Diamanda Galás with Sergei Tcherepnin

Photo by Austin Young

Vocalist Diamanda Galás, a pioneer of extended vocal technique, continues to amaze and confound listeners not only because of the terrifying power and range of her voice, but also because of the gravity of the subjects that she chooses to address. Much of her work revolves around empathy, particularly with minorities who have been forcibly repressed by larger powers and who have consequently suffered from extreme alienation and isolation. With the release of her 2004 album Defixiones: Will and Testament, Galás’s multi-part
dramatization of exile and genocide, and her more recent “tragic and homicidal love songs and death songs”—her own versions of blues and jazz songs by such artists as Johnny Cash, Ralph Stanley, and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins—Galás demonstrates that her powers as a performer are only growing. In preparation for her NYC performances on
August 6, 12, and 19 at the Highline Ballroom, Galás spoke with composer Sergei Tcherepnin about her work.

Rail: Much of your work seems to come out of a deep sense of empathy for those minority groups who have suffered or are suffering as a result of being severely mistreated. What is currently happening to your concepts of injustice that alters your most recent work?

Galás: I think that the performance, for example, and the work that took me eight years to do Defixiones—well, that altered my work to a great degree. Because for one thing it took the time frame in which I was able to create it, because there was so much research demanded in the creation of that work—the work was in thirteen languages, which meant that I had to work a lot on Turkish, I had to work a lot on Armenian, and more than usual on Greek; I had to get someone to record Syrian; I had to do a lot of research on the genocides of the Assyrians, the Armenians, and the Greeks from the periods of 1914–1923, and actually find that those were the years of the specific genocides of all those groups that took place at the same times. I became part of a lot of genocide groups, and that involved people who were targeted by the Grey Wolves, which is a Turkish hate group that targets Armenians and targets Turks who are writing against “Turkishness.” My website is considered to be a Turkish hate site, [but] it’s not a Turkish hate site at all. I don’t hate the Turkish people. I dislike those who are spreading disinformation, disinformational propaganda which includes newspapers like the Hürriyet out of Turkey, and the Grey Wolves and so forth…To say something incorrect about a large group of people who are suffering as we speak, like the Assyrians in Iraq, who are targeted by the Muslims, that is not what I have in mind as good work. So it becomes that sort of thing. People always ask questions of composers and artists, “Don’t you think that art and politics are mutually exclusive?” And I would say yes, they are to a certain point, yes they are. And no, they’re not. I think it just takes a great deal of time, and you have to have the time to spend to do both well independently and dependently as they work together.

Rail: What kind research do you do—for instance, for your piece Defixiones, what did you research with your fellowship at Princeton?

Galás: That was for a month and really it was more or less in Greek studies to work on—let’s say new Greek music, so it was a more general kind of thing. What I ended up doing was using the time to create the libretto—the creation of the libretto means that you have to select the writers of these texts you are going to compose the music for…It takes you very far and then it ends up going back into the music again, but it takes a long time for that to happen. I don’t like works, for example, done by people who call themselves musicians—folk musicians—and they say “We’re going to do a piece about the war in Iraq.” Well you know what, buddy, leave it out. I don’t want to hear about it. I wouldn’t want to hear about some guy who had one of those journalistic scholarships paid by the government to go to Iraq and be completely protected—embedded journalists. I wouldn’t really want to read his writing, because it would mean nothing to me; it’s just propaganda for the USA. It’s meaningless…The research ends up affecting the composing only if you spend the time—a great deal of time. There are, for example, singers who I’m not that interested in who would do kind of improvised speech stuff, onomatopoeia—whatever it is, I don’t know. That was investigated many years ago, and it wasn’t really that interesting then. Even if I look at Artaud’s work, for the most part—and he was a visionary in theater—but if I look at some of his little writings—poetic writings—with invented languages, it comes off as terribly silly. I think that language is very, very important and as musicians we are very snobbish about our vocabulary and lack of it or possession of it, and so [we] should be or are good writers. And so if a person’s going to say, “I’m singing in an invented language,” I’m going to laugh, because I’m going to say, look, if you’re singing in the first place you’re already singing in another language than a writer, so that should be good. But don’t be telling me that you’re inventing a language as you speak, unless perhaps you’re coming from [the] Pentecostal church, you’re coming from somewhere where you actually believe that, and you don’t have any choice but to say that—or perhaps for some reason you feel at that moment that that is happening. But don’t—it’s not something one actually talks about...

Rail: In the past you have used texts of many poets such as Henri Michaud and Cesar Vallejo—

Galás: Oh yes, God, that writer is really...there we also have the sense of time—it’s kind of amazing. That guy is one of the most interesting poets I’ve ever read—and prose writers. He did so much writing. Some of it’s just being discovered now. The expression “a tormented individual” is a cliché as we know it, but in his case I would think not. I think in a paradoxical sense he’s everything that Artaud wanted to be. I hope that Artaud never knew that he existed because it would have tortured him to see someone who was able to write like that—and so rhythmically—and write about subjects that Artaud addressed as well—but Artaud said the subjects were so close to him that he couldn’t write about them. I can only imagine that would have really tortured him, because Vallejo writes about really, really horrible things.

Rail: You have said in the past that you were persuaded not to sing as a girl, or that you were banned from singing in the house when you were growing up—

Galás: Oh yes, “pootanis,” only “pootanis” are singers—you know, whores.

Rail: And one of your first serious attempts at singing was in an isolation chamber? Can you tell me a little about your experience doing that?

Galás: In an anechoic chamber. I really was doing that, and taking lots of acid. I wanted to do stuff where I would not have anyone censoring me because, after all, coming from the background I came from in which when you improvised you were told you have to practice Bach or you’re wasting your time…All of these kinds of things were very dictatorial—that kind of background. I wanted to know that when I made vocal sound that there was no judge outside making statements or having thoughts about what I was doing, so that I could actually do anything I wanted to do. So I did that for a while.

An anechoic chamber is not a great place to do it in because you can’t get any reverberant sound. You don’t even have a realistic assessment of what it is. It must have been a real desire to feel safe with the vocal sounds that I was making and with the expression that lay underneath all those sounds I was making, which had to do with fear and extreme pain—very extreme pain. And so I think that’s when you really want to know no one is listening. I used to perform with black—in blackness. I didn’t want anybody to see me—see my mouth, I didn’t want them to see my body. I didn’t want any of that because I was just interested in what the quality of the vocal sound was after. It wasn’t an entertainment thing. I felt lucky enough to even be allowed to perform what I was performing. And then eventually when you get into quadraphonic sound systems and stuff like that and you work with some kind of lighting people, and you say “Well, there’s different levels of darkness, let’s try this level of darkness,” and then suddenly you’re in light. [Laughs] Suddenly you’re using a goddamn fucking strobe light and a smoke machine, then you’re playing opposite the Sisters of Mercy—just kidding, that’s never happened.

Rail: Was there a moment of freedom when you started to sing for the first time in the anechoic chamber?

Galás: I think I thought there would be but I don’t think that there was because it was so dead. The problem with the anechoic chamber is that it’s so dead that you actually do feel dead. It’s like, “Can you hear me?” In fact, that’s the signal that you’re dead. It’s the opposite of singing in church—it’s singing in hell. If Dante could have thought of a sonic inferno or purgatorio that would be it, where you’re screaming to a God invented by despair. Ain’t nobody there. That’s it. It’s interesting in that regard. And it’s interesting in that regard to think of recording something that is so dry it is clear nobody can hear you. At the end of “Schrei”—I have this section when I’m doing this laughter and I’m saying “kick my head” and laughing, and it’s at that point—and that’s very dry, actually—that person is saying, “Why don’t you just kill me, man, I don’t give a fuck anyway.” That was a torture piece…

Rail: You have also conducted work studying the effects of antipsychotic drugs, including Thorazine and Mellaril—were those musical experiments?

Galás: No, they weren’t musical experiments at all. I wish. I had to take them myself, so I know all about them. I call them patient-management drugs because you literally can’t move when you’re on them, you can’t do anything [because] you’re seeing double. You’re a big danger to yourself—not to anybody else. You could walk right into traffic and get hit by a car because you can’t see what’s going on. I’m absolutely terrified of them and I know that sometimes they’re really necessary. But there are people that have been put on them when it wasn’t necessary, and they’ve been put on them to shut them up, and to completely diminish their capacity to do anything, and make them a member of the living dead. They give you the feeling of a cow being led into the room of its own execution without being able to fight it at all, so you feel dead already. And actually you do feel pain because you don’t feel—a different kind of pain. It’s just that no one can see it. You can’t even express yourself. You can’t even say what you’re feeling. And it’s only that sort of thing which makes me empathize with Artaud when he’s talking about perhaps the inability to form language when he wanted to.

Rail: In many of your works you create dramatic scenarios based on external texts. In performance, you express a given monodrama with what you describe in your “Discussion Concerning the Composition of Wild Women with Steak Knives” as a “pre-choreographed navigation through specified mental and sentient states.” Are these states themselves more akin to states of emotion or to something like philosophical states?

Galás: Those were emotional states…The idea of that piece initially was a murderess who had these flashbacks of driving from the scene of the crime through red lights, and having had to kill this person for having insulted her, and not being able to stop herself from killing this person, and then having to live with the fact that she had done it and being haunted by it forever. People erroneously described Wild Women with Steak Knives as some sort of this or that or this or that…and I said it’s not a treatise on anything, it’s just what it is. However, it did, accurately, go through this series of emotional states and I was showing the extreme beauty in the [piece]—I suppose you could say extreme beauty, as well as other states; there’s nothing about it that’s pleasant—it’s a very manic piece. There’s still beauty in it, but it wasn’t pleasant for the person inhabiting it. But you know, it’s funny, because years later after doing these two microphone pieces you see the picture of the Cretan Women with the snakes, and they’re holding these two snakes—it strikes me as the same state that I’m in with Wild Women with Steak Knives, which is the state of a maniac. The word happy doesn’t exist. The word sad doesn’t exist. It’s a different state altogether. It’s interesting, because my mother’s side of the family are called the “Maniates”; they are from near Sparta, and they are the fighters of Greece. They’re always hired when there needs to be a killing or a war with the Turks, or they need to protect certain cities in Greece. They were called the “Maniates” because they were considered to be very immoral people; all they wanted to do was just fight [laughs]…They were very moral, but they were always seen as immoral by others because they were always being hired out as bandits or pirates. They would kidnap an Athenian and sell him to a Turk—they didn’t really care [laughs], because they just lived in their little area in the mountains. So they were criminals, in a sense, [in the eyes of] others. But they had a very strict code of honor, and they had vendettas, and that’s where Sicilian vendettas come from—“Mani.” Well, I always asked my mother, “mani, mani, maniac, mania, mania, Maniates—I wonder [laughs]—are you sure the word mania does not come from Maniates? Because you people are crazy.” I always tell her this, that women are very good with knives, and I’d say, “You people are completely crazy, you know. You’re not allowed to cry, you’re not allowed to do anything, except at funerals, and the rest of the time it’s just blood lust.” It’s a very strange mentality, and there are very tough broads over there. You see the women in Mani, man, they’re all dressed in black, they’re never smiling, they’re standing like this—and they look like buzzards. They’re very, very tough. So I think of that when I think of these particular of mental states.

Rail: Can you tell us about the way dreams inform your work?

Galas: Ahhh. That’s a very interesting question because of the next piece I am doing on Anteros, written by Nerval. Actually, I started working on the piece and then had a dream, a premonition, about someone I would meet who I would have to kill—and I don’t mean literally kill, but I mean execute in my mind. And today I did the final execution. I had a dream. I tried to execute the person the first time and it didn’t work. In the dream it’s a real execution. And today I executed him again, and I think this time it actually worked [laughs]. That’s very interesting. It’s not an execution per se, but in the dream the way I was able to execute the person the second time was because I became a human shredding machine and I looked at the person and my whole body turned into a shredding machine with little teeth, and I shredded from the epidermal layer down to the organs. I kept shredding until there was no bone material left, and then continued shredding. And continue shredding as we speak.

It’s interesting because Anteros is really the brother of Eros, and it’s a piece by Nerval, and the piece that I’m doing along with it is a piece by Aimé Césaire, “Le Sang de Terre”—“The Blood of the Earth”—and he’s talking about the beast of the “Sang de Terre.” I’m alternating the verse and the chorus; the verse is “Anteros” by Nerval, and the chorus is Aimé Césaire. The dream that I wrote out that I had more than a year ago will be delivered behind all of this through a tunnel of changing rooms, because it was prescient, very prescient. I don’t know why, and I don’t know how. I really don’t. So last night I woke up and started working more on this piece. The dream was very informative. I’ve looked at it several times—and I didn’t believe in them before. I was very skeptical about it, because usually what happens is you take a dream and you take it to a Freudian psychologist, and they give you their interpretation, which is some horrendously banal university-educated rendering of something that they should admit that they can’t understand because they’re not you. All these things—these concepts of psychoanalysis and so forth—were discussed by the Greeks thousands of years before Freud, so don’t take a dream and tell me that there’s only Freud and Jung that can tell me what the dream means. That’s absurd. All cultures have contributed to ideas, the history of ideas, the history of art and the history of psychoanalysis and so forth, but Freud is not the only person who should be given the power to decipher a dream One has to be very careful with these things. And I think that its realization in art—not as a prosaic rendering of the dream in front of two hundred bored listeners, but as a part and parcel of the work—can be quite interesting, quite interesting indeed—but not to be met without a certain amount of suffering, I would think. Not in this dream’s case (laughs). Not in this dream’s case.