again.

“Galas is the most extraordinary, extreme and honest vocal performer you’d ever hope to see.”

“Galas is the most extraordinary, extreme and honest vocal performer you’d ever hope to see.”

Diamanda Galás is in floor-length black sequins. She’s all black hair, all eyes, lips, curves and angles, her hands exploring the three microphones mounted in front of her on a single chrome post as her mouth works back and forth between the mikes.

She steps back from the equipment briefly, leans in again, and a midrange snarl is broken by two open-throated aspirations: Hah . . . hah . . . The snarls ascend slowly, half-octave by half-octave glissandos, each broken by the breathy outbursts. She’s screeching now, her vocal cords more and more taut, no rapacious pants separating the screeches that ascend further and further until the rasp is gone and the note switches into human timbre — high, pure, a squealing that lifts even higher away from the last of the rasps and heads into the ionosphere yodeling, ululating, cracking once before going up further into the reaches that make dogs howl and that are nearly inaudible to the human ear.

Diamanda Galas been heard in new-music spots in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York, or at new-music festivals in Zagreb, Berlin, Grenoble, Paris, but not for two years in San Diego, her hometown.

Diamanda Galas been heard in new-music spots in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York, or at new-music festivals in Zagreb, Berlin, Grenoble, Paris, but not for two years in San Diego, her hometown.

The lights are out again. A low, rumbling, grunting. What is that? Not a pig, not quite a bear. A heavy, not-so-slow beast picking its way past corpses. Galás screams, the grunting rumble returns. She screams, rumbles, screams. The beast changes from rumble to snort, the scream to a squeak. Galás turns human, leaving the hulk and the damsel behind to sort themselves out. Her voice is now operatic but still not literal, it’s nonlingual: it lilts and bends, a bit more wistful than imploring. She’s using vowels and recognizable consonants, approximating human musical speech, pulling within range of Western musicality, but only for perhaps ten seconds before she hits the reverberation pedal on the floor and the voice is scattered to the winds, echoing, doubling back on itself. The babel begins again and a whole village of frantic, angry Greek women is squabbling over some intrusion or outrage.

That is some of “Wild Women with Steak Knives” as performed earlier this month in San Francisco. “Wild Women” is naif of Galás's one album, an extended-play recording that turns at 45 rpm; the “Litanies of Satan ” is the other half. As yet unrecorded are two other of her compositions, “Panoptikon” and “Tragouthia apo to Aima Exoun Fonos.” All of them, however, have been heard by audiences in new-music spots in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York, or at new-music festivals in Zagreb, Berlin, Grenoble, Paris, and throughout Europe, but not for two years in San Diego, her home town. She captured the headline in the Frankfurter Rundschau’s review of the Donaueschingen Festival last October: “Von Neuer Hörkultur und der Furie Diamanda. ” John Gill, of London’s Time Out magazine, burned his qualifiers in a review that ended, “Whore, saint, demon, lover, madwoman or angel, there is no other voice in rock, jazz or the avant-garde with her violence, consuming passion and pure elemental force.” “Galas is the most extraordinary, extreme and honest vocal performer you’d ever hope to see,” said Gregory Sandow in the Village Voice. “Galas’s music is a music of archetypical border situations: primal-scream therapy, unveiled of its intimacy in the presence of 3000 paralyzed listeners. . . . When she performs onstage she is a witch,” wrote jazz critic Joachim Ernst Berendt, in Downbeat.

People are afraid of this woman. In San Francisco months ago, several music promoters wanted to talk to her about future performance dates after hearing her for the first time, but wouldn’t go backstage. When she came out to them, she asked why. “Well, you are intimidating,” they said. A group of London feminists screamed at her in performance. What is unnerving about Galás is not just her music, but the fact that she can make it nearly alone. Without the harmonizer, the reverb, the tape loops, and sound squashers that are used in live performance, the sound on her own would be nearly as complicated, nearly as deranging, nearly as powerful. That makes her something of a phenomenon, every performance something of an event. It would be understandable if a sizable percentage of those who witness her performance do so but once only. She appears this Saturday in Sherwood Auditorium at the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art.

Some time ago, maybe six, maybe seven years ago — she’s not going to say exactly when — she started this public display of extremism with no practical knowledge of singing, and without voice lessons. She had played blues piano with her musician-professor father, had listened to avant-garde jazz saxophonists Albert Ayler, Ornette Coleman, and pianist-composer Cecil Taylor, and had played around Los Angeles and San Diego with some San Diegans favoring less-charted jazz. And she had studied music more formally as an undergraduate at UCSD. But what she has learned to do with her voice grows mainly out of that solitary beginning. “I didn’t know how to sing at all. I got up in front of audiences with my back to them and just started screaming and singing. ” One of the early venues was Genesee East (mental) Health Center, standing in front of the institutionalized with her back to them, waiting as long as five minutes before something clicked and she started. “They got into it,” she recalls. “Some of them shaking their heads. It was probably good for them in some ways, but there was really no way of knowing. See, I perform for all audiences, whoever they are or whatever they think they are, whether they’re in a mental institution or out on the street, whether they’re in a recital hall or whether they’re in a club. So that was just another group of people, and when I say ‘group of people,’ I don’t mean people that I [categorize as a] group; it was just another audience, and it was certainly an audience that wasn't going to go away, wasn’t it? But it was interesting because . . . in a sense it was a nonperformance because, you see, people in institutions are there oftentimes because they perform unacceptable behaviors in public, and that was sort of what I did, too. So it was interesting.

“The only reason, afterward, that I started studying voice was because I realized there were certain things I wanted to do that would take tremendous technique to be able to do. Sound sculpture, trying to create a large edifice with your voice. I began dealing with the instrument [voice] compositionally and if I didn’t have the technique, I couldn’t compose the sound. I couldn’t grow. Not that I could necessarily hear what I wanted to do, but what I had an idea about.” She began operatic training five or six years ago with a La Jolla teacher, Frank Kelly. “So now it’s more and more possible to have an idea . . . let’s say five or six very high voices at microtonal intervals apart, let’s say between high C and high E above that to create this really blazing cluster of sound. And to do that I have to be able to sing it. To control the composition, I have to be the one that’s singing it. I started to hear a more complicated, complex edifice than what I was already building."

It’s not easy to enjoy what comes from her, not even easy to think of a proper setting for it. Maybe some pile of stones out in the open, maybe as martial music for an attack on a used-car lot. She prefers to perform in clubs with drinkers on the verge of becoming a mob. Polite, academic audiences are not her favorites. “It’s the difference between being a participant and a voyeur. In a club, they’re in it, there’s more of a whole context for what is happening. In Italy, someone screamed at me, he kept it up. ‘Che bella voce,’ which was an insult, ‘What a beautiful voice,’ because I was shrieking. I just walked to the front of the stage and pointed at him and continued singing at him. Scared the piss out of him. I like real situations, I don’t like artificial contexts, which you get in the big cities if you get enough press. People think they’re supposed to like you, so they won’t boo. They’ll just sit there and say to themselves, ‘I hate this shit,’ but they’ll clap, right? So they’re dead. They’re like students. They’re not for it, they’re not against it. They just go to an opening, look at the walls, and then leave.”

Look at that face: arrogant, haughty, beautiful really, but there’s something else going on that has to do with the dark and foggy heath, suicidal surrender, moth-to-the-flame fatal lust, unleashed passions. She’s a Fury, a Medea, an Amazon. She has called herself the nightmare of every would-be conqueror in a Camaro, Vagina Dentata. La Dominatrix, without whip but controlling her audiences with her voice.

Diamanda grew up here, daughter of James P. Galás, trombonist and a professor of Greek mythology for some thirty years at City College; daughter of Garfield School principal Georgianna Galás, both of them strict Orthodox Greeks; sister of Philip Dimitri Galás, himself a complicated writer-performer exploring the fringes of bravura. Brother and sister are both impatient, quick, touchy, like thoroughbreds, eyes wide and huge, nostrils the same. It’s a family: mother worries over daughter’s career decisions, makes her sequined costumes. Her parents’ orthodoxy somehow encompasses and tolerates the extreme darkness of her imagery.

“Do you remember Blood of Dracula, the film? The schoolteacher who seduces the young high school girl and then turns her into a vampire. It’s a woman schoolteacher, too, that makes it interesting — a lesbian, sado-masochistic, dominatrix kind of film. It’s very good,” she says, being outrageous and ironic, just toying around in answer to questions about the origins of her guignol sensibility “I saw it in El Centro, at an El Centro drive-in. I was eight, maybe nine. My mother took me. There’s a scene when she gets changed from the nice high school girl. You see the normal face and then it gets weirder and weirder, the cheek bones get accentuated, the teeth get longer. It takes about two minutes, and the music keeps rising. Just great. It was an early impression.”

She wore all black in high school and at UCSD (where today she is a fellow at the school’s Center for Music Experiment), and still does on the street and wherever she goes. You see women of the Mediterranean, not just widows but young, married women, in all black. The sun is strong in the Mediterranean, of course, and it must sometimes hurt to wear black. Ask a nun, who must also wear black in full sunshine. There must be something to this conceit. Black is not no-color, it’s the presence of all colors. It’s also death and rage, pent-up rage. “I’ve always been extreme, musically and otherwise, unfortunately. So it manifests itself in my music. There’s this sense I have of tearing through, either tearing through my soul, or tearing through the top of my head. I’m going beyond my body, not in the crappy, mediumistic sense. I mean I'm taking myself as far as I can possibly go. Think about speaking in tongues, a need to speak. When you need to speak, the need is felt very directly, there are no walls in front of it. I know when I’m up there that it’s very immediate, it’s frenzied because it comes from the gut. It’s in my control, but it’s also beyond my control. When you lose control, you allow yourself to go further than you could if you were limited by what you know about yourself. But at the same time you have to learn how to control the direction and the propulsion of the movement so that you take it to a lot of different places.”

How serious is this all-black, Medea-Cassandra, Vampira persona? "Absolutely serious. It’s not bullshit. It’s not camp, not commercial in the sense I’m trying to sell something. It’s just who I am. We all have archetypes that are most comfortable for us, and that’s always been most comfortable for me, for the last Fifteen years anyway. When I was eighteen I was reading de Sade, I was influenced the most by him, Nietzsche, Edgar Allan Poe, Antonin Artaud. Musically it was First Chopin and Beethoven and then of course Albert Ayler, Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor. These people had a very strong impact on me. There’s probably no common element between Chopin and Cecil Taylor and Marquis de Sade except for their concept of rigor, of breaking through limits.

“People say, ‘Why are you so extreme, why do you need to do this?’ Well, that’s the definition of the human spirit, that it continually needs to evolve, it continually tries to evolve. There’s no reason for it, there’s no rational reason for it. It’s just a fact. The reason I’m in the avant-garde is not because I chose to be, but because there was something in my disposition to push me almost further than is physically safe. There’s no reason to do it, I just have to do it. I’m extreme. My gestures are extreme, the way I speak is extreme, the way I move is extreme, the rapidity of my speech . . . my whole performance is extreme. But that’s no different from who I am.”

A thought comes to mind about the way we view some people, some music, some art, writing, politics, eating habits — name it — as extreme, though we’re less disposed to see their opposites as such. Galás is extreme. Is Nancy Reagan? Is Shirley Temple Black? Is Ginger Rogers, Debby Boone, Cheryl Tiegs, Morgan Fairchild, Betty Boop?

These days, Galás performs with the help of — perhaps it’s more fair to say simply, with — Richard Zvonar, an electronic composer and technician who can process in the club or auditorium the live voice and produce sounds in performance normally heard on record only. Zvonar did the sound work on one side of Galás’s Litanies of Satan, produced in England and only scantily distributed in this country. It has now been re-released for wider distribution here.

Zvonar travels with her. The performances that immediately preceded the one scheduled two nights from now in Sherwood Auditorium took place in San Francisco’s New Performance Gallery before a crowd of 125 on one night, anyway, who seemed stunned or jaded or both. The second piece she performed after intermission was “Panoptikon,” in which Zvonar’s role is a bit more crucial. It begins with a low thundering sound, and throughout it. Galás's own live voice is periodically blended with prerecorded snips that are recognizably her own voice. Other times, there is no recognizable voice at all. Zvonar insists it is Galás performing, either live or on tape. “All of it is Diamanda. There may be portions in which I mix it up a bit, but it’s all her.”

In the darkness and under the influence of the bone-scraping “Panoptikon,” I scribbled cockeyed and nearly incoherent notes that nevertheless seemed to preserve the character of the experience. Some excerpts:

“New sequins, this time silver.

“Shhhh . . . ooooaa AWHHHHAAAAAAAA . . . Big alto sustained note. Germanic. Wagnerian. In front of thunder.

“A flight of bombers and her own voice prerecorded in a sturdy warble. She detaches two of the mikes and begins to move around in a crouch, from side to side.

“Now . . . as if talking, very little theatrical. Some. After releasing herself from the sound, she casts a damning look at the audience. A sound witch.

“She holds mikes up . . . haunted. Moves in slo-mo with mikes up, then into the side squat, then a deep squat. Sound assumes its most heart-stopping, marrow curdling. ‘What do . . . Whadda I gotta pay’ (English?)

“The hair comes forward over eyes, changing her whole aspect. A Mayan monster-god. She does not take her eyes from the audience. In spikes again she’s down low on ground. This is a nightmare of the oracle. Absolute, horrifying power. She pushes the hair back from her head with mikes rising from her hands and held at the temples.

“Lights out. She holds the position in full squat for 60 to 75 seconds.

— end —“

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