Diamanda Galas, the first lady of scream. Photo by Austin Young.
A tireless activist and peerless vocal talent, Diamanda Galas has taken a turn for the sultry with her latest album, Malediction and Prayer.
This interview originally appeared on KDVS 90.3 FM in Davis, California in November of 1996.
Sean Flinn: The first questions I have here focus on the new album, Shrei X.
Diamanda Galas: That refers to the word “Shriek.” It refers to a type of performance that was done in the 1940’s in Germany and Austria. It was a performance that was generally wordless, and it was something that they would say came out of the nervous system. It was very…well it wasn’t as much emotional as it was, perhaps, nervous. It was a very high strung kind of performance. I have never studied that performance because the documentation has been lost, but this piece uses the word “Shrei” in homage to that theater while also being a different type of performance itself.
You mentioned that the performance itself was not necessarily vocal …
No, their performance was vocal, but it was very theater based. And you know, in this piece, when I’m using the word “shrei,” I redefine it in this context to mean “an animal that is attacked repeatedly within a confined space.” So the performance is 35 minutes long, it’s performed in darkness, and it’s performed with the darkness as a [tool for affecting] sensory deprivation. And it’s in quadraphonic space. This is not the performance that I’m going to be doing in Berkeley.
Yes, I know, I have some questions about that. That’s Malediction and Prayer, correct?
Yes. But I have toured this performance through the United States last year, not hitting Berkeley and San Francisco with it, but hopefully I will.
You mentioned the darkness functioning as a tool for sensory deprivation. Does that function deprive not only the audience of sense but the performer as well, to bring the performance out of you?
Yes, you’re right, because in a sense it gives me a curtain of anonymity, which is very nice. So I don’t have to be seen during this performance, at the same time there are no visual aides for the audience, so they can’t refocus on something else. They have to sit there and listen. It’s a curious expression: they have to sit there and listen to “art” rather than looking at it, and that’s a very difficult thing, because you have to concentrate over a period of time, over 35 minutes rather than, as a lot of times [with visual art] getting distracted.
And essentially if something from the performance disturbs them, there’s nothing that can distract them from it …
… nothing visual that they can drown their senses in.
Well, I’ve been thinking of Iannis Xenakis, who’s in New York this week, and I always think that the reason that his work, or any kind of sound work – avant garde electronic work – has not had the financial potential of “visual avant-garde work,” is simply because it’s much more difficult to process. The demands are much more radical, and it takes time out of someone. It takes time. You just can’t look at it and then go away and then look at it again. You have to sit there. I had a lot of people really complaining during Shrei, during the performance and after the performance and just saying all sorts of things to me, you know, in whatever city I was in. They were really annoyed. And that’s just too bad … but the piece goes on. So that’s irrelevant to me.
You’ve mentioned before that your voice is “a weapon for your friends and a weapon against your enemies.”
And so when people are annoyed, it’s almost like they’ve come out and identified themselves.
Well said. You know there was one guy in Prague last year, I remember, he stood up there and said, in his language, “Fucking bitch! Get off the stage!” You have to expect, when you do this kind of work, that people are going to react the way that they do. But in this particular piece there’s no way to interrupt it to have a kind of conversation with this guy. I have to let him do what he’s going to do and keep doing what I’m doing.
Now do you normally find that you get hecklers during a performance, or somebody like this, who is so disturbed that they have to do that?
I’m used to that, through the years. But with the voice and piano stuff, not really, because it’s really much more of a proscenium type of performance. It’s much more classic in the style of performance, but, with the other work…yeah, with Vena Cava, I had someone who ran out into the street and hid behind a truck and people ran after him because they didn’t know what was wrong with him. I get different reactions. But the person who goes through a lot of this primarily is myself, because I compose the work, and so it’s coming from asking honest questions, but also going through those mental states myself. So if someone goes through that, you know, it’s their privilege, but I also understand why a person might not want to be subjected to that sort of thing. I mean, what the hell? If somebody pays, they can do whatever they want. They can stay, they can leave. I would prefer for them to shut up, but it doesn’t always work out that way.
It’s kinda like “you pays your money, you takes your chance.”
You talked about the performance’s effect on the audience, but what, sometimes, is the performance’s effect on you? I imagine you have to summon a lot of things out of yourself to be able to put these performance on.
Extreme concentration, I would say. Very, very extreme concentration. I have to know what I’m doing. With Schrei I have notes in front of me in terms of the text and some notes on how I’m delivering the vocal work (although these are very sparse). But primarily I have to be very focused on what I’m doing.
Also, I know that some of the liner notes to Shrei X mentioned that you’d been doing a lot of research on the sound system that you used. Has that been going on for a long time, and finally culminated with Schrei X, or is this something that you’ve been using throughout the years in your performances and just fine tuning it.
I think that, for years, I’ve been working with ring-modulation, changing delay times and quadraphonic space. And I’ve worked in this way before, on Wild Women with Steak Knives and Eyes Without Blood, but I wasn’t using such a radical type of, for solo pieces, signal processing as ring-modulation. I mean, we’ve done some square wave modulating work, but we were combining ring-modulators with a lot of the work for the piece DM42 which was giving us a lot of delay changes. That combined with the vocal techniques that I used, which are creating a lot of noise, gives you a sound that no longer sounds vocal. And initially the vocal sound often does not sound vocal.
I was noticing that while I was listening to the album. At some points your voice sort of moves beyond the realm of the vocal … that was really neat.
Yeah, thank you, because I’ve always thought that was interesting. It was something I heard from the first experiments with tape concrete from Paris with Pierre Henry with Pierre Schaeffer. They were doing a lot of spatial manipulation of the sound. Pierre Henry would just take the sound…well, he did a record called “A Door and a Sigh.” And he’d have the closing of the door and the sigh, and that would be it. And he would have to manipulate those two signals alone, over a period of twenty minutes. And he made that so incredibly effective, with the tape manipulation and with spatial manipulation. And I heard that, and I said “you know…yeah!” I mean, he’s not using a voice, but it’s irrelevant what material you’re using.
There’s sort of been, on that subject, an explosion in the genre of experimental noise recently. I know that at KDVS now, we have several shows that feature experimental noise prominently. As a result of that, have you noticed more and more people coming to your performances recently, or have there always been sell-out crowds? Have people become a little more receptive to your work now?
I don’t really know, because, again, when I do something like Schrei, it’s very demanding, and I know…well I know there’s a lot of noise work that has kind of a rhythmic background, you know, like a lot of the rave stuff — a lot of the techno stuff – has become increasingly popular, but I don’t know if something that has no rhythmic underpinning (which makes a person feel kind of familiar, makes them feel like they can space out to it) is really in line with what a lot of what these people are doing. I think you’re probably right on one level, people will say, “That’s pretty radical, so let me check that out” in a way that they didn’t before. Perhaps. But then I think they were probably tricked into going, and then they realized, “Aw shit! This isn’t techno!”
Yeah, I’ve noticed too that some of the guys – some of the Japanese noise artists like Merzbow, and the Gerogerigegege – a lot of the guys who get up on stage and use metal grinders as instruments and produce zero beat per minute type of work – this stuff is actually sort of blossoming right now.
Oh! They’re not using a rhythmic thing?
No, they’re not.
Oh, that’s really interesting. That’s kind of refreshing for me to hear.
Yeah, it’s really interesting to see what’s happening with people’s tastes. We’re getting a lot of phone calls on some of the experimental shows down here.
So it seems like the avant garde has sort of filtered down a little bit to people, sort of taking on that punk-rock aesthetic where they can do this in their garage, and experiment with sound and just noises and not worry about rhythm or formal song structure.
Well, it’s also certainly an electronic music aesthetic that’s gone way, way back, and it’s gone with a lot people in the United States who nobody knew about and didn’t really care about. So it’s going to be very interesting for these people to re-acquaint themselves with that tradition as well.
Yes. O.K., Malediction and Prayer: I haven’t seen any press releases or anything on this show, I’ve just seen comments here and there, in the San Francisco Chronicle and publications like that. Could you maybe run through what you’re doing in this show, and maybe describe for me the guiding theme behind the show, if there is one?
Sure. Malediction and Prayer is a concert for voice and piano, and it deals with a lot of songs that might be sung by a person who has spent too much time alone in a room and is going through, because of this, a lot of different states of remorse for things … they’re like dirges, in a sense, maybe a kind of funereal feeling about people and things. And then some of them are songs about people that this person might have murdered, or wanted to murder. Or this person, when they were going through different extreme states, maybe ended up in a mental hospital, and is talking about that. So things like “Insane Asylum,” by Willie Dixon, or “Iron lady,” which I dedicate to Aileen Wuronos, is a piece about the electric chair. “25 Minutes to Go” is Johnny Cash …
Yeah, I was going to ask you about that.
Well, that piece to me represents a lot that I think about in terms of … it’s kind of an age paradigm in a sense, because it’s “25 … 24 … 23 …” It’s a countdown, and at the end, the person is hanging on his neck from the noose. One of the verses is, “I asked for the Mayor, but he’s out to lunch … 17 minutes to go.” And then the countdown until at the end, you just hear him hanging from the rope. I mean, he does it in a very jaunty way, and he’s talking about hanging and I’m talking, certainly about the same thing, but when I’m singing about it I’m really thinking quite a lot in terms of the AIDS parallel.
And is some of the jauntiness that you mentioned some of the typical Johnny Cash gallows humor?
Exactly! Exactly! I have my own black gallows humor. It’s nice to hear you say that, because sometimes people will say, “Oh man this song … these songs are so depressing.” I say, “Oh no! No! I’m taking this shit from being depressing to another place.” Because pure depression is a place where you can’t operate. You can’t even move when you’re that depressed. I’m taking things that people go through to another place.
So this sort of continues on … well I know that a lot of your work is about empowerment …
… so that’s continuing on with the empowerment perspective.
I was walking around the other day and I had a revelation about your music. I realized that, when I hear it, I don’t feel annoyed or scared. It actually kind of pumps me up.
Oh cool. I like that.
And that seems to be the response from most of my friends who listen to you as well.
Oh, I like that! We did a show at Carnegie Hall at Halloween. And I did it in dedication to my best friend who just died of AIDS a few months ago. And I put it on that day because I see that day, Halloween, because I see it as a day that recognizes the saints. It’s the day before All Soul’s Day, it recognizes the saints who are defined in the American College Dictionary as “formally recognized by the Christian Church as worthy of veneration on Earth and a place in Heaven.” And I had to change but one word in order to make sense of this, which is to say “persons who were formerly recognized by the Christian Church as being worthy of veneration on Earth and a place in Heaven,” but who are now attacked and stalked like witches. And that makes perfect sense.
And that corresponds to the efforts by some people who have tried to pigeonhole you by saying that, “She just makes Satanic music.” And you’ve responded by saying, in a sense, you do make Satanic music, in that Satan is the spiritual resource of those people who were “formerly recognized by the Christian Church …”
Right. Exactly. It’s the same as what Baudelaire says, “O Prince of Exile.” He refers to Satan as a “Prince of Exile…who once ruled.” It’s the same thing, and so I talk a lot about this kind of inversion of power, but I think a lot of the things I talk about can not be understood in very traditional terms. I think that, when people think about Satanism, they think about Anton LaVey and they think about all these things which, for me, represent a kind of Las Vegas Satanism. It’s not really what I’m talking about.
It’s a glitzy, fun Satanism.
Yeah. I mean, I have nothing against him. I think he’s probably very entertaining, I don’t know his stuff, but it really isn’t what I’m talking about.
There’s actually a band called “The Electric Hellfire Club” that operates out of the Church of Satan, and their whole mission is to make Satanic dance music, to show that Satanism can be fun, you know, as sort of a weekend thing.
Well, there it is. And I think Marilyn Manson has a laugh too. He’s supposed to be a very nice guy, and I think he kind of reminds me of Alice Cooper actually. But that’s a different thing altogether. I’m talking about witches. I’m talking about people who were persecuted, I’m not talking about using symbols for something.
You mentioned Baudelaire in there, and I’ve been trying to bone up on my Baudelaire and Antonin Artaud and Gerald de Nerval and stuff like that … Do they continue to influence your work?
Are you finding that you’re uncovering new elements of their philosophy and incorporating them into your work?
Yes. Especially from Baudelaire, because a thing about Baudelaire, for all of his manifestos, he’s also able to back it up with profound writing. And that’s why I constantly return to him, because he just happens to have a gift of writing some wonderful incantational, liturgical work, which I mean, it really lends itself to musical interpretation because of its rhythmic elements. So I return to him a lot. And I think, Corbiere, I’ll be doing some more things of Corbiere’s. I’ve also discovered Henry Michaux, who I think is very interesting. He used to write hexes, these poems that were written as hexes, and he wanted them to operate as hexes, to either help people or to destroy them. He was very, very serious about it, and they’re very beautiful, very interesting poems.
Does that tie into the song “Hex” on The Sporting Life album that you did with John Paul Jones?
Definitely. I didn’t know about Michaux then, but that was definitely a piece that was dedicated to someone, and it worked. It took about a couple of years, but it worked. The person was on the way out anyway, but it was really nice …
… to have that as sort of an extra push?
Just to feel that I had given that extra push.
Well,there you go. And speaking of the album that you did with John Paul Jones, I haven’t had a chance to read the interview that’s on your web page that you did with him, but I am wondering, as are a lot of people who are interested in that album, how you guys came to work together.
I think the interview you’re talking about is with a journalist and John Paul, and not with the both of us, talking about how we worked together. It was a joy. We were introduced by mutual friends. He had seen me perform, and naturally I had heard his work with Bonham on Led Zeppelin’s work and thought that was a killer rhythm section, I mean, that’s it. I heard that and thought, “That’s the kind of rhythm section I’ve been looking for,” as far as the voice. But it never occurred to me that, if we met, that he would be really interested in touring. And then he said that he wanted to tour, as well as produce the record, and that was just lovely, because he’s such a great musician. I said to him “Listen, what I want to do is sing and play Hammond, you play bass, and we use a great drummer, and I don’t want any guitars,” and he immediately loved that. And that was it. It was a power trio. We didn’t need any of that. We didn’t need the Barbie Doll backup. We didn’t need all that crap. We didn’t need all that prancing around, because we like the music.
And that’s what it’s all about in the end anyway, or what it should be about.
Did you find a lot of people coming to the shows who were Led Zeppelin fans and then were like “who’s that woman?” People who then heard the performance and walked out.
Definitely. In Italy we did this show – it was in Rome – and half of the people were screaming “John Paul Jones!” And then the other half were screaming, “Diamanda!”
So it was sort of a meeting of the minds …
It was great. He had these, like heavy metal fans, and I had these big Italian queens who were like “Diamanda Galas!” [Laughs] You know? I loved that!
Some other questions; I had some of the other KDVS DJs and fans and such ask me a few questions that they’ve been dying to ask you over the years of being fans of your work. One person asked this morning, “What made you decide on the type of music that you perform?” In other words, you started as a classical pianist, correct?
Oh no, that erroneous. That’s where it’s wrong. If I had started as a classical pianist I think I would have had some real difficulty making the adjustment. I started as student of my father, and we played all sorts of stuff together. New Orleans stuff, I played everything, Fats Waller, I played music. I played everything. And then eventually I started reading music, but it was not the first thing I did, I didn’t read music at the beginning. And that’s why improvisation was a part of my background, and I used it even when I would read music by asking my teacher to play the piece a few times so that I didn’t read it as well.
Yeah, I think, having been in school bands and stuff, I can identify with that exactly.
You know what I’m talking about; “Can you play that for me?”
You listen to it and memorize it and then imitate the sound on the instrument.
There it is.
I think the person asking the question too was wondering what steered you toward working primarily with your voice (though I know that’s not your exclusive instrument) and what steers you in the direction of your particular performance style?
I think, about that, I don’t really have much choice. I think that’s probably a visceral inclination. I think, again in reference to some of that German theatrical work I was talking about earlier and in reference to some of Artaud’s theories, that there are just people who, for some reason or another, are pushed to do a very extreme type of work. I think that we would not be satisfied doing anything less. It might be a biochemical or a nervous system kind of thing, it’s hard to say. I think my father could answer that question better than I.
That just sparked something for me about the style of Greek singing that you’ve been doing …
The Mira Loia? It’s really the Greek dirge music where the women get up and they speak to the dead. When someone has died they speak directly to the dead, they’re not speaking through the image of Christ and they’re not speaking with the priest (the priest speaks through the symbol of Christ and they are threatened by the women usually because the women are speaking to the dead). That’s seen right there as a kind of ancient Pagan (which it is, by the priest’s standards) evil ritual.So this type of witch-calling is as old as the hills really.
It occurs to me that perhaps it’s not so much of a performance really … I mean it is equal parts grief and mourning and trying to find, through the performance, some kind of power to lift one’s self out of that grief, to have power over the depression that we talked about earlier being so paralyzing.
Exactly. Sure, because pure depression is catatonia, And that means you don’t move, you’re like a frozen object. And that is the most terrifying thing. I understand that because I have had that in my family and I have been close to it, and I did everything I could to figure out how to never get that close to it again. That’s where I feel that I’m lucky to be a singer, because singing is the most extroverted activity. You extrovert the sound, because the state of really being depressed is so introverted that you curl up and your head’s up your ass, and when you sing you have to really make that sound go through buildings. That’s your aim: to go as far as possible, and it takes you right out of depression. It’s a gift in that sense.