Clearly this is a subject close to Diamanda Galas’ heart – her father was a Greek immigrant to San Diego – although, like all great works of art the piece takes on a universal significance. The first section of the work, which takes up the first disc, is titled The Dance and opens with a moving, emotionally draining 12 minute-long excerpt from the Armenian liturgy followed by a no less harrowing setting of the poet Adonis’s The Desert.
This insistence on using Eastern modes and musical forms can be alienating to ears versed on Western classical and popular music but is perfectly in line with Galas’ transgressive impulses.
As Galas herself put it: “My voice was given to me as an instrument for inspiration for my friends, and a tool of torture and destruction to my enemies. An instrument of truth.”
After over half an hour of wailing and Galas’ thunderous keyboard work, The Eagle Of Tkhuma, which features massed voices, in the style of Eastern European state choirs, is something of a relief. Orders From The Dead, however, is positively chilling, Galas intoning “the world is going up in flames” and similar homilies over a background of chanting and drums.
The second half of the piece, subtitled Songs Of Exile, features various settings of Middle Eastern poets, as well as Galas’ own Birds Of Death and the traditional See That My Grave Is Kept Clean, which also features on the companion release, La Serpenta Canta.
As with the first section this is definitely not for those of a delicate disposition. Galas demands, and expects, much from her audience, but there is some relief from the sturm und drang . Epistola A Los Transeuntes could almost be a Jacques Brel piece, and Birds Of Death has a certain brooding beauty.
The overwhelming message of this work is a powerful one, that those who have died in the genocides of history have been neither defeated nor forgotten. Indeed, the very title of the work, Defixiones, refers to the warnings engraved in lead which were placed on the graves of the dead in Greece and Asia Minor. They cautioned against moving or desecrating the corpses under threat of extreme harm.
There’s no doubting that the full power of this musical evocation of genocide and its aftermath is probably best appreciated in live performance, preferably with one eye on a translation of the libretto. While those unfamiliar with Galas’ music should approach this dense album with caution, those already familiar will know what to expect. It is, without doubt, an extraordinary piece of work.