When I listen to the music of Diamanda Galás, I am reminded that I have veins. There is something in her voice that punctures the flesh, the ears, the heart, in order to get at something visceral. Hers is a sound that courses like blood, infiltrates capillaries, and passes through arteries. It is also the sound of years of hard work, of rigorous vocal training, and of dedication and obsession.
Let me be blunt: this essay might be useless. I want to explain what Galás sounds like, but it feels like an impossible task. Writing about music is difficult enough. Yet, faced with the vocal arsenal of Galás, such a feat seems futile. I promise to nevertheless give it a valiant effort.
This is not an album review. Forget about her recordings. While Galás’ discography is certainly impressive, and her albums are all astounding, one must experience Galás live to fully understand how virtuosic she is, and to realize that seeing her live is like no other concert you’ll ever attend. Allow me to cull from memory, to bring you into the audience. I recognize that recollections are far from factual truths. Instead, they are hazy dream states that rest somewhere between what the mind recalls and the body remembers.
The story begins when I was nineteen years old. In a second-hand shop, I purchased the Natural Born Killers soundtrack. In Jane’s Addiction’s “Sex is Violent,” producer Trent Reznor had interspliced a short clip of Galás singing Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell on You.” Here was a voice that was like nothing else I had heard. It dripped with ferocity, the music creeping forward with arachnid cunning, her range piercing my young queer self.
Fast-forward seven years to when I finally had the chance to attend one of her performances. It was spring, and she was premiering a new rendition of Defixiones, a hex against those responsible for the Armenian, Greek, and Assyrian genocides. Galás places herself in the lineage of moirologia singers, women who perform dirges and lamentations for the dead. The show was taking place in a church, and I managed to snag the first pew. As the lights overhead went down, Galás appeared from out of the shadows. I waited, my body still, and watched as she moved from the doorway, stepped past the candles, and walked onward to the microphone in the centre of the altar.
Galás opened her mouth. That first note, so clear, released from her body. To finally hear that voice live made me tremble. Her operatic trills filled the room and I felt my body temperature dropping. There were moments when she crouched down with a microphone in each hand and let loose a solo scream, her lips moving with calculated vigilance, her stark-white teeth glimmering, her jaw opening wide, her cry exploding out of her body, resonating in her bones, her ribcage, her sinuses, her throat. A blood song was coursing through me as well. The lighting made her look like an apparition, a glaring Death’s Head mask. Her voice was ubiquitous, a spectre moving from strident wails downward across octaves into the bass of a ravenous nightmare growl.
An unexpected snowstorm descended the night of February 12, 2006. I was preparing to board a bus to New York City to attend Galás’ Valentine’s Day Massacre, a showcase of songs about scorned love and murderous impulses. My friend and I were snowed in before departure, but were able to catch a bus the next morning, so we still had some time to explore a snow-laden Gotham before the night of the big show. On Valentine’s Day, we entered the venue and I found myself at the front of a small room in the Knitting Factory, bristling with anticipation. The stage was bare, save for a behemoth grand piano, its mouth agape and silent. Finally, Galás took to the stage and the night soon became a blur of homicidal love songs, requiems for repudiated lovers, every phrase spitting and seething. Galás performed “O Death,” a traditional made famous by Ralph Stanley. There were points during the opus when the vocalist begged for more time on earth, then changed roles to become the figurative Death, exalting the inevitable. As Death, Galás’ voice matched her staccato piano notes. Each instrument pounded out a litany, rhythmic and unrelenting. I could feel my heart pulsing faster, trying to keep up with the knell of the piano. Such a strange feeling, a bewildering sense of euphoria, all the while facing one’s mortality.
At the time, I was still digging my way out of the rubble of a relationship that had ended abruptly. I emerged broken, to say the least. While I was familiar with Galás’ themes of obsession, desolation, and love gone wrong, suddenly the music took on another form. I suppose it was like when smokers quit their habit, and food acquires new tastes and flavours. The sound became all the more kinetic, reminding me of the circuitry and sinews that rest just beneath my flesh. The torch song of Tracy Nelson’s “Down So Low” scraped at my pride. The heaving sigh of Edith Piaf’s “Heaven Have Mercy” was staggering, a plea to an invisible deity, each note a eulogy to what was lost. Her rendition of “Interlude (Time),” made famous by Timi Yuro, haunted the room. My eyes burned with regret as she plucked out notes in the highest registers of the piano, the sound of teeth chattering. The ballad, shockingly desolate, also highlighted Galás’ extreme diversity and incredible restraint. Looking around me, I could see other audience members—the goths, the punks, the cynics, the NYC elite—and everyone was in awe. Some were crying. While my breakup had not been my first taste of sour times, it was certainly the most crushing. Leaning against the stage, I felt as though Galás’ voice at once clawed at my foolish heart, while trying to stop the more profound wounds from bleeding. All I could hear was a scream of love.
She closed the set with a blistering “I Put a Spell on You.” I felt pity for the piano, as it took a merciless beating. While Galás’ vocal capabilities are genius and virtuosic, so too is her piano technique. I once read that after she played a festival in the UK, the clean-up crew found bits of dried blood in the crevices between the piano keys. “Devil devil devil!” she wailed, casting a spell of infatuation and mania. As a listener, one often thinks that Galás has reached the limit of her vocal range. Yet, she always manages to surpass these expectations, and reach further into the stratosphere for a more piercing sound. Make no mistake; her voice is a veritable harpoon. Her shrieks flirted with transcendence, and her intensity brought me to the verge of passing out.
Summer of 2007 and I was in New York again, but this time the heat verged on debilitating. Although I was there on vacation, I admit that I had planned the trip around another Galás show. Remember the break-up that pulverized my heart so? Well, the culprit of this crime was accompanying me to the concert that I knew would eviscerate him. Along with two friends who knew little about what they were in for, we entered the Highline Ballroom and settled in for a song cycle called Imitation of Life. The room darkened, and a cold blue light stained the stage. Galás walked over to the keys, and began her set. If the Valentine’s Day Massacre leaned towards wild women with steak knives, Imitation of Life took a more bleak approach to desperation and isolation. Her vocal notes were extended ad infinitum, and she seemed to possess unlimited oxygen and lung capacity. Her renditions of Chet Baker’s “The Thrill is Gone,” and “You Don’t Know What Love Is” brought the jazz standards into a stark terrain. Here, the pain of ending stalks endlessly, so that recovery seems distant, if not impossible.
Early in the performance, I realized that two of my compatriots were sobbing full-body shakes and indiscernible words, overwhelmed by the potency of Galas’ work and talent. My third companion later admitted to feeling faint during the show. My lover was one of the crying audience members, the singer’s message no doubt conjuring guilt and memories of our time apart. There is no escaping these human elements, especially when one is in the grasp of Galás’ song.
One of the reasons that Galás has such a pronounced physical effect on audiences is because she works with multiphonics. Essentially, it is when an instrument that traditionally emits one note at a time, in this case the voice, produces multiple notes simultaneously. Galás manages this because of meticulous training, but the result is otherworldly. We hear it, we feel it, sound splitting into shards in the ether, undulating around us. Her voice stays suspended above our heads, daggers with supernatural aim.
Of course, these hypnotic moments were slashed to ribbons by bouts of ferocity. Galás hammered at the piano, singing O.V Wright’s “8 Men and 4 Women” with vehemence. Somewhere in the darkness, her sound engineer sampled and looped her cries, a chorus of “Guilty! Guilty! Guilty!” erupting. Screams and wails moved back and forth, a whirlwind of fury. Here, Galás’ tongue was a razor, admonishing the jury who condemns her love to the gallows, the chair, or the lethal injection machine. The piano keys were needles, nine inches in length and cold as nails. She reached into her back catalogue and palpated the piano, “Keigome, Keigome” rumbling forward with determined spite. Galás seemed to be rowing in black water, moving towards meditated retribution. No doubt, she will return the victor. And that lover who burned me so? Well, we actually made things work, and he has been my partner ever since.
It is difficult to write about this great artist because of the split between one’s intellect and emotion. Galás isn’t using a crystal to summon the goddess mother earth to communicate with her spirit animals. In fact, she despises that type of thing. It is easy to mystify Galás, and I’m probably guilty of that. At the marrow of her sound is meticulous training. She didn’t just roll out of bed one morning and start singing. She is not improv. Hers is a sound of infinite practice, obsessive calculations going into each shift of timbre. She is not a ‘screechy gothic diva,’ as some reviewers have called her. She is a singer, a composer, a musician. While the gloom of her oeuvre is undeniable, it is not some suburban Hot Topic pentagram take on the more sombre aspects of the human condition. Instead, her work often speaks for those who are denied the luxury of speaking, people who are incarcerated, people who are institutionalized, PLWAs, loved ones murdered by governmental indifference and sanctioned homophobia, sisters and brothers annihilated by religious bigotry.
It is hard not to get lost in her sound. When you see her live, you are not just hearing her; you are consumed by the music. So allow me to plead with you: if you ever have the opportunity to experience the sonic assault that is Diamanda Galás live, do what you must to get to that show. Call in sick to work. Pawn your Nina Hagen CDs to pay for the ticket. To use a cliché, give up an arm or leg to get into the concert hall. But don’t sell your blood. You’ll need it when the lights go down.