New York

Diamanda Galas

Music is both a way to form the soul (Plato) and a force to get the mojo working (Muddy Waters), and the history of wordless vocal music is the record of a persistent, pure form of these impulses to rock the spirit. From the songs of Homer’s Sirens to Ella Fitzgerald’s scat, the idea of the naked voice uttering abstract sounds in viscerally rhythmic patterns has seemed to offer a visionary distillation of music’s ultimate power. The ritualistic keenings of Meredith Monk, the spontaneous utterances of Jana Haimsohn, and the complex sounds of Joan LaBarbara are specifically female expressions of this sacred/profane musical state of mind; to this list can be added the highly amplified, melodramatic, hypnotic, lurid vocal performances of Diamanda Galas.

Dressed in a long black gown, her strikingly made-up face (slashes of rouge, sequin highlights) framed by loose black hair, Galas stands motionless before several microphones and unleashes a torrent of oral sound meant to invoke a possessed state. Underpinned by her considerable operatic technique, Galas’ vocabulary of shrieks, semi-babble, lilting cries, and repeated syllabic fragments is the most precisely articulated, powerful statement in this sound/performance form yet. Combining the lyrical lure of the Sirens with the frisson of Mercedes McCambridge’s Exorcist voice-over, Galas’ Baudelairean vision offers redemption through blasphemy, Grace through a second Fall. Her current LP is called The Litanies of Satan; to season the stew, her new work, Panoptikon, is dedicated “to Jack Abbott” and quotes from Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punishment.

Wild Women with Steaknives unfolds as a series of short segments, each like a distinctive paragraph in which the lead sentence is elaborated upon until it’s used up. Among the ideas: a sort of stuttering that builds to a shriek through an echoing voice filter; a harsh guttural chatter which sounds like bag-lady language; waves of sound that bounce around the room as Galas alternates rapidly between two microphones, each feeding different speakers; a three-microphone, three-part monologue with herself, with three alternating tracks; a fast high-pitched gabble, an outboard-motor-like spluttering, and a rapidly repeated phrase which sounds like “is it was it?”. Colored stage lights underline the vocal events in classic melodramatic fashion—low and blue when she sings softly, hot and red when things heat up. Overall, the piece adds up to an anthology of a multi-voiced legion of hysterical, sexual, demanding, scary, and alluring women.

Galas’ performance here was the third presentation of her tour de force in New York, and its curious position on an otherwise academic “Meet the Moderns” program in the Great Hall’s uncongenial space showed just how performance-rooted her work is. Clearly muted by its context, Wild Women with Steaknives developed about half the intensity and ran shorter than at last year’s performances at the Kitchen and at Danceteria. No matter—even at half speed, Galas drives hard and fast to the heart of the matter; the mind was moved.

John Howell