The Passion of the Cursed
Interview by Holly Day
Over the twenty-some years of her recording career, the wild-eyed Diamanda Galás has released fourteen imposing and mostly thematic albums, featuring songs that showcase her multiple octaves and utilize Tibetan throat singing and operatic wails, sometimes all in the same song. She’s written entire albums about AIDS (Plague Mass, Masque of the Red Death), imprisonment (Panoptikon), sexual oppression (Wild Women with Steak Knives), dementia (Vena Cava), and torture (Schrei X). She also does some awesome and frightening covers of blues standards, has collaborated with artists as diverse as Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones and cornet player Bobby Bradford.
Her two most recent releases, Defixiones and La Serpenta Canta, (both on Mute Records) are so amazingly different from each other that it’s hard to imagine that one person is responsible for both releases. “Defixiones” is Diamanda’s “tribute” to the slaughter of her ancestors by the Turks at the turn of the century, and is a heavy, interconnected collection of songs punctuated by blood-curdling screams that blend in perfectly and achingly with the desert winds that make up much of the instrumentation. La Serpenta Canta, however, is more about the fun, brilliantly nasty side of Diamanda, with a bunch of live versions of her and her piano covering old blues standards in the scariest ways possible—including a brilliant rendition of “I’m So Lonesome I could Cry”— really, she could make “Happy Birthday” sound like something you should run terrified from.
CLAMOR: So what led to your interest in portraying such dark material?
D: I think that all you have to do is have one week with a Greek family and that’ll work itself out. It’s kind of a dark culture. They’re very concerned with death, and very concerned with the politics of genocide, because that’s how the culture was shaped. That’s the experience of the culture. For the Greeks, life is a celebration, so the thing they’re most afraid of is death. The discussion of death is a mirror of the brilliance and the gift of life, you know, the beauty of life, and so that is why there’s so much of that discussion. And this also has to do with the fact that this was a culture that was invaded so many times– by Italians, Germans, Turks, you name it. I think that has something to do with the darkness in my work. Since I was a little girl, I’ve heard lots of stories of deportations and genocides, of the Greeks by the Turks, because my father is from Asia Minor. In many ways, all Greek families are like that. They’re very, very dark by American standards.
CLAMOR: You use a lot of religious imagery in your music. Did you come from a religious household?
D: Absolutely not. I come from an agnostic family, but at the same time, it’s Greek Orthodox, so there’s a combination. A lot of Greeks would agree with me when I say to be a Greek Orthodox atheist is to have the certainty of the Devil but no hope in God.
CLAMOR: Coming from an irreligious household do you find religions fascinating to study?
D: I do. I look at religion more as geography of a mentality, of laws, you know? Rules of behavior that either allowed certain societies to evolve and then evolve the laws with them, or were not allowed to evolve and therefore are stentorian of all behavior and all freedoms. I don’t really have an interest in religion per se.
CLAMOR: So how did Defixiones come about?
D: “Defixiones” refers to “to fix,” or “to mark.” It’s marking a territory as your own, and it says that, with the marking of that territory, you have certain power. Whether this is the power to, say, put a curse on a competitor, or an enemy, or to say, “If you desecrate this grave, your daughter’s daughter’s daughter will perish slowly from a horrible disease.” That’s the nature of this type of curse. It’s usually in practice throughout the Middle East– Italy as well– by people who have very little power, legal power. They had to draw on their own resources as much as possible. For example, you had Greek, Assyrians, Armenians, living under the power of the Turks. The Turks could easily dig up a grave to steal the jewels, or steal anything that’s buried in the grave. So [Greeks, Assyrians and Armenians] would put curses on the graves to warn [the Turks off]. Maybe that would be all they had, those curses. That would be the only thing they had to protect them, and it may have been quite a delusional kind of power, but it was the only power that was had by these people. So that’s pretty much what the work is [saying]: that you cannot desecrate this memory. You cannot pretend this grave did not exist by digging it up. It exists, and when you dig it up, the power of our anger will outlast you, and will drag you down screaming. That is to be hoped. One can’t guarantee it (laughs), but I can definitely say I’ve inherited that type of thinking. It manifests itself in my everyday life, for which I am grateful, I think. (Laughs)
CLAMOR: So was there a specific timing regarding when you wanted to release this?
D: Oh, no. God, it took me forever! I started in 1998. The first performance was scheduled on September 11, 1999, and I had 12 performances after that. Within the last five years, I’ve developed the work, and now it’s almost at completion, but it’s taken me a long time to do it, because it’s hard work. I’ve added about 40 minutes that you don’t hear on the record. In the recordings, you’ll hear two sections—one is the more liturgical section, “The Dance,” and the second are “Songs of Exile.” There’s new text that deals with the torture of populations that people are attempting to drive out through ethnic cleansing. It also discusses the Turkish invasion of Cypress in 1974. I have texts that were published in Turkish propaganda news. So I’ve added a lot of work to the Defixiones. I would like to stop adding sections to this piece. I don’t know when that’s going to happen. I think perhaps I just have to tour it a lot and say, that’s it. It’s very hard to stop adding things when the subject is so large.
CLAMOR: Speaking of which, what kind of research did you have to do to put this together?
D: Well, I was researching a tremendous amount dealing with the genocides that took place in between the period, in particular, of 1914 to 1923, with these three populations in Asia Minor. I also was doing a lot of back and forth with genocide scholars. I had many books that I ordered from Greece or England that I couldn’t get here very easily, books that had been, for example, destroyed in libraries, the university libraries, or by Turks who threw the books out. It’s not a subject that they want discussed in their country. And, because of the political relationships– the monetary relationships between the United States, Turkey, and Israel– these subjects are not very popular in certain areas. There are many, many Israeli scholars now who are very interested in the Armenian genocide, but for a long time it was something that was not discussed due to the close relationship Turkey and Israel have always had. So these scholars are treated very badly. There are some Turkish scholars here in America, now, whose lives are often in danger. Some consider my website to be a Turkish hate site. I don’t hate the Turks, I hate their government. I hate mass poverty. I hate mass murder. I hate the fact that they have not apologized, that their government has not apologized for the genocide they committed. I dislike that, I hate that. But I don’t single out Turks, if I find them on the street I don’t follow them home. It’s not really my issue, although that might be the issue of the Gray Wolves, which is a very, very racist, kind of Hitlerian group in Turkey. They do a lot of truly nasty things, and mostly to their own people. I think we know that, in any country, you can find out how they’re going to treat others by how they treat their own people. That’s certainly a law we can say is pretty consistent.
CLAMOR: So was it difficult finding the poetry you used on the album?
D: The poetry, yes. I haven’t discussed that yet! I went to Princeton University for a fellowship in their Greek Studies Department. It was just for a month, but I had the great opportunity, for that month, to go through a lot of literature and decide what would be the appropriate text for the libretto. I found texts by Adonis (Ali Ahmad Said), the great Syrian/Lebanese writer. The Siamanto (Atom Yarjanian) text I had known about before that, the Armenian martyr-poet. I found texts by the Greek writer Dido Soteriou, who wrote about the deportations of the Greeks from Asia Minor—I found so many different writers, I was able to do a tremendous amount of study.
CLAMOR: So how do you prepare for a tour?
D: Lots of rehearsals in the studio, lots of rehearsal of the material. There’s a lot of sampling and pretaped stuff that needs to be synchronized, and I need to memorize some of the texts, which is the most difficult thing for me, because as a musician, it’s easier for me to remember music than it is text. And then, I’m constantly, as I said, adding new sections to the work. I’m always breaking up what I’ve got and putting that to the wall. Then, other than that, you just have the unavoidable—let us put it in a polite, mild way—discussions with the people who are presenting the work, to make sure that they do it the way I want them to. This should not be a big fight. I don’t like to fight about this. I don’t know how to describe this problem nicely, except, let’s say that the performances we did in Portland did a superlative job in the production of Defixiones, at the Portland Institute of Contemporary Art, and I dare any other organization in America to come anywhere near it. That’s nice. That’ll put it in a nice way. But damn, otherwise, it’s a fucking fistfight every day of my fucking life, dealing with some of these fucking people! How ‘bout we put it that way?
CLAMOR: Is it frustrating to have to work so hard and still be so far “underground”?
D: Honey, I’m just living for my fucking legacy. If people don’t get it now, that’s fine. Because I am not making any approach pattern to the room temperature IQ of this fucking country. I am not. I am not going there. It’s not worth it.
But you know what? I just feel I have this life, I don’t know how long it’s going to last, I want to create good work, and then, when I’m on my death bed, I can smile and say, “You fucking suckers! You thought it was all about getting applause when you were alive! Now I’m going to drop dead, and I’m going to feel real good about it. You guys can go on, fucking building these fucking little fake statues to yourselves.” A smile and a smirk, that’s how I’m going. Bye, y’all.