Diamanda Galas

Originally published in Plan B magazine in May 2008 – www.planbmag.com/shop


Once, in a panelled room, with all the reassurance of high academe outside the window, I sat earnestly debating my paper on the threat of the feminine in Classical art history with my supervisor, a grizzled and brilliant man who had made my introduction to the work of the post-Lacanian(1) French feminists(2) that so informed my thesis. On the table between us was my frontispiece – the  face of a woman, teeth bared, her eyes swimming rage through the blood that covered her, her fist closed around the knife she held before her, beaming out her inescapable intention in a perfect congruence of gesture and bone. He looked at her for a moment, then his eyes dropped, and he shifted uncomfortably.

“Let’s just put her away for a bit,” he said.

In a hotel bar in Chelsea, a sudden March snowshower calmly tapping the window, gentlewoman polymath Diamanda Galas pulls faces for me. She draws her upper lip down towards her chin, tautens her eyelids, and extends her jaw, her face suddenly an archetypal mask of tragedy and menace. No blood, no weapon, is necessary. My neck prickles in instinctual response.


“It’s that smile, right?” she says, and then, seeing my shocked face, booms out a joyful cackle. “The Greek face. And the Middle Eastern face, and all through the Meditteranean, you see it in their art and in their people still. We all have this… brutal smile. Have you ever seen Anna Magnani(3), in Pasolini(4)’s Mamma Roma(5)? Magnani’s character in that film uses her laugh to convey pain – it’s set after the second world war, and she plays a whore. In one scene she is walking the streets and she throws back her head and laughs – it’s a loud laugh, but it’s also the sound of absolute tragedy.”

In Mamma Roma, Pasolini also breaks with cinematic convention by allowing Magnani’s character to look directly into the camera, her look a gauntlet. Like the image of Galas referred to above – an image from Plague Mass, her heartrending 1991 album excoriorating the Catholic church for its complicity in the AIDS crisis – Magnani’s unwavering gaze both reflects and promises violence. The images that Galas uses, similarly, echo the violent subject matter of much of her work, presage the extremity of her sound, and present her essence – her face, her body, her will – as terror.

“I think it’s a form of katara(6)’, she says. “I look back over the magazine covers that I’ve done and realise they were all really aggressive! The innocent kind of sexuality that’s expected of women now is so far from sexual displays in other art forms –  think of the can-can; the women looked tough, they were tough. This disingenuous sexuality is very recent and very culturally specific, too. Melina Mercouri(7), who was worshipped in Greece, would never be considered beautiful in America. We who are outside are either fetishised, exotic, or invisible. And that’s reflected in the way that both white and black traditions sample our music.”

It’s an uncomfortable thought; my face reddens. I find myself shifting on the sofa as guiltily as my supervisor once did. I’ve grown accustomed to thinking of sampling as a form of protest against the historic plunder of black culture by pop culture, yet increasingly, hip-hop musicians are finding other cultures to borrow from. ‘World music’ turns distinct cultures and traditions into mulch.

“Exactly. So anyone can steal from it. Jay-z  takes Greek and Tunisian music, and uses it for Beyonce, as rhythm tracks or backing vocals. We have some of the greatest singers in the world and they are used as background for Beyonce? That’s American imperialism – I don’t care if it’s a black artist doing it.”

Galas has a point: Yemenite song ‘Im nin’alu(8)’, for example, has been sampled over and over in hip-hop, ever since Coldcut used it for the remix of ‘Paid In Full’, but it’s Madonna’s ‘Isaac’ that is perhaps most crass. Particularly offensive was the Confessions tour, which accompanied the song with a woman dressed as a sort of disco dervish, caged, in front of images of the Judean desert.

“Oh, Madonna’s shameless. She’ll just steal. There’s a piece in Dazed and Confused – it was ‘The Madonna Issue’, you know, and then there’s this little subheader about me, ‘Devil Woman’ – I’m not kidding. Devil woman(9)! My record company thought it was so perfect that an article about someone genuinely transgressive should appear with Madonna – pseudo-transgressor and cultural rapist. Have you seen her schtick in ‘Frozen’? It’s Greek symbolism! This stuff has meaning!”

The indignation in Galas’ tone is infectious, her frown a sinister thunder. Impassioned defence of cultures under attack, and particularly of the artistic traditions of Greece and the middle east, is a thematic constant in Galas’ 25-year body of work, most overtly in Defixiones: Will And Testament, her 2003 album concerning the Greek, Assyrian and Armenian genocides at the hands of the Turks. While Defixiones makes Galas the moiroloyistra(10) of the victims themselves, her next project, Nekropolis, will consider the artistic consequences of genocide – the lost and stolen artistic traditions of subjugated cultures.

Nekropolis treats Istanbul(11) as a city of the dead,” she says flatly. “I have gathered Urdu artists, Arabic artists, traditions that were exiled, or eliminated. I want to do a lot of the work in Istanbul itself – and also in Patmos, which is where St John, who himself was an exile, wrote Revelations, his warning to the Eastern Orthodox churches that the end of their tradition was nigh.”

For Galas, the preservation of endangered cultures is a political act, in art or in life. At the behest of genocide scholar Desmond Fernandes, she contributed a speech on the ethnic cleansing of art to the memorial of Armenian newspaper editor Hrant Dink(12) that took place at the Houses of Parliament earlier this year. ‘Robbery is not just the robbery of money or human flesh,’ she wrote. ‘It involves the soul murder of cultures which will soon die if it they have no more songs to sing.’

Galas’ own cultural and artistic background is diverse. Born in San Diego, the daughter of a Spartan(13) mother and an Anatolian(14) father, she was immersed in Greek music at home. A musical prodigy, she was classically trained in both piano and voice, while her father directed a gospel band. As a child, she would sit on the stairs, listening to the choir’s ecstatic polyphony, then, when rehearsal was over, she’d accompany herself singing the same songs by ear. Her face radiates memory.

The mix of classical and blues traditions would later lead Galas to its logical conclusion: jazz. She takes me through a lightning tour of the traditions she perceives in jazz, including the West African tradition, Somalian and Ethiopian music, and Eastern European classical music. As she reels off (and demonstrates, in a throaty tone that blessedly subjugates the bar’s infernal jazz-lite) the various scales, I begin to see how she packs a thousand years of ethnomusicological history into her knockout punch of a voice. Though best known for her multitonal work, a split shriek of protest and despair, she is also a spinto soprano(15) of great texture, drama and dynamism, with a lower extension comparable to Leontyne Price(16) for attack and depth. In practice, this means she’s capable of pinning you like a butterfly and mauling you like a bear, all in one breath.


At her performance earlier in March, I was transfixed by her rendition of Ornette Coleman’s ‘All My Life’, which saw her wrestle a single phrase from impossibly high overhead and pursue it down into a dark-blue, crackling growl, before returning to a sustained, heady tone that suffused the air around me. “I’ve waited all my life for you, and now you’re here,” she sang. “It seems so long ago. Joy that I never knew never will exist for me and you.” As she travels through her extraordinary tonal palette, so the song travels through perspectives. Such accomplishment is moving to witness, even were it not redolent with association.

“In ‘All My Life’,  there’s one interval that’s D to an F# in the octave above – that’s a Mozart interval, an aria, like something from Seraglio(17). Ornette is very precise. I go from the head voice to the chest voice, and back again. I’m trained in bel canto(18) – that’s the basis of my freedom vocally, the control of the breath throughout the vocal range, regardless of the constant changes of timbre. I’m usually compared to Maria Callas(19), but I think actually Leontyne Price is closer. She has a very warm, rich tone and I love her singing. There are a couple more sopranos that I really like – Anna Netrebka, she’s a young Russian soprano, she’s wonderful, and Renee Fleming (20), I really enjoy her work. Her recording of Strauss’ Vier letzte Lieder(21) is terrific. She’s becoming a jazz singer now, interestingly enough.”

Galas’ association with (read: dominion over) the avant-garde scene has meant she has become a touchstone for independent artists too. PJ Harvey spoke in 1993 of her admiration for Galas, attracting comparison for her own theatrics on 1995’s To Bring You My Love. Long after Harvey has abandoned her efforts at coloratura, Galas’ eyes still narrow at the impudence of the compliment.

“There were friends of mine, drag queens, calling me saying ‘there’s somebody who’s dressing like you, wearing your hair, studying your vocals, wearing your makeup.’ At first I said ‘I don’t want to know, I’m working,” Galas bites off peremptorily. “But then I went to one of her concerts. And I’m telling you, if you’re gonna do me in drag? You’d better be taller than me. And tougher than me. And you’d better be a man,” she growls.

Galas is dearly beloved of drag queens. Her good friend, Kentucky drag doyenne Bradley Pickleheimer, introduced her to two of the most stunning songs on her current live album, Guilty, Guilty, Guilty, which she’s presently taking on tour.

“I heard the gigantic orchestral introduction to ‘Heaven Have Mercy’ and yelled ‘what the fuck is that?’  – it’s a very subtle song, as well as very emotionally extreme. I heard her voice – I was in tears. And then he played me ‘Interlude (Time)’ –  that’s like a music box, with a little ballerina in it. And it’s made of mirrors; it only sees itself. It’s very demanding to sing; it’s actually the most difficult song on the album.”

Galas picks up her coffee, but doesn’t taste it. She seems to be watching her reflection.

“Autumn leaves has my parents in mind,” she says quietly. “I had had to have my mother admitted to hospital. My father and I went to visit her the next day, and as he was leaving he was hit by a car. 91 years old. And a chaplain came up to tell my mother that my father was in the trauma ward. It was horrifying. Brutal. But when they came home again, I’d sit and play songs for them that they loved. It was very emotional for me. I’d sit and play standards, just try and play without stopping; it made them happy. And ‘Autumn leaves’ was one I played over and over.”

Such associations make for an emotionally taxing live show, but Galas’ improvisational technique means the songs grow as she plays them, and her performances are as technically complex as they are inventive.

“Each time I perform, it’s necessary to do a very long sound check to see how each song plays in the room, how it sounds in the acoustic chamber of each hall. So in fact I have probably sung for at least three hours before even doing the show. All the settings for each song must be modified from one room to the next – Carnegie Hall is vastly different to the natural reverb and delay you’d find in St John The Divine, for example.”

Galas always works in quadrophonic sound, whether in an indoor or outdoor venue, using ring modulation, delay, distortion, and feedback, which she controls with her own set of pedals. The result is an often overwhelming proliferation of tones, as individual mic signals batter violently against one another. She’s widely recognised as a pioneer of mic technique and sound engineering; Bjork admitted to having studied Galas’ kamikaze sonics for her own live performances. In a recent interview, Jarboe, late of Swans, contrasted the aggression of Galas’ performance ethic with her own willingness to risk everything, to die, if necessary, for those present.

“What? She’s ready to die for whoever’s in the audience?” hoots Galas, thoroughly amused at the thought. “Well, I’m ready to kill whoever’s in the audience! Like in Female Trouble: ‘who wants to die for art?’ – someone stands up, and Divine shoots them.” Her great green eyes blacken again with glee.


1) Jacques Lacan – French psychoanalyst, highly influential within the post-structuralist movement.

2) Post-Lacanian French feminists: Helene Cixous, Luce Irigaray, Julia Kristeva. Interdisciplinary post-structuralist feminist scholars broadly concerned with the construction of female identity and locating feminine forms of expression – ‘L’ecriture feminine’.

3) Anna Magnani – nightclub singer and Oscar-winning actress in the expository tradition, of Italian and middle-eastern origin. Best known for her role in Daniel Mann’s adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ The Rose Tattoo.

4) Pier Paulo Pasolini – Italian filmmaker, philosopher, playwright, novelist and poet, whose poem, ‘Supplica a mia madre’ (‘Prayer to my mother’), Galas set to music for her 1998 album Malediction And Prayer, along with works by Charles Baudelaire and Salvadorean poet Miguel Huezo Mixco.

5) Mamma Roma – 1962 film by Pasolini, focusing on postwar Rome.

5) Katara – curse. In both the ancient and the modern Greek traditions, a katara is a powerful tool used to exert one’s will on another. Galas’s 2003 work, Defixiones, refers to the curses left on the graves of the dead of the Greek, Assyrian and Armenian genocides, to forewarn those who might desecrate the graves of their incipient fate.

6) Melina Mercouri – singer, actress and activist, later Minister for Culture in Greece. “She  was a very masculine woman, very powerful”, says Galas. Both of us found it difficult to imagine a US equivalent.

7) Im nin’alu – sacred 17th Yemenite poem, written by Rabbi Shalom Shabazi. Recorded most famously by Yemenite singer Ofra Haza in 1988, whose version was a hit in both the UK and US. The song was subsequently sampled by Coldcut for Eric B and Rakim, Snoop Dogg, and Nas (in his battle with Jay-Z, ‘H to the Homo’). The poem itself elevates spritual riches over earthly wealth: ‘Im nin’alu daltei n’divim, daltei marom lo nin’alu’ (‘even though the gates of the rich may be closed, the gates of heaven will never be closed’).

8 ) Stop press: my boyfriend returns from a visit to the local shop with the May issue of Q magazine, another of its upsettingly condescending ‘women in music’ specials. “You’re gonna love this,” he grins . Past the enormofeatures on Madonna, Debbie Harry, Amy McDonald and Adele, in a half-pager named ‘Women on the verge of a nervous breakdown: 5 female artists who just went too far’, he points out a paragraph on Diamanda Galas. Her crimes, apparently, include having a 5-octave range, singing depressing songs and tackling the subject of AIDS.

9) Moiroloyistra – ancient tradition of professional women mourners whose role was a feminine parallel to that of the priest. Considered, therefore, heretical by the Greek Orthodox church. Performed moiroloyia – funeral laments, often harrowing, at the graveside of the deceased. “Needless to say, the oracle at Delphi was female”, says Galas, explaining the ancient Greek role of the feminine as the guardian of the sacred. “Moiroloyia is a speaking directly to the dead rather than through the priest. The moiroloyistras are not interested in a three-way medium to speak to the dead – especially not a man. Men are not present for the caregiving or the death rituals.”

11) Istanbul – formerly Constantinople, more formerly Byzantium, the current capital of Turkey. At varying points in its history it has been the capital of the Roman, Byzantine, Latin, and Ottoman empires, and is as such second only (and perhaps) to Jerusalem in terms of military history and cultural significance. Galas refers to it as the city of the dead because of its history of genocide. “So many artists were exiled or executed,” says Galas. “There are texts left behind that are about the impending firing squads.”

12) Hrant Dink – Armenian editor of the newspaper Agos in Turkey, assassinated in 2007 by a teenage Turkish nationalist. Dink had long been critical of Turkish denial of the Armenian genocide, had been prosecuted repeatedly for ‘denigrating Turkishness’, and was subject to constant threats from nationalists. His death has become a focus for many campaigners against the Turkish government’s genocide denial. Galas’ speech in its entirety can be found here.

13) Sparta – area of southern Greece, distinct culturally from the Athenian tradition which has dominated European understanding of Greek culture since the Renaissance.

14) Anatolia – Peninsular region between the Black and Meditteranean seas. Strategic point of contact between Asia and Europe, Anatolia has an idiosyncratically diverse cultural tradition. “People don’t understand the term ‘Anatolian’, so they just write ‘Armenian’ and think that’ll do”, says Galas. “it means ‘the sun rising in the East’ – it’s the oriental Greek tradition, very different from the mainland.”

15) Spinto soprano – a lyric soprano with both a darker texture than the traditional lyric tonality, and a more cutting attack (or scrillo) than that of a dramatic soprano.

16) Leontyne Price – black American spinto soprano best known for her interpretation of Verdi’s Aida.

17) The Abduction from the Seraglio, 1782, an opera by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

18) Bel canto – late 17th-century vocal technique allowing for great flexibility and agility. “The core of my technique is bel canto,” says Galas. “I can sing for hours at a time and never ever damage my voice.”

19) Maria Callas – celebrated Greek-American dramatic soprano, also extremely accomplished in bel canto.

20) Renee Fleming – American lyric soprano lauded for her interpretations of the lieder of Schubert and Strauss.

21) Vier letzte Lieder (four last songs) – the final work of Richard Strauss, composed in 1948 for soprano and orchestra, in the last years of Strauss’ life. He died before the work was ever performed.


~ by bunnyrabble on March 26, 2009.

4 Responses to “Diamanda Galas”

  1. This is a very well thought-out and specifically resonant article.

  2. THANK YOU so very much for posting this ! It was both a delight to read and most insightful ! ~ I’m always so starved for (just such !) articles/news from “Queen” Galas. And with such quality here, you’ve just spoilt me !
    ~ I would practically chew off (well, the most proximate stranger’s) left arm, just for a chance to meet her for an afternoon ! ) …
    The woman is, in one word : INCOMPARABLE !!!
    Plus, as a bonus, I had me a good little giggle at her : “Well, I’m ready to kill whoever’s in the audience!” ~ (Spot-on Classic Galas !)
    (And spinto soprano, ~ “spinto” (?) ~ That was a new one on me. Am surprised at my own ignorance of it’s existence )

    So once again thanx ~ you’ve made my day !

  3. great piece!


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