Diamanda Galás: The Politics of Disquiet

Early Influences

EDWARD BATCHELDER: When you talk about that range of influences, and the way that you talked about the culture of the Ottoman Empire earlier, you talk about it in the way that people talk about America being a mongrel culture; a culture without a firm sense of division between different races, different ethnicities, and different religions. If you go to Memphis and you go to the music museums there, it’s very clear at a certain point that there was an incredible mixing going on between the early blues tradition, the early country tradition, the early folk tradition, that those things weren’t distinct categories.

DIAMANDA GALÁS: That’s right. Ray Charles, one of my heroes, did an interview and they said, “Well, what do you do? Gospel, blues, do you do country music?” He said, “Why do I have to make that decision? I’m a musician, I don’t make those decisions.” And since I was five years old when I was playing at the piano my father would put the fake book in front of me and say, “Okay, now you’ve seen the fake book, now I’m putting it away.” He’d take his bass out and I used to do gigs with him when I was 13, and I didn’t have a fake book. We just went through four hours every night of every song from, I’ve said this before, “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever” to “Kansas City,” to bam-bam-bam, to everything. I just had to recognize the changes, I couldn’t stop in a middle of a song. I never thought about it. Then he’d do “Volare” and then he’d sing a Greek song. Just like any real musician, I came up doing all music.

Again, when we talk about the categories it’s like saying to Leontyne Price, “You better not sing opera because you’re black. You better not sing Italian opera. And let me tell you something, you do not have the genetic predisposition to… ” That is just a bunch of garbage! One of the greatest singers of the Italian repertoire, an incredible singer! It’s garbage. It’s reflective of the same thing that we’re talking about that the Turks did, which is to try to sterilize a country with the objective of racial purity. You can’t do it. You can’t do it. You can’t tell a person not to hear what he hears. When a person hears what he hears, he plays what he hears. We have these idiots in New York like Wynton Marsalis and all these morons at the higher centers of culture like Lincoln Center who are playing the same old permutations, and they’ve screwed lots of innovative jazz musicians out of a living. They’re just recycling the same old trash and they’ve been doing it for years. Let me tell you, man, if they want the music to stop, it will stop. It’ll stop. They’ll be good for it. Maybe one of them will kick off soon and somebody else can take their place. Who knows?

EDWARD BATCHELDER: Can you talk some about your relationship to all these different influences?

DIAMANDA GALÁS: They are completely separate scales, and they have different temperaments and subtleties of emotions associated with them. If you’re going to sing the work “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?” a gospel song written with a blues scale—what people correctly call Afro-American music, I would call it Afro-American operatic music, really—then you have to be consequent to what that tradition is, as I am and was. What I was doing by singing that song was to show the idea of a crucifixion as one of the most painful ways to die: showing the breaking of the spinal column slowly, showing the blood, and showing the body after days of decay. There was a word that was used called horripilation. It was a type of torture practiced by the Chinese. They would give the victim opium and start chopping off body parts one at a time—just ripping small parts off the body. I wanted people to understand what happens, instead of just seeing the song as: “Let’s discuss it ex post facto, let’s discuss it in a requiem sense.” This music isn’t for those who are standing by a grave and saying, “Oh well, I may not have been there when the person was suffering, I may not have been there when the person was in pain, but now I’ve come to his funeral and I’m so sorry he suffered but he’s no longer suffering.” Well, those of us who see someone dying can’t think like that. We certainly can be glad that the person is no longer suffering, but we cannot escape the remembrances of all those days of anguish that the person went through. It’s an inescapable nightmare. So, what I did with the song, what I do with all these songs, was to dissect it, the words and melody. You hear a lot of the multiphonic singing that I’m known for and so forth, but it’s part and parcel of how I consider the song to be sung, with this crucifixion in mind.

Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
Were you there when they nailed him to the cross?
[Were you there? Or were you not there?]
Sometimes it causes me to wonder, wonder, wonder
Were you there when they crucified my Lord?

So, I go into detail about this. It’s a dissection of the subject. Yes, that’s why it starts off with gospel, but “This Is the Law of the Plague” and a lot of the other work. “Sono L’Antichristo” is actually more Byzantine sounding, and certainly Cris D’Aveugle is…

EDWARD BATCHELDER: There are moments when I hear a foreshadowing of the Defixiones project.

DIAMANDA GALÁS: Yes, that’s true. In a sense, an artist does tend to repeat him or herself in a way—also because of the Byzantine sound of the music and scales that are used in “Blind Man’s Cry.” I was often very much at a loss as to how to combine certain parts of the three or four albums that I did dealing with this subject because they struck me as very dissimilar, and they were dissimilar. So I eventually composed new work that united parts of the work that made sense and it became Plague Mass, not arbitrarily at all. A lot of new work had to be composed to write Plague Mass. I spend a lot of years dealing with the AIDS epidemic. I’d say from ’84 to ’91. I didn’t stop, because Vena Cava continued after that in ’92, which was more specifically about AIDS dementia and the depression that seems to look like AIDS dementia so people think that AIDS dementia has arrived before it actually has in certain people who are sick. Anyway, Schrei still calls back to that as well. I don’t see that as a project that is ever completed and I said that. It isn’t completed. How could it be completed? I said until the end of the AIDS epidemic, and we’re certainly not at the end of the epidemic. We are doing much better in the United States in many ways, but still the situation with protease inhibitors, a lot of people are exhausted by that. It doesn’t always work for everyone.

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