You might call Diamanda Galas a singer, but that’d be a paltry account of it. Singers make us snap our fingers and tap our toes, even fill us with joy and all that. Galas can play that role, but she does it as the bearer of really bad news. Yes, she‘s the one they call the Beacon of Bleak, the Dark Diva of Doom ’n‘ Disease, all that trivializing stuff. The sneeringly stately, black-haired, wild-eyed Greek-American with the ferocious four-octave vocal range and the blood-freezing stage presence; she’s the one who feels true hatred. Do not cross this bad bitch — she‘ll slit ya face.
But Diamanda Galas is a bit anxious today. “This is such an important interview for me that I have to tell you I’ve been very nervous about it.”
“That makes two of us.”
“The subject is so unbelievable, so unspeakable — especially at this particular time — the resonance is almost killing me.” She laughs, ambiguously.
We‘re trying to get a fix on Galas’ new piece, Defixiones, Will and Testament: Orders From the Dead, a solo voice and piano work she‘ll perform at Royce Hall on November 29. A typically harrowing thing based on texts related to the Armenian and Anatolian Greek massacres of 1915 and 1922, its arcing theme is genocide in its various guises, and its cowardly denial. Which, owing to issues arising post–September 11, now seems a bit relevant.
Galas, the monstrously mighty vocal virtuoso who has received both acclaim and infamy as the creator of AIDS-related musicperformance pieces such as Plague Mass, Litanies of Satan and The Masque of the Red Death trilogy, as usual has already gotten her serving of flak stemming from the “controversial” nature of Defixiones’ subject matter. After performances in Ghent and at London‘s Royal Festival Hall, she was scheduled to perform it in Armenia, but the powers that be got shaky.
“The problem with a lot of countries that are very impoverished,” she says, “is that the ruling classes are greedy, and in this case the director of the opera house — a throwback to the Bolsheviks — he started to censor my work. He was very worried about it even before I came there, even though it was dealing with the Armenian genocide. And so, at the last minute, he canceled me.”
That was a big mistake. If you’re going to deny Diamanda Galas, you‘d best have convictions you can stand on, and be prepared to defend them — because Galas the ardent researcherscholar will always have done her homework. And she wasted that guy:
“I sent out a worldwide press release to humiliate him. I succeeded because he said the Armenian people were too conservative and too timid for this kind of work. He was speaking from his own fear and his own greed.”
Fear and greed piss off Diamanda Galas no end. But for her, to tell lies — to break faith, to distort facts, to deny history — is an abomination.
“The U.S. doesn’t want to recognize the Armenian genocide because it‘s going to bed with Turkey. Now is not the time to discuss an Armenian genocide, and now will never be the time to discuss these things ’because we have our national security to think of and that of Armenia,‘ said the Clinton administration one year ago. Selling billions of dollars of attack helicopters to Turkey to safeguard its national security and that of Israel — these things get in the way of settling an old score of minor players, so to speak.
”Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres calls the Armenian Genocide Resolution ’meaningless‘ and says to the Turkish Daily News [April 10, 2001], ’We reject attempts to create a similarity between the Holocaust and the Armenian allegations. Nothing similar to the Holocaust occurred. It is a tragedy what the Armenians went through, but not a genocide.‘ Peres does this while asking Turkey to support Israel against the Palestinians, and going into business with them in their purchase and possible co-production of the Arrow anti-tactical ballistic missile interceptor — developed by the U.S. and Israel –and while discussing the sale of Turkish water to Israel. Turkey threatens not to renew the mandate for U.S. forces using the Incirlik air base in southern Turkey to patrol the no-fly zone in northern Iraq — if there is any mention of ’an Armenian genocide.‘
“We have a lesser but nonetheless painful situation with our leaders in Greece, who are so crazy about peace with the Turks that they turned in [Kurdish separatist rebel leader] Abdullah Ocalan as a gesture of friendship. It is never the time to give any kind of importance to people of no importance.”
Galas’ beliefs are in part a byproduct of hearing her father, a Greek immigrant to the San Diego area, tell her stories of growing up disqualified from being human in his own country, his friends hunted down by the Turks, literally pushed into the sea. Galas was further radicalized by her brother‘s death from AIDS in 1986. She has taken themes of death, degradation and demoralization to heroic extremes, in the process becoming a spokesperson for the unspeakable, usually for those who can’t speak for themselves. As with her Insekta piece, the particulars that inspire the works fan out into analagous other concerns.
“Insekta means something that is too small to be seen — it‘s perceived as invisible, because it’s no longer there,” she says. “It‘s something, but because you don’t see it, it‘s perceived as invisible to us, and therefore it doesn’t exist. It‘s like people talking about anthrax here, and all of us in the AIDS community are saying, ’Anthrax? Those are just drugs coming from the graves of the dead of AIDS. Come on, give me something to be scared of!‘ You deal with an insane situation for 20 years and grieving for people for 20 years, you gotta try harder to scare people like us. You gotta try to scare — you may make us very sad, but you’re not gonna scare us with shit like that.”
For members of the Eastern Orthodox religions, attacks like those on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon are nothing new. Defixiones addresses, among other things, the devastation on entire cultures as inflicted by the Turks, among others. It‘s a scenario that has been played out in Armenia and Greece, in Assyria and with the Kurds for hundreds of years. While Galas’ piece has actually been in preparation for several years, its premiere at this time seems prophetic.
“You know what kills me? What is truly horrible is to create work that very few people understand, or people think you‘re fuckin’ nuts doing, and then feel the prescience of it. It just drives me — I can‘t sleep, because all these things, these realizations, they co-exist in my mind. I see, in the case of the Greeks of Asia Minor and the Pontic Greeks, the Assyrians and the Armenians, as well as the Hindus, for that matter, what many groups of people who have suffered through for centuries — this idea of purging the infidel, jealously coveting what he has and wanting to destroy him, but wanting to retain the unseemly creations and ’parasitic‘ enterprises of this ’enemy of God.‘
”The Armenian Genocide Resolution was blocked by the combined interests of Turkey, Israel and the United States. The same genocide denial will occur with the Anatolian Greeks and the Assyrians, who were starved to death and slaughtered in death marches under the guise of deportation. [More than one million Greeks were forced to leave their Asia Minor homeland in 1922-1923, during the Greek-Turkish exchange of ethnic minorities.] Now that the Eastern Christians have been finished off, the Kurds have become the new irritant to the concept of the national [Turkish] order. When the Turks buried the Greeks in mass graves, they said, ’We don‘t know what happened to these people. You are exaggerating the numbers of deportees.’ And we know what happened to the Greek Cypriots: Los Desaparecidos.
“Some of the Greeks in power, they don‘t need the Turks to fuck them, they fuck themselves. They just say, ’Okay, we want to be Europeans, too,‘ and a lot of people I know who are Greek activists, Armenian activists, Assyrian activists, Kurdish activists, we have to fight that all the time, because it’s like saying, ‘Okay, I accept you killing my culture.’ The analogy is very close to the way the Indian culture was killed by the Spanish culture: ‘You don’t exist, you don‘t exist. We are raping your culture, you don’t exist.‘”
These are the biggest, saddest of themes, and require music of wide extremes. And one of the strangest and sickest facts about music and art that addresses horrific subjects is that, in order to persuade, it has to be pleasurable. So the startling thing about Diamanda Galas, who’s currently without an American record label, is the exhilaration one experiences upon witnessing her onstage. To have any performer deal articulately with topical monstrosities is rare; to have such a badass musician saying it is a gift from God. We know Galas reigns as the queen of extended vocal technique, a voice that has only gained in power and versatility over the years (she trains constantly, like a boxer); she has also, in recent years, become one of the greatest, most original piano players on Earth, with a strong lower-two-octavehighest-octave attack that perfectly stabs the drama of her lyrical concerns.
So, yeah, Diamanda Galas is katharsis — since the worst human conditions call for new harsh responses. She‘s also someone from whom anyone looking for new inspired music can derive maximum thrills — whether or not he gives one big shit about human suffering. Chances are, however, that he won’t remain unscathed after hearing it.
Diamanda Galas says: “I never, never do work because I feel that people are going to relate to it. I do it because I feel that I need to do it. I could say I have my own religion during this time — the truth of my own convictions. I think one has to search one‘s soul very, very, very much. I’m not sure how many people do that. But I‘m willing to search my soul. I expect everyone else to do the same.”
Diamanda Galas performs at UCLA, Royce Hall, on Thursday, November 29.