Music

Scream Queen

FT on Diamanda Galás

The cover for the reissued Diamanda Galás (1982).

DIAMANDA GALÁS’s FIRST ALBUM, The Litanies of Satan (1982), was reissued last year, and now her second LP, Diamanda Galás (1984), is finally available again after being out of print for thirty-seven years. In high school, I traded a pen pal an Einstürzende Neubauten concert bootleg for a hissy nth generation cassette copy of the two albums, one on each side; these vital reissues, beautifully remastered by Heba Kadry, restore the recordings to crystal clarity. Both albums are a testament to how fully formed and relentlessly radical the American singer’s creative approach and vision were from the very beginning. The second album is also evidence of Galás’s lifelong quest to give a name and a voice to unspeakable pain and historical injustice. Though best known for her epochal work in response to the HIV/AIDS pandemic—three albums known collectively as the Masque of the Red Death (1982–88) and a live recension of the trilogy called Plague Mass (1991)—it wasn’t HIV/AIDS that radicalized Galás, either creatively or politically. Her live debut, in 1979, was a performance of an opera by Vinko Globoker about the arrest and torture of a Turkish woman for alleged treason, drawn from an Amnesty International report. Long before those closest to her started dying of a mysterious disease that was striking down gay men, the artist made an unrelenting commitment to exploring the furthest reaches of the voice’s power not only as a musical instrument but as a weapon, a malediction, and a living memorial.

Diamanda Galás consists of two tracks, fifteen and seventeen minutes in length. Each composition has its own sonic palette and its own grim theme: “Panopticon,” written long before most Americans had heard of Foucault, is a brutal account of incarceration, drawing on Jack Abbott’s 1981 book In the Belly of the Beast; “Τραγούδια από το Αίμα Εχούv Φονός (Song from the Blood of Those Murdered)” is a Hadean elegy to the victims of the junta ruling Greece from 1967 to 1974, written and performed in Greek. Like much of the artist’s catalog, this album asks a powerful and pointed question: What would it sound like if, just once, just one fucking time, fire and brimstone rained down on those who actually deserved punishment?

Diamanda herself is the only instrument on either track. “Panopticon” also makes extensive use of tape effects; “Songs” is built from voice alone. Using a self-invented technique of multiple microphones, a panoply of voices, and an infamous, truly breathtaking vocal range, Galás sings, shrieks, groans, growls, chants, rants, and mutters into existence uncompromising sonic worlds. Both compositions prominently feature the double-edged extremes of her voice: the lacerating force of its highest register and its guttural lowest depths. Words and operatic flourishes alternate with ululating glossolalia, echoes, and terrifying silences. Meaning breaks down into fragments of sound that coalesce into raw feelings and back into language. But the compositions are nonetheless distinct. The first pulses with anger, staccato and distorted, the latter overflows with grief, ethereal and underworldly.

While much of Galás’s work has set to music the words of others—beginning with “The Litanies of Satan,” drawn from the verses of Charles Baudelaire—both tracks on Diamanda Galás use the singer’s own lyrics. Her poetics lie somewhere between Antonin Artaud and Paul Celan, both avowed touchstones. In a typical passage from “Panopticon,” the jailer’s voice assaults the listener with repetition:

What is your name
What is your name
What is your name
Your name is that of a condemned man
Your name is that of a condemned man
You have no name

Nineteen years after this album, Galás would set to music Celan’s “Todesfuge,” one of the most famous poems ever written about the Holocaust, as part of a composition about the Armenian Genocide. But even here, decades earlier, we find her wrestling with the same fundamental problems of aesthetics and expression: How do you represent the unrepresentable? How do you convey horror and grief and anger and violence so profound that language itself falters and fails in the attempt to describe it? Galás answers with a kind of musical free indirect discourse, moving in and out of various characters, conveying event, setting, and affect rather than committing to a fixed viewpoint. She doesn’t shy away from speaking in the brutal voice of the perpetrator, and where she gives voice to the victim it’s always with the full force of all their anguish and vengeance, and never in the saccharine tones of universalist moralizing or nationalist memorializing. She doesn’t tell you what you’re supposed to feel; if you have a heart and soul and the music is loud enough, you’ll feel it. Play at maximum volume.

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