Pop Montreal: Diamanda Galas, a heart in the darkness

The Gazette (Montreal)

Pop Montreal: Diamanda Galas, a heart in the darkness

By Jordan Zivitz, The GazetteOctober 2, 2009

Diamanda Galás: Her deconstructions of blues, jazz and country
songs are backed by a deep awareness of traditional genres and the
compositions themselves.

Diamanda Galás: Her deconstructions of blues, jazz and country
songs are backed by a deep awareness of traditional genres and the
compositions themselves.
Photograph by: diamandagalas.com,

MONTREAL – Any discussion of Diamanda Galás begins with that
voice: swooping, shrieking, booming, cackling ` one of the most
radical weapons ever wielded by a singer.

Any discussion of that voice is followed by a discussion of the
political and social themes behind the Greek-American avant-gardist’s
complex, ritualistic, sometimes multilingual work: HIV/AIDS (the
blasphemy-blasted Plague Mass), torture and confinement (Schrei X),
genocide and its denials (Defixiones: Will and Testament).

So what happens if a listener’s awestruck reaction to Galás’s
vocal exorcisms eclipses awareness of her motivations?

`Well, I am a composer, which includes the musical interpretation of
poets and the meter each poet writes in my music,’ Galás wrote
in an email exchange with The Gazette. `I am also an interpreter of
songs from Greece, France, Belgium, America and other countries ¦
so sometimes individuals understand certain pieces of music and
sometimes they do not. Persons may appreciate the work on an emotional
and sonic level, or purely on a technical level, while the work leaves
them cold. I have no control over these things, of course. I can only
do what I feel at the time.’

Asked about plans for her piano-and-voice concert at Pop Montreal on
Saturday, Galás outlined an array of sources, summarized with
uncharacteristic understatement as `a wide repertoire’: `genocide
pieces using my own texts and texts from Armenian, Greek, Peruvian,
German, Belgian, French and Italian writers, set to my music’; Greek
love songs; amanethes (
elodies which are the basis for vocal improvisation’); Jacques Brel
compositions; and songs performed by Ã?dith Piaf, Juliette
Gréco, Ralph Stanley, O.V. Wright and Blind Lemon Jefferson.

`I had originally planned to title the concert Songs of Exile or
Prayers for the Infidel, and many of the songs can be described as
such, but I decided to be wider in my selection. Strangely, however,
all the songs have this feeling of isolation, of sadness, of mourning
to them. It is how life is sometimes, you know.’

Piaf and Stanley may not be typical touchstones for artists exploring
the outer limits, but nothing about Galás is typical. Her
deconstructions of blues, jazz and country songs are backed by a deep
awareness of traditional genres, and of the compositions themselves:
If you’ve heard her perform the gallows tale 25 Minutes to Go
(popularized by Johnny Cash), you’re acquainted with the final panic
and resignation of a death-row prisoner.

Galás twists the blues and jazz into such extreme permutations
that it seems reductive to classify her interpretations as
such. Still, `I do see myself when I sing the blues as a blues singer,
but an innovative blues singer, as John Lee Hooker was an innovative
blues singer, as Howlin’ Wolf was an innovative blues singer, as
Ornette Coleman was a blues musician as well as an avant-garde jazz
musician.’

The subject of vocalists’ originality sparked Galás’s pride,
rage and venomous wit: `I am the last singer on Earth people will ever
herald as a jazz singer, until after I am dead, and am one of the only
vocalists in the idiom who is an innovator. It is quite humorous.

`When I heard that (free-jazz singer) Patty Waters was not getting her
due, I lied and said that Patty Waters was my primary influence, even
though I only heard one song of hers twice ¦ because I was sick to
death of that pig Yoko Ono claiming that her one-note samba had
influenced every singer who managed to sing

after her birth, including me ` very amusing, since this woman could
not
roat and her ass. Thusly I wrote that `without Patty Waters, there
would be no Yoko Ono or Diamanda Galás,’ to punish Yoko, and
the press came to Yoko’s door demanding to know the influence of Patty
upon her. She deserved what she got. She is a lying, greedy
insect. One idea does not constitute a musical career. Twenty years of
multifarious ones does.’

Many of Galá’s ideas have been darker than dark, but there’s a
heart in the blackness. Critics viewing her fury and calls for revenge
as unremittingly negative are overlooking her fight for justice in the
name of outsider populations.

`Those persons who see `negative’ emotions as being `negative’ should
continue to protect themselves until their own bodies catch up with
them. then they will know. Whether or not by then it is too late for
them to understand the true constituents of life, among which is
unquestioned empathy, is not my concern.’

Click here to read the full email exchange between Diamanda Galas and
Jordan Zivitz.

Diamanda Galás performs Saturday, Oct. 3, 2009 at 9 p.m. at
Outremont Theatre, 1248 Bernard Ave. W., with Jerusalem in My Heart,
as part of Pop Montreal. Tickets: $35. 514-908-9090;

Galás also gives a free lecture titled Updating the Plague and
the Mass: Were You a Witness? on Thursday, Oct. 1, 2009 at 6 p.m. at
Concordia University, Room H-110, 1455 de Maisonneuve Blvd. W.,
co-presented by Pop Montreal and the university’s HIV/AIDS Lecture
Series; visit aids.concordia.ca.

Pop Montreal takes place Wednesday, Sept. 30, through Sunday,
Oct. 4. For more Gazette coverage, plus links to a schedule and map,
go to The Gazette’s Festival Central site. For coverage during the
fest, we’ll have you covered on the Words & Music blog.

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