For The Erased

by LD Beghtol

Village Voice (New York, NY)
September 6, 2005, Tuesday

Ages ago at college in her native California, singer, composer, and
cultural provocatrice Diamanda Galas abandoned the study of science
to pursue her true passion: experimental music. But biochemistry’s
loss is our gain; over the last two decades, her controversial works
have earned her a place high in the avant-garde music pantheon.

Fearlessly outspoken, frighteningly knowledgeable, and dangerously
openhearted, Galas dedicates her latest work, Defixiones: Orders
>From the Dead to the estimated 3 million to 4 million victims of the
Armenian, Assyrian, and Anatolian Greek “ethnic cleansing” committed
by the Ottoman Turks between 1914 and 1923.

Since 1999, Defixiones has been performed to near unanimous acclaim at
prestigious venues the world over, from London’s Royal Festival Hall
to the Sydney Opera House, from the Athens National Opera to Mexico
City’s Universidad del Claustro de Sor Juana. Its New York premiere
(presented by the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council’s “What Comes
After: Cities, Art + Recovery” international summit) is scheduled
for September 8 and 10 at Michael Schimmel Center for the Arts,
Pace University–appropriately enough, just across from City Hall,
mere blocks from ground zero.

The word defixiones refers to warnings engraved in lead placed onto
graves in Greece and Asia Minor, threatening desecraters with grievous
harm. Galas uses this term in a broader memorializing sense, urging
us to remember the forgotten dead, the “erased,” the massacred. Her
epic performance for solo voice, piano, and electronics speaks for
the poet-author in exile–both far from home and in his homeland–as
well as for “born outlaws,” as Galas calls homosexuals, echoing Genet.

Informed by excerpts from the Armenian Orthodox liturgy and the
traditional amanethes, or improvisatory lamentations sung at Greek
funerals, Galas 70-minute masterwork showcases both her astounding
vocal technique and her enormous capacity for rage, compassion,
defiance, and ferocious emotionalism. Though at times truly fearsome
in its raw, insistent pathos–familiar to those who know her crushing
Plague Mass (1990) or Schrei X (1996)–Defixiones’ real power lies
in those seductively lyrical, quiet passages that occur just before
Galas wail of existential anguish erupts in reverberant majesty.

Iraqi artist-scholar Selim Abdullah notes, “The sentiment, strength .

. and sensitivity contained in this Saturnian representation go.

back to the very aspects the Greeks gave to a whole Occidental
culture.” Awash in blood and tears, and haunted by images of
unspeakable (and until now, largely unspoken) butchery, Galas funeral
mass is cathartic, but neither glib nor sentimental. Any redemption
is hard-won.

I spoke with Miss Galas who has lived in the East Village for
the past 10 years, on two occasions in mid August. Over multiple
cappuccinos–caffeine being her current drug of choice–she dazzled
me with her famous intelligence and often barbed wit. Onstage she’s
a mythic figure come to life; in person she is perhaps even more

Few people in America, other than those of Greek, Armenian, or Assyrian
descent, seem to have heard of this horror. Why is it so unknown?

This country discusses one or two genocides and markets them in very
contrived ways. They don’t write about them truthfully, the way
[author and concentration camp survivor] Primo Levi did. Think of
Spielberg and the legions of mediocrity he has propagated.

And there’s the conflicting numbers, and . . .

What does it matter if it was 6 million or 2 million or 200? Genocide
is genocide. Every culture has its particular way of killing and
torturing its enemies. And the Turks are still trying to cover
it up by calling it deportation, but that’s just another word for
“death sentence.”

You’re perceived as the voice of the fallen and forgotten. Is that
something you’ve chosen?

No–I hated being the poster girl for the AIDS epidemic. It had to
be done, but I hated it. I never meant to be political– I’m an artist.

An artist can only speak for herself. But if you get particularly good
at something it has a sort of universality, and then it has a certain
audience, and you’re answerable for that. Like Adon [Syrian-born poet
Adon Ali Ahmed Said]–a great, great poet–who is seen as the voice
of a “leftist movement” of some sort, but he’s only writing about
what is truth to him.

How did you come to create Defixiones?

My father is an Anatolian Greek. All my life he’s talked about how the
finest Greek culture was from Anatolia–home to Assyrians, Armenians,
Greeks, and Jews, who for centuries traded languages, songs, ideas,
histories–and how many of these cultures are indistinguishable from
one another. So the notion of racial purity there is just absurd. He
also told me about the atrocities committed by the Turks against
Greeks from Asia Minor. But the direct catalyst was an interview I
saw with Dr. [Jack] Kevorkian, who said, “I’m Armenian, I know what
torture is all about. I know the difference between homicide and
helping people end a life of misery.” He was so articulate, and he
was discussing Greek Stoic philosophy and the Armenians in the same
breath, which I found very unusual at the time.

So in 1998 I said to myself: It’s time to do this work.

Later I read Peter Balakian’s book Black Dog of Fate, which talks
about what being an Armenian in America means–it means you’re
invisible. It’s the same with the Greeks. Most people think of Greek
culture as a dead culture: Socrates and Aristotle and the statues . .

And they think Assyrians are the same as Syrians..

Then, as a fellow at Princeton in 1999, I studied texts by Giorgos
Seferis and others in preparation for a performance at the Vooruit
Festival at the Castle of Ghent [in Belgium].

Defixiones was more a song cycle then, with [the underground Greek
protest music known as] rembetika and works by Paul Celan, Henri
Michaux, and Cesar Vallejo. I concentrated on exiled poets like
the Anatolian Greek refugees of the 1920s–my father’s people. The
premiere was on September 11, 1999, which marked the anniversary
of the reign of terror under Charles V, who persecuted homosexuals,
women thought to be witches, and other heretics.

Defixiones is somewhat a work in progress?

Yes. Currently I’m using texts by Giorgos Seferis, [who] is like my
bible–and Nikos Kazantzakis, who people will know from his novel The
Last Temptation of Christ. And Pier Paolo Pasolini, whose poem is
addressed to the people who survived. Everyone just hated him. And
Yannis Ritsos. And “The Dance” by Siamanto, with its description of
brides being burned alive. And the pro-genocide poem “Hate,” which
was published by [the Turkish newspaper] Huerriyet and broadcast by
the BBC in 1974, right before the invasion of Cyprus–about why the
Turks should decapitate the Greeks.

September is such a politically charged month . . .

Yes, starting with the destruction of Smyrna in September 1922. And
Black September 1955, when Turkish officials waged a disinformation
campaign stating that Greeks had bombed the consulate in Thessalon
resulted in the desecration of Greek churches and the mutilation and
murder of priests and other men. And the Black September of Ariel
Sharon’s going into Lebanon in ’82. He was doing a real con job. And
then the situation in America in 2001 . . .

Your aggressive style and disturbing subject matter automatically
put you outside the mainstream. Yet your music has a surprisingly
broad appeal.

Well, I’ve been creating sacred masses, which are not exactly a popular
art form in this country today. But they’re meant to be, literally,
for the people. The American idea of a populist art form is rap. Some
of it is good, but most is appalling in that it promotes stupidity and
the abuse of the same groups that monotheist totalitarian governments
persecute: women, homosexuals, and anyone who doesn’t speak precisely
your language.

You must get tons of hate mail.

Fundamentalists of all sorts despise me. I’m attacked by my own people
too–American Greek men who are homophobic and think everything I
say is heresy. I got shit recently from a Jewish promoter about doing
Defixiones in Mexico. She asked me if I really believed people would
be interested. And I thought: “Please don’t insult my intelligence–or
theirs. They’ll understand the concept of genocide as it has occurred
and continues to occur to so many people around the world . . . ”

I want to perform Defixiones in Istanbul and Smyrna. The psychic
manifestations of violence can be just as devastating as the
physical acts–especially when people refuse to recognize them. It’s
depersonalizing. I have a line in INSEKTA: “Believe me, believe me.”

Not being believed can kill.

Who are your fans?

People who find it necessary to think for themselves in order to
survive, because they’re damned by the fact they don’t agree with the
mediocrity that society shoves down their throats. They rise above
this by continuing to educate themselves. This is especially true
of homosexuals, who are born outside the law anyway. They’re still
figuratively and literally buried alive by the Egyptians and Turks.

Here in New York they’re visited upon by the Aesthetic Realism
Foundation and treated with electroshock. In Iran, they hang teenage
“infidels.” It’s unbelievable that ethnic groups still shut out those
who can be so disciplined and organized, and who can do great things.

[Gay men] either disappear completely or they address the situation.

They’ve had to–to save their own lives. They are great fighters. I
say these are the first soldiers you should enlist, not the last.

This is the man to whom you should say, “Will you be my brother? Will
you help me?”

Will the Turkish government ever admit these atrocities?

I think it will be forced to, through the ongoing work of their own
scholars, both old and young, and by artists and writers who want to
be part of the rest of the world, despite the horrific censorship that
the Turkish government exercises over them. My website is listed as a
hate site, which is completely ridiculous. I do not hate the Turkish
scholars who are trying to address true events in the world.

There are many Turks who want to see things change, but they’re not
given the opportunity to express themselves. When they do, they get
sent to prison or mental asylums. Midnight Express is absolutely
the truth.

But until the government officially apologizes, there is no reason
for it to be accepted by the European Union. You must admit what
you’ve done–it shows that your present actions will be mandated by
the apology for your past actions. But until this happens there can
be no trust at all.

For more information about the Greek, Armenian, and Assyrian genocides,
Black September, and Galas’s work, see: “Voices
of Truth” series:”Before the
Silence” archival news reports series, run by Sofia Kontogeorge Kostos:

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