Totemism

This blog is dedicated to the first rate performer, singer and musician Diamanda Galás. Diamanda Galás (born August 29, 1955) is a Greek-American avant-garde composer, vocalist, pianist, performance artist and painter. Known for her expert piano as well as her distinctive, operatic voice, which has a three and a half octave range, Galás has been described as "capable of the most unnerving vocal terror". Galás often shrieks, howls, and seems to imitate glossolalia in her performances. Her works largely concentrate on the topics of suffering, despair, condemnation, injustice and isolation. She has worked with many avant-garde composers, including Iannis Xenakis, Vinko Globokar and John Zorn. Greatness exists independent of most peoples judgement or opinion. We only listen to the wise. The fools have no vote, this is not a democracy. If there is anyone who deserves the Polar Music Prize it is her. Photos are published by the kind permission of the artist.

All the Way - Album

Kategori: Diamanda Galás, New Album - All the Way

All the Way

Preamble

Writing about music is as questionable as it is unavoidable. The translation of the varieties of musical expression into precise verbal terms is never satisfactory. Unavoidable, because the idea of a wordless, instinctive understanding of musical content, without need for the mediation through language, is an illusion. Writings that half-miss the object altogether are nevertheless the only way to get at it, in my humble opinion. Therefore, it is with great expectation and immense joy, I will try to approach, understand and enter the world of this exquisite selection of songs performed by Diamanda Galàs.

I cannot explain very well to myself what Diamanda Galás has that distinguishes her from others, but it is something arborescent or of the sky, not Wagner, not clouds on wheels: performed above pain and not out of a cavity, a statement and not a description of heat in the spirit to compensate for pain. Is that not what Eluard means?

 ”What is the role of the root?

Despair has broken all his bonds.”1

All the Way (Music: Jimmy Van Heusen | Lyrics: Sammy Cahn, 1957)

Diamanda's approach to this song makes me reflect on the singer's art and the reality. First things first. The opening chords of the work on the piano are Debussy-esque. There is something to the chord progressions. Why Debussy? Because she plays parallel chords.2 It seems like the sense, not the time, of directed motion is arrested, on and off. At the point 00:39, she begins to play the melody. Nothing is over-loaded or sentimental, and the music glides seraphically free. Diamanda, who knows how to unfold a story, takes the lead. She sings with a voice (alas, she has many different ones) I have seldomly heard her sing with. Scaled down in volume, and with a different timbre. Amber-colored. Honey and poison in one chalice. The sustained notes are resplendent. A literally breathtaking and evenly produced tone catapults gorgeous soprano lines suspended midair. She is a very emotional singer but it is obvious that her task is not to experience an emotional high in performance, but to transform sentiment through artistic means. The singer's art consists of knowing how those experiences would feel and how to translate them into communicable representations. She does not wallow in her own emotional bathwater. No, señor. Between the lines Diamanda Galás teaches that art is not reality. Art consists of the disciplining of reality for the portrayal of emotion. Death gallop with Cerberus barking or fatigue and resignation? No, rather solemnely spiritual, and as gripped by surges of fever.

You Don't Know What Love Is (Music:Gene De Paul | Lyrics:Don Raye)

The interpretation of this jazz standard song from 1941 by Diamanda Galás has more in common with the ballad playing by Sonny Rollins than singers as Chet Baker or Billie Holiday. She sings it in a passionate and,of course, haunting way. Her singing is melancholy too, but her idea of melancholy may be different from yours. Her performance embodies the amalgam of emotion and intellect in an unprecedented manner. Not about remorse, nor about regrets, but more about the secret land of loss of which we are all too familiar with. Separation comes in many forms; a physical reality as in death or as a frame of mind. The lyrics are the Alpha and Omega of her deeply felt approach. Every inflection is considered and thoughtfully executed. Through and through, I find myself yielding to the growing stillness of darkness. Singing is just another way of being silent. Was there ever a better anagram: silent - listen

The Thrill Is Gone (Music: Ray Henderson | Lyrics: Lew Brown, 1931)3

Diamanda's rendition of the song is not just the story about a love grown cold. Her interpretation suggests something beyond the obvious. To mention one detail out of many; how she sustains the first syllables in "thrill" and "gone" and adjusts her timbre to depict and underline a vast void. The thrill is gone, but so are you. It works in both directions. The ingenious way she uses and stretches time in both her playing and singing is a spell caster. The piano part is exquisitely played with subtly shaded dynamics and colors. There's quite nothing like a classically trained pianist and singer who never gets academic, but who knows how to "feel in time" and project sonorities that matches mood and expression. Her art of recomposing and constructive ability has a firm intellectual support, which shows in the interplay of the singing and playing. Her musical intelligence is always vividly present, even in the darkest hours.

 ‘Round Midnight (Music:Thelonious Monk, 1944)

This is Thelonious Monk’s best-known jazz composition, being the most-recorded jazz standard written by any jazz musician. Diamanda Galás’ approach is as if she has torn the chordal material into shreds and then put together the pieces again into a more austere, angular and edgier work. Don't get me wrong. The melody is elegantly played, and there is no doubt that it is Monks 'Round Midnight', we are listening to. Diamanda's rendition is disconsolate and persevering, at the same time. Music, tempo rubato and piano timbre has again provided both pause and spur. Her playing remains a marvel of stylised elegance and dazzling fluency. Fleetness complemented by a Saint Vitus Dance magic. Her playing brims over with a colour and nuance worn with an enviable ease and lightness. Again, the term ‘technique’ takes on an entirely new meaning. You will wonder at the finest gradations of tone and phrasing which has nothing to do with driven tempi or high-octane bravura, but only with the most concentrated wit and vitality. Her reworking of the chord structures deserves an essay, but not here, not now and not by me. She explains what it takes for a musician to do Monk's work justice:"A thorough study of the changes inside and out. A thorough study separately of the melody". As a novice listener I think it implies that, once you are familiar with the melody, listen closely to the bass line. It is occult arithmetic, and I can only speak about the shadows. Observation is one thing, perception is another.

O'Death (traditional dirge)4

O' Death is a traditional American folk song. Its original author is unknown. O' Death is found in white and black-American tradition from Texas to the Georgia Sea Islands and is available today in widely contrasting settings: unaccompanied vocal solo, hillbilly duet (with guitars), bluegrass band, voice and piano etc. Some place the song on the lips of a dying slave beaten by a cruel plantation mistress, or on the lips of a Kentucky hill-preacher stricken by the Lord for ignoring His call. Diamanda's performance of this dirge is monumental and larger than life. Her mezzo-tinged soprano offers a dark coloring to sound the miseries and consolation of death. Her singing has, through and through, a striking sense of immediacy. She has taken the essence of being and purified it into an otherworldy ambiance. We are enriched through heightened perception. We have in a flash been granted a conception of being that we did not previously have, and that is the sign of a truly great artist-singer. The piano part is dark-colored and concentrated, but also profoundly lyrical and fiercely alive in every fiber of its troubled being. The beauty and ease of her singing, and the natural ability to float her voice effortlessly is a wonder. O'Death, replete with gratifying legato.

(Pardon Me), I’ve Got Someone To Kill (Words & Music: Johnny Paycheck,1966)

The song is a cold, straightforward premeditation of a double-homocide-suicide, and the restrained delivery by Diamanda Galàs enhances the menace considerably. She sings with the kind of restraint you put on yourself when you know your thirst soon is qoing to be quenched. Nada de pendejades, sino tres balas de plata. Just as Johnny Paycheck meant what he wrote, Diamanda Galàs means whe she sings. No hablamos de género, sino el talento.The different shadings of her timbre reveals the nature of an insatiable flame seeking escape and liberation in justice.The contortion and torment of an inflamed and supplicant passion that will consumeitself in its own fire. The piano playing is more related to the New Orleans blues than the Oklahoma and Texas honky-tonk, and has comparebly, a tempo that is slightly stepped down.Throughout, she achieves the ideal fusion of simplicity and refinement.Galàs, who uses her abundant technical resources not to exhibit themselves, but to enable her masterly control of of the melodic and rhythmic elements, which are shaped anew. And as played by Diamanda it would blow that artificial Nashville atmosphere right away. Furthermore, her sustained tone is never too massy for comfort, but is always in scale with itself.

Her musical notion and refined intuition constantly and consistently envisages a music removed of the constraints of purpose, style, form and functional harmony. For your knowledge, this approach is also known as Avant-garde. You who suffer from acute shallowness will most certainly not be able to embrace and fathom this astounding album. Mind you, DEEP EXPERIENCE IS NEVER PEACEFUL.

 

 

1 I have re-phrased the following excerpt from a letter by Samuel Beckett. "I cannot explain very well to myself what they have that distinguishes them from others, but it something arborescent or of the sky, not Wagner, not clouds on wheels: written above an abscess and not out of a cavity, a statement and not a description of heat in the spirit to compensate for pus in the spirit. Is not that what Eluard means?

 

 Quel est le rôle de la racine?

 

Le désespoir a rompu tous ses liens.

Samuel Beckett, The Letters of Samuel Beckett 1929-1940, p. 134 (2009).

 

 2 Claude Debussy (1861-1918) used parallel chords as a compositional device, I think, in order to dilute time (and to underplay rhythm) and had an influence on jazz theory. However, it is difficult to access the exact weight he had on jazz by mere cognition, even though musicians as Duke Ellington, Bix Biederbecke, Bill Evans et al. cite him as a source of inspiration and influence. It is said that Debussy’s influence on jazz musicians was his use of modal harmony and the whole tone scale.

 

3 “The Thrill Is Gone” has been recorded by Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, Stan Kenton, Chet Baker, Julie London, and Stan Getz, to name a few. It is a ballad, written back in 1931 by Ray Henderson and Lew Brown. The song, popularized by B. B. King was written by Rick Darnell and Roy Hawkins in 1951. King's version is a slow twelve-bar blues notated in the key of B minor in 4/4 time. 

4 A dirge is a somber song or lament expressing mourning or grief, such as would be appropriate for performance at a funeral. 

Photo:Austin Young

 

 

Sierra de Armenia

Kategori: Cante Jondo, Diamanda Galás

Sierra de Armenia (Cante Jondo/ Siguriyia)

 

Sierra de Armenia is a traditional flamenco song and to be more precise, it belongs to the ”deep singing” tradition (cante jondo) of Andalucia. Within the afforementioned tradition you will find a variety of forms of cante jondo such as the buleria, martinete, alegria, fandango, siguriyia, etc. Sierra de Armenia is a siguriyia, written in three-eight time, and in a minor key. The siguriyia is song of uneasiness, of suffocation, of the last groan, sung to the point of dying and out of breath by a singer, who is alone with her or his fever. This is the point of departure, as I see it, for the approach by Diamanda Galás and her perception of the cante jondo. The siguriyia is according to the ”Diccionario del Cante Jondo” the most genuine expression of ”deep singing” of the flamenco tradition (el cante de más genuina expresión jonda dentro de todo el flamenco). The intonation of her singing is impregnated with Arabic and gypsy elements (just as in the traditional approach), transported and suspended in the mid-air. Her singing pulls up the very roots of existence, for it takes its source, not in anecdote nor attitude, but from a profound experience at subterranean depths of being. Something that never repeats itself, but that happens anew, recreated at each singing. A nameless beast strikes the breast.

 

Silencío. You are asked to remove your hat. In her throat roars a hurricane of blood and ice. Solemnely she asks neither for joy nor relief, but retreat, imprisoned by five walls of darkness and pain. She makes silence vibrate, trembling, looking for its answer in the beyond. The voice seemingly breaks into a shapeless cry, aimed at infinity beyond the merciless sun in the Syrian desert, one-hundred and one years ago.

 

Generally speaking, and as I view traditional Spanish music, it falls into two categories, the first is conditioned by the breath and the second is conceived in terms of the dance phrase, though most certainly these two are by no means mutually exclusive. To my perception, Diamanda's approach derives on the span of the human breath, albeit the introductory piano playing evokes, and seemingly imitates the flamenco guitar. More than just a brilliant imitation of another instrument, the piano gives a much fuller sound and sonorous body to the Arabic frame of reference in her playing. The principal carrier of this expressiveness is her marvellously full, floating tone, which retains its roundness even at climactic, explosive moments, and yet remains singing and sustained. I think you can very well compare the piano tone to the sound of the vowels. Her chord-playing has an inward radiance that presupposes the gift of projection. O

 

When I do Sierra de Armenia it is an attack by a person who is an outcast everywhere. This person must sleep under brushes and rocks, this person can trust noone. What is curious is that Armenia, of all places, is considered a haven, but the area itself was once inhabited by gypsies, Christian Yezidis, Assyrian Orthodox or Chaldean Catholics, Greek Orthodox, and Muslims, during the time in which those ethnic group lived in peace.The singer is saying that he or she will happy to return to the land of Armenia, where he will be no more molested by Muslims or Christians. I remember singing this in the South of France and hearing hissing from one area of the audience (maybe one or two persons).


It is violent, requiring simultaneous great stealth, to step from one dangerous place to the other, in other to reach a desired goal.


AS WE KNOW TOO WELL.” - Diamanda Galás


Photo: Kristofer Buckle

 

Angels

Kategori: Albert Ayler, Diamanda Galás, Music

Angels (Albert Ayler/Diamanda Galás)
 
This is a remarkable work. Trying to understand this instrumental and vocalise work by Ayler/Galás is a wonderful challenge, since there are no obvious points of references as it would be in a work with lyrics. Now, why is it so? Lyrics and music can be seen through each other, without their nature being changed, but with 'Angels' it is a different matter. You have to pay attention to something else. If I may suggest that the key is the gospel-like melody of the original work, we can get an idea of Diamanda's point of departure for her musical exploration. She sings the melody line in high notes with a full-bodied, steely and radiant tone. Her voice soars and rises, higher and higher as in a solemn lament. Maybe I'm wrong here, but find a spiritual quality in her singing, that connects her approach to the roots of Ayler's work. Her rendition of 'Angels' is like a straight wordless prayer, firm and steady as a rock. Sometimes the unadorned line is the most expressive. Her ability to float a line and to keep the rhythm taut is simply put, superlative.
 
Photo: Austin Young