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Diamanda Galas

(27 Oct 2007: Museum of Contemporary Art — Chicago, IL)

It would be easy to parody Diamanda Galas, using the often shocking shrieks, moans, and gurgles she employs against her. I can see the SNL skit now, loads more vicious than their Tori Amos spoof. Of course, any parody would necessarily omit what is so stunning about Galas’ malformed song renditions: in all their ugly, abrasive glory, they are, first, fascinating to hear, and, perhaps more importantly, radical in their redefinition of what music can and should be.


Galas’ songs are monstrous wonders, mutant dragons spitting fire dreamily in some blooming, rancid hell. Galas herself brings to mind a perverted Persephone, alternately singing in tongues from the Underworld and shrieking her pain aboveground until her mother’s plants shrivel from the dissonance. No punches are pulled here: the emotional terrain of Galas is devastating. Her training in opera is evident in the way she dramatizes in song a lover’s progression from desire and obsession to jealousy and hatred, always exaggerated by her interest in voicing the terror that is raw emotion.


For all her musical perversion, Galas is fully aware of how funny, at times, her methods can be; at one point in her performance, she actually pauses midsong to laugh maniacally. There is a kind of glee in Galas’ overwhelming gloominess, her refusal to play anything straight, or in a major key. Like, to a certain extent, Nick Cave, one loves her precisely because it is hard to take her Old World Gothic shtick completely seriously—and also because one wonders how seriously she herself takes it, particularly when she’s swallowing consonants under a creepy lisp to rework a classical French ditty. That is not to say her work is made or should be interpreted in jest; her artistry is inimitably bold, impossibly masterful. No one else will go where she goes vocally. Or maybe it’s simply that no one else can.


Galas sold out two performances at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art: the first, “Songs of Exile”, was a program that spoke to outlaws and outcasts and featured the words of various exiled poets set to piano; the second, “Guilty, Guilty, Guilty”, featured Galas’ lugubrious interpretations of obsessive and murderous love songs (her CD of the same name will be released in February). I attended “Guilty, Guilty, Guilty”.


After years of casual and distant admiration, this was my first Diamanda Galas show, and the timing couldn’t have been better: it was the Saturday before Halloween, and somehow one could tell that the black fishnets and formidable, many-buckled boots accessorizing many of those in attendance weren’t part of any costume. Galas herself was in her usual slinky black, her dark curls cascading down and around a heavily made-up face. Sadly, she seems to have outgrown the (fake-)blood-drenched performances of days past, but so have all the rest of the performance artists from yesteryear; on the bright side,  the absence of fluids and other flashiness only further highlights her artistry.


Galas walked onstage with a faint smile and an opera singer’s composure; a respectful if cursory nod at the audience was her only greeting. After sitting at her piano elegantly, so demure, she proceeded to slam the keys like they needed to be put out, punctuating every eerified blues riff with an abrupt growl from the bottom of the keyboard. Once she began to “sing”—a word I put in scare quotes because it cannot begin to describe her technique—it was evident that we were in the presence of a master of voice. She perverted the typical sliding scales of blues into a jagged staircase of moans and then moved into screeches that hit two octaves simultaneously—all in the first five minutes.


In between the dissonances were snatches of beauty and grace, albeit snatches that soon got derailed: a pretty piano intro signaled a delicate ballad that was shortly transformed by hysterical glossolalia; another French love ballad got hijacked by a fierce sob in the throat. The concert stuck strictly to voice and piano with the exception of “Eight Men and Four Women”, a furious slamming blues number augmented by some prerecorded background effects and vocals that came off a bit too contemporary for a show with such an old-world vibe. This song, more melodic than those that came before, closed the set. Galas followed it with a two-song encore that combined Chet Baker’s “The Thrill Is Gone”, distorted by a drag queen’s lisp, with Edith Piaf’s “Heaven Have Mercy”, ending with a full-bodied roar.


Hearing a woman deprettify her voice like this was paradigm-shattering in the most major way. Guttural moans as if from someone trying to heave out her internal organs; primal shrieks like the fight cry of some Jurassic-era animal; stutterings and yodelings; lisps and rasps. Altogether, these sounds weaved a tapestry of pain and catharsis. Some verses built to the near-unlistenable, stretching the audience’s capacity to hear dissonance as much as they stretched notions of what emotion can sound like when mediated by the human voice. If Galas is through with her blood-drenched appearances of the ‘80s, she’s far from through with deterritorializing music.

Megan Milks is currently working on a Ph.D. in Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Illinois at Chicago. She has had critical work published on Venuszine.com, Lost Magazine, Grapevineculture.com, and Sparknotes; her fiction has been published or is forthcoming in DIAGRAM, Pocket Myths, Forge, and Wreckage of Reason, an anthology of experimental women writers. Like once a year, if that, she publishes a magazine called Mildred Pierce, which more people should know about.


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