Diamanda Galas is not your averageperformer. She’s been a research scientist, a prostitute and drug addict (andcarries the legacy in the form of hepatitis C). She composes in five languagesand has sung in ten. Her classically trained voice has a range of three and ahalf octaves and she is frequently called a diva, with adjectives such as’screaming’ and ‘gothic’ added according to taste. We were left under noillusions at the Royal Festival Hall that she does not like any part of thisdescription (she prefers to be called a singer) and isn’t wild about her devotedfollowing of gothic fans, suggesting that “they should invest their time dealingwith life, instead of being the living dead”.
To be fair, her albums – which include The Singer (1992) and Maledictionand Prayer (1998) – are astonishing, but at the same time the most challengingand uncomfortable I have ever heard. And there’s a fair amount of screaming.It’s not easy to describe what she does with those octaves at her command, butthis perhaps sums it up best, at least in relation to the recorded work: “Aperformance-art banshee of shrieks, warbles, growls and guttural moans – thesound of a Hieronymus Bosch painting.”
After her brother, the poet and playwright Philip Dimitri Galas, died of AIDSin 1984 she wrote her Plague Mass, which she performed in the Cathedral of StJohn the Divine in New York, stripped to the waist and covered in blood.Captured on the 1991 Mute album of the same name this has been described as”lyrically and musically one of the most uncompromising albums ever made”, andrages against the hypocrisy and homophobia shown on the emergence of thedisease.
Even the photographs of Diamanda Galas are disturbing – in some she appearsbeautiful (though distinctly gothic) with her long white face, cheek bones youcould cut yourself on, long black hair and a gash of a mouth painted darkpurple). In others she looks like a drag queen, which is perhaps not surprisingwhen you learn that she spent time with Oakland’s transvestite prostitutes andmasqueraded as ‘Miss Zina’, “a woman dressed as a man dressing as a woman.”
With a background like that a live performance was to be anticipated with acertain amount of foreboding. In fact it was astonishing in the very best senseof the word – thrilling, intense, passionate, uplifting. Diamanda Galas stalkedimperiously on to an almost empty stage in a stunning, skintight black gown thattrailed after her but left arms and shoulders bare. Sitting at the piano thefirst thunderous chords paved the way for the voice, so much richer in life thanon recordings, somehow warmer and more human while at the same time even moresearing. She also allows the sheer beauty of her voice to be heard, somethingthat is difficult to assess from the extreme distortion she favours in therecorded works.
The programme was La Serpenta Canta – the serpent sings – and has beendescribed as an evening of her greatest hits. She sang in English, French,Spanish and Italian, and some other languages I couldn’t recognise (quitepossibly Armenian and Greek – she was born in San Diego of Greek Orthodoxparents). She sang blues, boogie-woogie, jazz – or rather, she took theconventions of such musical forms and turned them into something altogether herown, transfixing the whole audience with her virtuosity and commitment. How shecan play about three different rhythms at once I don’t know, but she can, andit’s amazing. She uses delay effects to make a live duet with herown voice and sometimes with the piano (mostly very effective though it did makelyrics hard to hear); this is a Galas speciality and a technique she has spent time studying. She is a stunning pianist as well as singer, and using all of these skills combined she performed one song that resembled a diabolic fairground – towardsthe end it was as if a carousel started to increase in speed, the pitchconstantly changing as it spun out of control into something quite extraordinary and wildlyexhilarating. In her hands I Put A Spell On You by Screaming Jay Hawkinsbecomes serious voodoo.
Some haunting songs drew from the Greek tradition of women dirge-singers, atradition preached against by orthodox priests but never totally suppressed.Women who were not otherwise allowed to be seen or heard were transformed whensomeone died: it was apparently an alarming performance. During the SecondWorld War the women sang savage anti-Nazi tirades, mourning becoming incitement.”It incited people to be so angry they would fight. It was never mourning inthe pacific sense”, says Galas. Her own work is very much in this tradition:”In the transition from funeral singing to something that is also very politicaland antagonistic.” A previous song cycle Defixiones is inspired by thetroubled history of Turkey, including massacres of Armenians and Greeks earlierthis century.
At the Royal Festival Hall Galas was in a slightly lighter mood and onlydirected her anger towards journalists who use the forbidden description and whomisquote her. So if I have, Ms Galas, I apologise in advance. The fact remainsthat this was one of the musical and performance highlights of the year. Theaudience, not surprisingly, was deliriously appreciative and managed to extracttwo encores, and when a vast bouquet was presented we were finally granted aglorious smile. Yes, she is beautiful, though I expect she thinks that’stotally irrelevant anyway. And I will now go back to the albums and listen tothem in a completely new light.