NEW YORK -- To call Diamanda Galas a good singer would be a gross
understatement. Owner of a four-octave range and an incredible technique,
Galas has honed her voice into an instrument of terror.
"I want my music to act as a weapon," Galas said. Her voice cuts deep; it
expresses anger, grief and pain, distilled into a pure form that dares you to turn
away. The vitriolic vocalist can sound like she's channeling a century-old blues
man one minute and speaking in tongues the next.
Her vocal gymnastics are phenomenal. Her stage presence is stunning. But
don't call her a diva.
"Diva now means anything that sits down to piss," Galas, 45, explained in a
recent interview. "Don't ever call me that fucking word. Just call me a good
She has no great love for the popular, women-centered Lilith Fair concert tour,
which she gleefully termed "The Gash Festival," and she is openly
contemptuous of high-profile performers such as Madonna, Celine Dion and
Meredith Brooks. Obviously, this strong, confident woman is unafraid to speak
Galas' recent performance at the Knitting Factory in New York's TriBeCa area
showcased songs that appear on her new album, Maledictions and
Prayers, just released on Asphodel. A thematic extension of her 1992 album
The Singer, Maledictions and Prayers captures live performances
of Galas at the piano, covering blues, country and soul songs, as well as poems
set to music.
For her hour-long set at the Knitting Factory, Galas' crisp -- even beautiful --
piano-playing created the perfect setting for the songs. She transformed B.B.
HREF="http://www.addict.com/music/Galas,_Diamanda/The_Thrill_Is_Gone.ra m ">"The Thrill is Gone"
m ">"The Thrill is Gone"(RealAudio excerpt) into a scary lament,
conjuring visions of Bessie Smith moaning under 6 feet of cold dirt. She turned
up the desolation in the Supremes'
HREF="http://www.addict.com/music/Galas,_Diamanda/My_World_Is_Empty.ra m">"My World is Empty Without You"
m">"My World is Empty Without You"(RealAudio excerpt), cast a
hypnotic spell with Johnny Cash's "25 Minutes to Go" and made insanity seem
like a state of grace in Willie Dixon's "Insane Asylum."
Winding her voice around Baudelaire's poem "Abel and Cain," Galas choked
out an aria that was truly a curse. "Rise up race of Cain, and cast God down
upon the earth," the song ended. In this context, her defiant and soulful cover of
Mahalia Jackson's "I'm Gonna Live the Life (I Sing About in my Songs)"
suggested any number of terrifying meanings.
Galas' music may sound like stern stuff, but the overall effect is not depressing.
"Diamanda's music is totally cathartic," enthused longtime fan Susan Morrison,
23, after the Factory show. "It's so intense, so honest, it clears all the bad shit out
of your system."
Another fan, Ted Snyderman, 21, was simply in awe. "This was the first time I've
seen her live. She's like a force of nature."
In this age of niche marketing, Galas' music defies easy categorization with its
elements of performance art, blues, opera, electronic music, gospel and rock.
She started out as a classically trained pianist, performing in public at age 14.
She soon discovered that her voice was her greatest asset.
Her first musical pieces, such as "Wild Women with Steak Knives" (1981), were
showcases for her arsenal of gasps, screams and harmonic singing.
In 1984, the internationally renowned artist began work on what would become
her magnum opus. Finished in 1989 and released as Masque of the Red
Death, it later was performed at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New
York in 1991 as "Plague Mass." This powerful and controversial work combined
voice, organ, sacred and obscene texts, radical electronics and elements of
performance art to give voice to the victims of AIDS.
Since then, her work has become even more varied. The Singer (1992)
was a collection of blues and standards. In 1994, Galas recorded a rocking
album of murderous love songs, The Sporting Life, with Led Zeppelin's
John Paul Jones. Her 1996 album Shrei X was a stark electronic piece
for solo voice.
"People who consider themselves into alternative music listen to [Shrei
X] and they're like, this is not music, and this is insane, and this is just
fucking weird electronics," Galas said. "And yet they're the same ones who talk
about 'the new electronica.' 'The new electronica?!' You mean Veronica
Electronica [Madonna's latest musical alter ego], don't you?
"What about Xenakis and Pierre Henri and all the people in the '30s and '40s
who were doing electronic music which is more noxious than anything these
motherfuckers are going to think of? These people think they've just discovered
electronic music. That just cracks me up!"
Galas had equal scorn for the Lilith Fair. "I don't know what they're promoting,"
she said. "Are they promoting women playing instruments? OK, that's an
interesting idea! [But] they're not really interested in promoting female
musicians. They're interested in gash with four strings.
"But if we're talking about music, then ... what about Joanne Brackeen and
Marilyn Crispell and Mary Lou Williams? Are they not doing music? Why
doesn't anyone hear about them? Because they're women playing jazz, and we
all know that only men play jazz."