Edward W Batchelder

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Slouching toward Anatolia

Defixiones: Will and Testament
La Serpenta Canta
Diamanda Galás
(Mute Records)

Album covers for Defixiones and La Serpenta Canta

After a hiatus of over five years, the singer, pianist, and composer Diamanda Galás has reappeared with two separate CDs—both double albums recorded live—that encompass some three hours of music between them. On the surface, at least, the two collections are quite different, yet given the monolithic nature of Galás’s artistic vision, it’s not surprising that both are driven forward by very similar concerns, albeit in quite different directions.

The first, La Serpenta Canta, might be considered a greatest-hits collection, if one conceives of hits, as Galás does, “in the Mike Tyson sense of the word”: acoustic body blows aimed at the audience rather than musical bullets aimed at the pop charts. All thirteen pieces on Serpenta are by American songwriters, curiously enough, and they cover a territory that stretches from Hank Williams’s country lament, “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” to Ornette Coleman’s mournful jazz classic, “Lonely Woman.” Most of the other songs fall loosely within the region of blues, soul, or rhythm-and-blues, but there are a couple of anonymous traditional songs as well, along with two pieces that previously appeared on The Sporting Life, her CD with former Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones. For anyone not familiar with Galás’s work, the range of musical sources cited here might seem almost absurdly wide, but, as her fans know, Galás has an iron esthetic will, and has shown herself capable of pulling the most diverse material into the widening gyre of her apocalyptic vision.

The second, even more imposing, CD is Defixiones: Will and Testament, a song cycle composed mostly by Galás herself (although drawing again on a wide range of sources) and dedicated “to the forgotten and erased of the Armenian, Assyrian, and Greek genocides that occurred in Asia Minor, Pontos, and Thrace between 1914 and 1923.” It draws its title from the “curse tablets,” the small lead charms engraved with curses that were laid on graves throughout the eastern Mediterranean to discourage desecration. With this, then, her fifteenth CD, Galás directly engages the Greek heritage that has always—occasionally explicitly, more often obliquely—informed her work. As far back as 1991, Galás (whose mother’s family is from Mani) invoked the power of the moirologi (mourning songs) to explain what she was after in her work. Before that, her 1981 Tragouthia apo to aima exoun fonos (the eccentric Greek was translated by Galás herself as Song from the Blood of Those Murdered) responded to the reign of the colonels.

More often, though, her voice has found its immediate inspiration in other, more contemporary catastrophes: AIDS (Plague Mass, Masque of the Red Death), imprisonment (Panoptikon), sexual oppression (Wild Women with Steak Knives), dementia (Vena Cava), or torture and human experimentation (Schrei X). Because her father is descended from Smyrna Greeks, however, it may have been inevitable that she would eventually tackle the disaster that informed her childhood, the one that was passed down like a bloody relic from her grandfather to her father to her. “You don’t hear these stories for twenty years and then forget them,” Galás has said, “you don’t.”

On the one hand, then, a collection of songs from the American popular tradition; on the other, a sweeping work of historical memory that exhumes and confronts the holocausts of another continent and century. Yet despite their differences, both works are in their own way concerned with memory, and both manifest Galás’s steadfast refusal to stay within the lines that attempt to demarcate high culture from low. For all that Serpenta draws on American popular forms, most of the songs are retrieved from earlier, half-forgotten eras, and Galás brings to them her prodigious three-and-half-octave voice and virtuosic piano technique. And for all the deadly seriousness of Defixiones, Galás does intersperse a number of folk songs: defixiones were, after all, a folk tradition, on a par with wearing a fylachto (amulet) to ward off the evil eye or spitting three times after complimenting someone. Most of all, of course, both CDs revolve around the experience of loss and isolation, whether figured culturally or individually. This is clear enough with Defixiones, but even on Serpenta, words like “grave,” “hell,” “insane,” “lonely,” “frenzy,” “empty,” “spell,” and “dead” run like a dark vein beneath the recording’s skin. So while Galás has herself suggested that these sorts of popular-song performances are a way to financially support and build audiences for her more ambitious projects, the two poles of her career are not that dissimilar.

Serpenta follows in the footsteps of the remarkable Malediction and Prayer (1998), which drew from an even wider range of composers to hammer together a cycle that was relentless in its tragic vision. With its collection of gospel, country-and-western, blues, folk, protest ballads, and European poems set to music, Malediction might almost have been a mid-sixties Joan Baez album—if Baez had faced the sort of near-death experience to which the czar had treated Dostoevsky. What held it all together were Galás’s performances, which found beneath the songs a common, though terrifying, stratum of human experience. Malediction’s genius was not just to reveal the possibilities of those particular songs, but to illuminate more generally the possibilities that still remained unexplored within much of popular and folk music. Greil Marcus has famously said that Harry Smith’s folk anthologies of the late fifties brought to light “the old, weird America,” and Malediction did something similar, showing how weird America—and the world—still was, if you were honest about it and capable of expressing it.

In fact, what all of Galás’s popular-music forays reveal is that there is a gigantic subterranean network that connects American blues with French symbolist poetry with Greek rebetiko with the darker strains of country-and-western with chanson with the untold millions who have died songless over the past century in various holocausts, ethnic cleansings, evictions, and displacements. One might argue that these connections exist only because Galás herself has excavated them, but there is something so chthonic in her performances, so primeval and cathartic, that they seem much closer to revelation than invention. Listen, for example, to her version of Willie Dixon’s “Insane Asylum” on Malediction and Prayer, where the repeated refrain of “Save me please” descends into an inferno of cackles and cries that sound like something pitched halfway between Jimi Hendrix and a swarm of Furies loosed from their prison. Or Serpenta’s ten-minute version of John Lee Hooker’s “Burning Hell,” which starts softly and builds to a furious left-hand attack with the melody splintered across the higher registers—yet all the while retaining the rolling, bluesy rhythm of the original. Just when you think that you might be listening to avant-garde jazz pianist Cecil Taylor, Galás’s breathy voice sweeps in from the lower registers, caressing the lyrics softly before it, too, builds to a crescendo that imports Middle Eastern scales.

Song after song on Serpenta performs this sort of transfiguration. “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” slows the song to a standstill, with the words whispered like a wind off a prairie, the heavy sustain on the chords mirroring the electronic echo lightly applied to her voice. “I Put a Spell on You,” already a frightening and obsessive trip in the original Screamin’ Jay Hawkins version, crosses here into some borderland of bluesy piano and tightly coiled vocal restraint. Part of the power of these performances, of course, lies in the sense of the uncanny that they elicit as once-familiar-but-now-forgotten material returns to haunt us in strange new forms. To hear Galás sing, for example, the Supremes’ “My World Is Empty without You” is to be confronted by the ghost of something we realize we never really knew when it was alive. These songs would not resurrect like this if they were still sung in the voice of the past—or of a present that has condemned them to forgetfulness. They do come alive, however—with a vengeance—in the radical difference with which Galás reinterprets them, fulfilling in them a possibility that the past has denied them. This is most obvious in her renditions of the blues, where she retrieves the songs from the respectful purity currently crippling the genre and restores to them the devastating power found in performers like Blind Willie Johnson or Son House.

As extreme and violent as her interpretations may be, therefore, they seldom seem arbitrary or disrespectful. This is due, I think, to Galás’s radically egalitarian experience of musical culture. Raised by strict Greek Orthodox parents in San Diego, she was classically trained on piano (performing Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto at age fourteen with the San Diego Symphony), but at the same time sat in on weekends in a band led by her father, playing the full range of popular tunes you might expect from an early-seventies Holiday Inn cover band. Add to this that her father also led a gospel choir and a New Orleans jazz combo, and Galás’s next incarnation—performing with Bobby Bradford, Ornette Coleman’s cornet player, on the outer edges of the jazz avant-garde—scarcely seems a reach. (Surprisingly, it was only after these experiences that she turned to singing, which had been forbidden to her as a child.) The effect of all this was to give Galás command, both technically and emotionally, of nearly the full range of music available to us from the Western and Middle Eastern traditions.

Of course, to take a folk or blues song and do a respectfully innovative performance of it is a sort of gift, regardless of how much the song’s author may or may not appreciate Galás’s particular brand of generosity. By infusing new life into the song and carrying it to new listeners, Galás still stays well within a long tradition of interpretation and re-interpretation of popular forms. Since the beginning, however, Galás’s primary project has been the works of mourning and catharsis that Defixiones is a part of, and it’s here that she has both made her name and drawn criticism for her approach. Perhaps the most notorious of these works is her stridently angry Plague Mass, which veers between long rants at the ignorance and apathy that abetted the AIDS epidemic to beautifully sung gospel passages to moments of extreme eeriness where she seems to be channeling a wide range of voices: patients in advanced AIDS dementia, fundamentalist Southern preachers, Old Testament prophets. Add the sections where a thunderous backing drumbeat supports her liturgical chanting of parts of Revelations, Psalms, and Tristan Corbiere’s poem, “Blind Man’s Cry,” and you have a truly unsettling work. (Galás first performed it, stripped to the waist and drenched in blood, at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City in October 1990.)

It’s not just the content of the work that is severe, but Galás’s extremities of form. Her voice, imposing on its own, becomes all the more overwhelming when funneled through separate mikes and electronically distorted by her sound technician, Blaise Dupuy. The piece is excessive, to be sure, but one has the sense that the excessiveness is a conscious esthetic choice, the vocal equivalent of the title of one of the Mass’s most powerful songs, “Let’s Not Chat about Despair.” Galás’s firm control of her three-and-a-half octave voice seldom allows one to think she is merely emoting for emotion’s sake. Nonetheless, because of the topical nature of the work, and its implied political commitment to a particular issue, Galás has often been criticized for creating a piece of music that is so aesthetically challenging as to be unlistenable by the very people she is presumably singing for and about. (It’s worth mentioning here that Galás is no tourist in the land of AIDS: her brother, the playwright Philip-Dimitri Galás, died of AIDS, as did many of her friends. She has been arrested at ACT-UP demonstrations, and has “We Are All HIV+” tattooed across the knuckles of one hand. To this day, her website is a clearinghouse for information on the disease, just as it is now for the genocides and ethnic cleansings of Asia Minor.)

While this critique can be dismissed for its simplistic dichotomy between pure art on the one hand and political art on the other, Galás deflects it differently, by simply insisting that she never presumes to speak for anyone but herself. Again, it’s the place of memory in her work that’s important. In many ways, Galás is less concerned with the victims carried away in any particular flood than in the closing of the waters of forgetfulness over them. One senses, although she has never said this herself, that if the dead of Anatolia had been properly remembered, Defixiones might never have been created. Like the Eumenides, she seeks to pursue the criminal with the memory of his crimes.

Since Galás is a musician, of course, these memories are first and foremost musically encoded. Where Plague Mass and Masque of the Red Death melded gospel, Catholic liturgy, and techno drumbeats, Defixiones sinks its roots into the rich cultural soil of the Byzantine and Ottoman empires. “Ter Vogormia,” which begins the piece, is melodically structured around an Armenian liturgy—more or less a prayer for deliverance—composed by Marar Yekmalian. It begins with a minute of shifting, droning organ tones before Galás’s voice enters in a long keening cry that, over a period of four, beautifully suspended minutes, gradually coalesces around the words of the title. She sings the liturgy and then, during a pause, we hear a different woman’s voice, dry and factual, reciting a poem by the Armenian poet Siamanto that details the horrors of watching young Armenian girls tortured by a Turkish crowd. It’s a brilliant juxtaposition, less for the texts themselves—in its English translation, Siamanto’s poem is a blunt description of an atrocity that scarcely reaches for any figurative language—than for its pure sonority. The recitation sounds like an ancient radio broadcast, delivered either from or to some place at the very borders of civilization, and it perfectly sets off the restrained purity of Galás’s singing.

Following this comes “The Desert” by the Lebanese writer Adonis, from his 1982 Diary of Beirut under Siege. Galás alternately sings, wails, and spits out the poem to a gradually intensifying backdrop of howling winds and periodic, almost martial attacks on the piano. As wide as Galás’s octave range is, her emotive range surpasses it here, moving from guttural growls through tender sweeps to Middle Eastern modes. The dry recitation of Siamanto recurs, crisply juxtaposed again to the passion of the singing. A cascade of piano-playing then leads into “Sevda Zinciri,” a popular Turkish love song that Galás virtually caresses with her voice before moving into “Holokaftoma,” a selection of texts that includes Pier Paolo Pasolini’s “A Desperate Vitality,” which she sings over yet more recitation of Siamanto—or rather, sings, declaims, and wails while her voice is electronically looped, echoed, and distorted. It’s a collision of the piece’s leitmotifs before a stately reprise of “Ter Vogormia.”

The piece isn’t over yet, however: the chanting of a Syrian Orthodox boys choir begins “The Eagle of Tkhuma,” while another voice, a man’s this time, recites a poem by Freidoun Bet-Oraham about the destruction of the Assyrians, which in turn leads into the final eleven-minute “Orders from the Dead.” This is Galás in full didactic mode, as if all that has been suggested and left unspoken thus far has to tumble out in a long, angry litany of atrocities in both English and Greek (these latter passages drawn from Dido Soteriou’s Farewell Anatolia) over a shifting sequence of drums.

I’ve tried to detail all this as a way of suggesting the complexity of the materials, both textual and musical, that Galás layers together here. If Defixiones’s beginnings were in the stories she heard as a child, her instincts are far too eclectic to allow her to create a narrowly personal or nationalistic work. By pulling together texts in Armenian, Assyrian, Greek, Turkish, Italian, and English, the work suggests that what has been lost in these disasters is not just the lives of the particular populations, but the life of a shared culture that drew from them all. Defixiones has, apparently, drawn the ire of certain nationalist Turkish groups who brand Galás as anti-Turkish, but who, like the critics of Plague Mass, misunderstand her position. You don’t sing a Turkish love song as tenderly as she does unless you have the capacity to open yourself to the culture that created it. In fact, Defixiones continues into a second part, “Songs of Exile,” which works the theme of destruction both more broadly (in terms of its range of sources) and more narrowly (insofar as it deals with the experiences of isolated individuals). In it, Galás incorporates rebetiko, Armenian-Turkish songs, and poems by Henri Michaux, César Vallejo, and Paul Celan that she has set to music herself. It closes, appropriately enough, with a harrowing rendition of the traditional blues, “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean.”

“Never again will the Eumenides speak to the Greeks, and we will never know what was said in that language,” wrote the French critic Maurice Blanchot, although he hastened to add that it is equally true that the Eumenides have never yet spoken, and that when they do one day, their language will be an original one. If any artist alive nowadays has a claim to fulfill that promise, it’s Galás, who has managed to forge an entire genre for herself against enormous odds, somewhere at the crossroads of formally radical oratorio, politically charged opera, and demonic rituals of catharsis. Like the devil’s crossroads where bluesman Robert Johnson legendarily received his talent, or the cultural crossroads where the populations of Anatolia lived, it’s a perpetually threatened and threatening place, always on the verge of its own apocalypse, and like the fragile transmissions of the poems recited in Defixiones, it always seems we could lose contact with it at any moment. Let’s hope we don’t have to wait another five years for the next dispatch.

© Edward W Batchelder
(from www.greekworks.com)

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