Vocalist, pianist, composer, performance artist
Trained in avant-garde, jazz, and opera music, Diamanda Galás reaches deep into the heart of her emotions and broadcasts her feelings to her audiences. Unlike many popular artists, she explores and expresses the depths of the angst and pain within herself and the world around her. “With astounding vocal abilities spanning three octaves, three languages, and a wider sonic palette than most synthesizers, there’s little in Heaven, Earth, or Hell that she can’t put forth in song,” declared Ernie Rideout in Keyboard. As Galas told Martin Johnson in New York Newsday, “All my work has been about a schizophrenic state of mind induced by incredible pain.”
Galás’s style elicits strong responses—good or bad-similar to those evoked by masters of the horror genre. Brian Cullman wrote in Rolling Stone, “The talented Diamanda Galás has a vision of the world that makes the horror-stricken likes of Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Love-craft seem like pink-cheeked Pollyannas.”
Born in San Diego, California, the daughter of Greek immigrants, Galás began studying the piano at the age of five. During her childhood, she often accompanied the gospel choir led by her father. As a result, when she was 13 years old, he asked her to play with his own New Orleans-style band. “My father, who plays bass and trombone, was my first teacher,” Galás noted in Keyboard. “I played in his jazz band when I was very young, long before I could read music… He comes from that New Orleans tradition that says,’You play whatever you hear.’”
By the time Galás was 14 years old, she had performed Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1 as a soloist with the San Diego Symphony. She went on to study music performance at the University of California at San Diego, where she received both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees. In graduate school, Galás began exploring avant-garde music.
During the early 1970s, Galás played piano around San Diego and Los Angeles with improvisational musicians like David Murray, Butch Morris, and Bobby Bradford. She kicked off her solo career and further developed her talent by performing in mental institutions and underground theaters. In 1979, after hearing one of her tapes, composer Vinko Globokar invited Galás to play the lead in his opera Un Jour comme une autre at the Festival Avignon. Globokar had based the opera on Amnesty International documentation of the arrest and torture of a Turkish woman for alleged treason.
For the Record…
Born c. 1953 in San Diego, CA; daughter of James (a musician) Galás. Education: Received B.A. and M.A. in music performance from University of San Diego.
Performed as a soloist with San Diego Symphony at age 14; played lead in Un Jour comme une autre, Festival Avignon, 1979; released debut album, The Litanies of Satan, Y Records, 1982; released Diamanda Galás, Metalanguage Records, 1984; signed with Mute Records, 1986, and released The Divine Punishment.
The theme fit right in with Galás’s own topical style. “All the work I’ve done has to do with issues of extreme oppression, various mental states that happen when a person is being put in a black box and being squeezed, or strangled, and has no visible way out, and what a human being will do to survive—people losing their minds and creating a new voice simply because another one doesn’t exist,” Galas told Derk Richardson in the Bay Guardian. “Isolation is something that will kill people, and that’s the theme of most of my stuff.”
From Avignon, Rene Gonzales, the director of the Theatre Gerard Phillippe Saint-Denis, invited Galás to perform in Paris. She performed her solo works Wild Women with Steak Knives, about battered women, and Tragouthia Apo to Aima Exoun Fonos (translated as “Song from the Blood of Those Murdered”), based on the victims of the 1967 coup in Greece. The performances launched her solo tour throughout Europe during the early 1980s.
Galás released her first album, The Litanies of Satan, on Y Records in 1982. The work includes a vocal adaptation of a poem by nineteenth-century French writer Charles Baudelaire and a rendition of the earlier “Wild Women with Steak Knives.” Two years later, she released her self-titled album on Metalanguage Records, featuring “Tragouthia Apo to Aima Exoun Fonos” and “Panoptikon,” based on British law theorist Jeremy Bentham’s proposal for a prison where inmates could be kept under constant observation by unseen captors.
During that same year, 1984, Galás went to San Francisco and began developing a three-record set dedicated to those dead and dying of AIDS. The continually evolving work, titled Plague Mass, was launched before Galás learned that her brother, playwright and performer Philip-Dimitri Galás, was HIV-positive. She discussed her motivations with Johnson in New York Newsday. “[Some people] believe that I’m doing this out of hysteria, not cold, clinical interest. The Greek tradition is not about whimpery tears of sorrow; it’s a vendetta culture. You’re never going to see me get up and sing,’Oh, the suffering of my people, isn’t it awful.’” Galás spent 1985 traveling throughout Europe to discuss the evolution of Plague Mass and its political intent. The following year, AIDS claimed the life of Philip-Dimitri. As part of her message, Galás put a tattoo on the fingers of her left hand that reads: “We are all HIV-positive.”
Galás released The Divine Punishment and Saint of the Pit in 1986 on Mute Records. The latter sets French decadent poetry by authors such as Baudelaire, Nerval, and Corbiere to her own wild style of singing, accompanied by keyboards ranging from subtle atmospherics to horror-movie organ.
Two years later, Galás conducted a one-woman performance tour of Plague Mass. The tour began with workshops in the United States, then moved on to performances in Australia, Sweden, Yugoslavia, Holland, Italy, Spain, and Bavaria. On New Year’s Day of 1989, Plague Mass premiered in England at Queen Elizabeth Hall. Galás followed with a performance at Lincoln Center in New York. Later in the year, she released Masque of the Red Death, a trilogy of The Divine Punishment, Saint of the Pit, and 1988’s You Must Be Certain of the Devil.
As her stand in the fight against AIDS continued, Galás decided to stage a revised and expanded version of Plague Mass (1984—End of the Epidemic), featuring a new section titled There Are No More Tickets to the Funeral. Her first performance took place in October of 1990 at the Cathedral Saint John Divine in New York, the second largest cathedral in the world. When she walked across the stage half-naked and dripping in cow’s blood, many of the shocked members of the audience walked out. Galás recorded the performance and released it as the live album Plague Mass. After she performed the composition at the Festival delle Colline in Italy, she was censured and banned for committing blasphemy against the Roman Catholic Church.
Galás took her style to yet another level in 1992’s The Singer, a compilation of blues and gospel influences. “As always, it is an extension of my earlier work,” she told Richardson in the Bay Guardian interview. “I have intentionally reappropriated these blues, gospel, and spiritual pieces in the context of the AlDS community…. My appropriation of this music is in service of those voices who are crying in the darkness, who are actually saying these things. What people are going through now is hardly a remembrance of past misery, hardly a vague abstraction of pain.”
Also in 1992, Galás’s Vena Cava, a companion to Plague Mass that deals with clinical depression and AIDS dementia, premiered at the Kitchen in New York. The next year, she performed Insekta (translated as “Insignificant”)—a story about a survivor who encounters repeated traumas within an inescapable enclosed space—at the Serious Fun! Kitchen Residency Program Festival at Lincoln Center.
On September 5,1994, Galás released The Sporting Life on Mute Records. She recorded the LP with former Led Zeppelin bass and keyboard player John Paul Jones and Attractions drummer Pete Thomas. Jones also joined Galás on an international tour following the album’s release.
Galás has contributed music to several films, including Last of England, The Serpent and the Rainbow, Silence=Death, and Lord of Illusions, and she provided sound effects and voice-overs for Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 remake of Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
In 1995 Galas developed SchreiX, an intimate theater piece exploring the use of silence and high density speech and sounds performed in darkness. Her music continues to delve into the universe of intense emotion, pain, and suffering while pushing the creative limits of composition. Greg Kot summed up Galás’s technique in the Chicago Tribune when he wrote, “Galás combines a prodigious, multi-octave voice with a dramatic sense of theater. She’s a major talent, but not for everyone; her albums are almost claustrophobic in their intensity.”
The Litanies of Satan, Y Records, 1982, reissued, Mute Records, 1988.
Diamanda Galás, Metalanguage Records, 1984.
The Divine Punishment, Mute Records, 1986, reissued, 1989.
Saint of the Pit, Mute Records, 1986, reissued, 1989.
You Must Be Certain of the Devil, Mute Records, 1988.
Masque of the Red Death, Mute Records, 1989.
Plague Mass, Mute Records, 1991.
The Singer, Mute Records, 1992.
Vena Cava, Mute Records, 1993.
The Sporting Life, Mute Records, 1994.
The Trouser Press Record Guide, edited by Ira A. Robbins, Collier, 1992.
Artweek, September 17, 1992.
Bay Guardian (San Francisco, CA), April 8, 1992.
Billboard, July 23, 1994.
Buffalo News (Buffalo, NY), October 16, 1993.
Chicago Tribune, November 18, 1994.
CMJ Music Report, April 1992.
Details, May 1992.
Entertainment Weekly, September 23, 1994.
Interview, March 1992.
Keyboard, August 1992; December 1994.
Mondo 2000, issue no. 8.
Musician, October 1984; November 1994.
New York Newsday, February 19, 1992.
New York Times, February 25, 1992; July 4, 1993.
Paper Magazine, June 1993.
Philadelphia Daily News, January 6, 1993.
Rolling Stone, June 25, 1992; October 5, 1994.
San Diego Union Tribune, October 28-November 3, 1993.
San Francisco Chronicle, April 17, 1992.
Seattle Times, December 9, 1994; December 12, 1994.
Village Voice, March 10, 1992; July 20, 1993.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from Mute Records press material, 1995.
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