Before the late 20th century, Western art only infrequently depicted violent cruelty and transgressive emotion. Sure, Picasso painted Guernica, and Gloucester gets his eyes gouged out live on stage in Shakespeare’s King Lear. But in most art and literature, we didn’t get Molly Bloom-like interior monologues telling us at epic length what it feels like to be murdered or tortured. Instead, the extremis states of emotional pain were written, painted, or musicalized in a stylized, framed manner by even the most graphically truthful artists. Even the rage of the blues, while deeply emotional, is contained within a certain temperature range. Socially, too, we are all acculturated to be too polite to let it all hang out when we grieve a loved one’s death or even a lover’s rejection—we’re taught to “hold it in” from earliest infantile toilet training.
Singer Diamanda Galás jumps over all these barricades. She is an aesthetic revolutionary.
Techniques of extended voice production are not new. A German-Jewish voice teacher named Alfred Wolfsohn (1896-1962), serving as a stretcher carrier during World War I, was scarred for life by hearing the extreme vocalizations of the wounded and dying soldiers he tended to. He escaped Nazi Germany in 1939 and settled in London where he taught a vocal method that enabled both men and women not only to extend their ranges to multiple octaves, but to employ the wartime death cry as a natural tool of vocal technique and emotional integration. Wolfsohn’s students Marita Günther and Roy Hart were listed in early editions of the Guinness Book of World Records for their freak ranges; Hart was said to be able to sing eight octaves, starting below the range of the piano. The South African Hart eventually became the singer in the premiere of Peter Maxwell Davies’s Eight Songs for a Mad King (1969).
In her show at the Highline Ballroom on August 19, Diamanda Galás accompanied herself on the piano in an hour’s set of ten torch songs—from pop numbers such as “Bonjour Tristesse” to Piaf’s “Heaven Can Wait” to Greek songs (“Uparxo,” “Keigome Keigome”). But to say that her show merely consisted of her “covering” blues and torch songs is like saying an avalanche consists of a few hoppity-skippity pebbles. This was Torch Song Raised to Metaphysical Howl Against the Cosmic Void of Unlove. It was like taking Laurence Olivier’s famous blood-curdling howl as Oedipus Rex—at the moment when Oedipus realizes he has copulated with his own mother—and extending that howl to the crack of doom, to a Sisyphean eternity.
Part exorcist, part Pentecostal channeler, part Antonin Artaud, part Tibetan monk chanting “om” sound-processed to glass-shattering decibels, the regal, Goth-like Galás in Imitation of Life is the incarnation of the mythological Lilith, the she-demon as singing shaman. The keening of funerals becomes a kind of complete A-to-Z musical language in Galás’s vocal expression. Her vocal arsenal on this occasion seemed to include multiphonics, vocal double-stops (at an interval of an octave?), and vibratos within vibratos upon vibratos, all enhanced by wall-shaking amplification, echolalic sound delays, synesthetic strobe lights, and a smoke machine. Like Yma Sumac, she’ll shift without a break from a subcontralto that verges on Tuvan throat singing to a high lyric/coloratura. But Sumac was merely exotic; Galás is primal. Where other singers run out of breath on a single long note, Galás, iron-lunged and with titanium-plated vocal cords, actually redoubles her wind and intensity, emitting unearthly volleys of gargoylish “vocal fry” roulades as if they were bel canto fiorature.
In Freudian terms (which Ms. Galás has said she rejects), Galás is an “id” singing without mediation from the ego or superego. She doesn’t care if the lyrics are heard clearly; she only needs to sing the “id” subtext, because she’s already swallowed the song text so wholly into her expressive DNA that the meaning is clear gesturally. Galás carries Stanislavsky’s method of emotional truth to a logical extreme neither he nor Duse nor Lee Strasberg ever dreamed of. I have rarely heard such power of expression commanded by a single performer. Perhaps the most remarkable thing is that she can express these centrifugal emotions and still compose herself after each song without disintegrating onstage.
Certainly there is no prettiness or beauty in Galás’s sound. But Galás’s use of her expressive tools is as deeply felt and as far from gimmickry as could possibly be. If there’s anyone in our too-soon-for-judgment epoch closer than Diamanda Galás to being a modern “classic,” I don’t know who it is. She’s one of the most original artists musical culture has produced in the last 30 years.
The question Galás raises may be: Is there still room for other musical artists to cut the edge as deeply with beauty of sound and other “conventional” parameters of performance?