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Reviews

Diamanda Galás: Savagery and Opulence.
21 Jun 2017

Diamanda Galás: Savagery and Opulence

Unconventional to the last, Diamanda Galás tore through her Barbican concert on Monday evening with a torrential force that shattered the inertia and passivity of the modern song recital. This was operatic activism, pure and simple. Dressed in metallic, shimmering black she moved rather stately across the stage to her piano - but there was nothing stately about what unfolded during the next 90 minutes.

Diamanda Galás: Savagery and Opulence

A review by Marc Bridle

Above: Diamanda Galás

Photo credit: Austin Young

 

Now 61 years of age, the voice is as powerful, as cyclonic and ferocious as it was when I last heard her over a decade ago in Defixiones, Will and Testament. If anything, the mezzo layer of the voice is even more deeply impressive; she bevels her vocal range so masterly to the lowest mezzo F and beyond but it’s as solid as steel; you have to return to the recordings of some of the greatest Wagnerian mezzos to find comparable depth. The projection remains fabulous - though this is a voice as brilliantly and uniquely human as it is one that is filtered through microphones and some digital processing. That it never seems micro-managed, but a genuinely kaleidoscopic prism of the extremes of the human voice remains a formidable achievement (the difference being what is possible for Galás is impossible for others). Her stunning octave range remains as secure and formidably exact as before, though with that unique hard edge, like a saw against metal, that seems in part more Bel Canto than purely lyrical.

It’s only when you come to the folk song O Death (which some might know from the Coen Brothers) towards the end of the concert that the sheer vocal range and the extended techniques make an unforgettable impression. Many will never forget the thrilling sound of her floating long phrases - absolutely Straussian in their beauty - and the pyrotechnic vocal somersaults that enshrine the psychodramatic narrative that slices like a scythe through sonics crackling like a current of electricity or a semi-tuned radio. If this wrenching performance made you feel like glass is being crushed under a lethal stiletto or gravel is being fed down the throat until you howl - then it’s because that’s exactly how she sings it. There’s no question that this is still a voice that empowers women in a starkly dramatic way, though as so often is the case with this singer sentimentality is eschewed.

This concert showcased her two new albums, her first for almost a decade: All the Way, a songstress’s reworking of mid-Twentieth Century Thelonius Monk, Chet Baker, BB King and others whilst In Concert at Saint Thomas the Apostle Harlem highlights death songs from artists like Jacques Brei (Fernand) and Albert Ayler ( Angel). The two albums are strikingly different, and playing works from both in an alternative layering of them until you get a fusion of different styles proved unsettling, but inspired. The opening line of her poem Morphine (which she read so devastatingly), “There is no cure for loneliness/But itself” is in part the spiritual lacuna of these song cycles, one that has preoccupied Galás for decades. Loneliness, dispossession, death, disease are private declarations of suffering, but Galás sees them in a wider universal struggle of suffering. Mental and physical states are in decay, fragile to the extent they are at breaking point. Those who take their own life are celebrated. Galás challenges head-on the orthodox teachings of all churches and religions, even if the anguished madness and warrior-like anger at the principles of religion that guided works like Plague Mass is no longer so heavily articulated. The song Artemis, for example, is in part borne of personal tragedy - the death from AIDS of her brother, Philip, examined in her towering, ritualistic work Plague Mass - but grief is transposed into a global rite of collective tragedy that is entirely inclusive. The voice is everything here as it assaults the senses - or, as Galás herself once said: “My voice is an instrument of inspiration for my friends, and a tool of torture and destruction to my enemies”.

Likewise, the Italian poet Cesare Pavese, who hovers over some of this cycle, is an implicit point of reference, not just for the theme of loneliness but for some of the figures in this singer’s gallery of untouchables. There are the dispossessed, like prostitutes, and the isolated. When you read Pavese’s poetry the unescapable conclusion is that the loneliest of all his characters is himself, and this seems doubly true of Galás herself. Ferdinand Freiligrath, the other poetic inspiration for this cycle, gets the Galás treatment in a powerful performance of Die Stunde kommt (The Hour Comes). Freiligrath encapsulates both the exotic and the political - two Galás themes in her work - but Die Stunde kommt is co-morbid to the longer thematic reach of this cycle. Freiligrath writes of love, but also of graves and grassy cemeteries; Galás interprets it with all the monolithic darkness of the human experience.

If the death poem settings are more virtuosic, the familiar songs are given with a reshaping that is startling. This is a rebirth. The voice can be both lush and rumbling, but it can also use a vibrato that shakes like a siren. The pitch is perfect. Language is something that is torn from its linguistic roots - whether it be French, German or Greek. The irony of not necessarily understanding what she is singing needs no subtitles; her message is a universal one that is charted through the emotions of the voice. From the depths of her sepulchral mezzo through to the vertiginous, cascading high notes that pierce the ears the meaning is always apparent. It’s often noticeable that when she is thundering out bass chords on the piano the voice is flirting at the other end of the scale; likewise, when the keyboard is typed out at the higher registers, the voice is often resonant and percussive.

These albums are in some ways a move towards the past, something which Galás’s previous work doesn’t so obviously do. But the past is uncomfortable and not a place for reflection or safety. With just a piano (some of her previous concerts have been more instrumental) she cuts a lonelier figure than ever. That we can empathise with this condition and feel part of it is one of the positives from this concert. The operatic pervades it, but this isn’t opera. In the past, the theatricality of a Galás performance might have been more evident: the body swathed in blood. Today, it’s the keyboard of her piano that is more obviously streaked with the sweat, broken fingernails and blood from her hands that gives power to the staging. There are nods towards Bellinian madness, Berg’s cathartic power, or Schoenberg’s sprechgesang. But the opera singer is reinvented. Bathed in smoky light, the voice often becomes inseparable from the torch-like beams. As the voice becomes more hysterical and ecstatic light is used like Morse code. That the music can at one minute seem entirely never-ending, with those long notes floated for an eternity but not tapering off into an ending, contrasts with the ephemeral nature of the recital platform. It’s the very nature of some music, and singers, that it does indeed achieve the status of ephemerality. Whether she intends or not, Galás makes a concert unforgettable.

Marc Bridle

The Barbican, London; 19th June 2017.

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