All the Way
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.