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.
”What is the role of the root?
Despair has broken all his bonds.”1
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).
All the Way
All the Way (Music: Jimmy Van Heusen | Lyrics: Sammy Cahn)
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.1 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 solemny spiritual, and as gripped by surges of fever.
1 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’sinfluence on jazz musicians was his use of modal harmony and the whole tone scale.
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)1
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 trained2 pianist and singer who never gets academic, but who knows how to "feel in time"3 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.
1“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.
2She began playing the piano at the age of 3 under the tutelage of her father. Galas also learned to play the cello and violin, and studied a wide range of musical forms.Her father was a gospel choir director who introduced her to classical music. He exposed her to New Orleans jazz and also the classics of their own Greek heritage.
3Schnabel [the great German pianist] was asked 'Do you play with feeling or in time?' and he responded: 'Why shouldn't I feel in time'.
‘Round Midnight (Music:Thelonious Monk)
This is Thelonious Monk’s best-known jazz composition, being the most-recorded jazz standard written by any jazz musician. 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)1
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.
1 A dirge is a somber song or lament expressing mourning or grief, such as would be appropriate for performance at a funeral.
Pardon Me), I’ve Got Someone To Kill’(Words & Lyrics: Johnny Paycheck)
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.
At Saint Thomas the Apostle
Verrá la morte e avrá tuoi occhi (Music:Diamanda Galás | Text: Cesare Pavese)
With a wonderful control of tone and perfectly clean pedalling she brings the picture before us. All is here - lament, defiance and humility. Her playing is very solid, clean, and broad in tone. Her classical training shows in every bar, and she excels in rhythmic precision.What a marvellous experience it is to listen to Diamanda Galás, a singer who has her melismatic house in order, and a cultivated vocalism that enables her to produce a continuous sound, which she shapes into eloquent phrases. She has an operatic approach and sings the work in a very high pitch , but suddenly at 04:31 minutes, Diamanda descends, from her high voice to her lower middle voice, on the phrase ”quel giorno sapremo anche noi che sei la vita e sei il nulla” (that day we will know that too that you are the life and you are nothingness), at least an octave, effortlessly and without aspirations or breaks in her voice register.And how well her instrument is capable of both moving as well as sustaining a dramatic line. If the voice has not sufficient energization to manage sostenuto singing, the velocity factor will not be at high level. Hence the relationship between vocal efficiency and vocal aesthetics. It is a voice that issues from the interior spaces. It is the expression of a sphere into which we cannot penetrate or gaze, but from which something emerges. We experience a moment of truth that becomes all the more meaningful to us for the sense of immediacy it conveys. The poem 'Verrá la morte e avrá tuoi occhi' ('When Death Comes, It Will Have Your Eyes') by Cesare Pavese, is sung at an intensity level at least as strong as that which motivated the poet. She renews its existence in time. One of her chief assets is her ability to visualize, to see clearly and distinctly with the inner eye the dramatic and emotional situation of a poem. The mental picture is sharper than reality itself because it transcends reality. Raw emotion is not art. Art is not raw emotion.
Anoixe Petra (Music: Mimis Plessas | Lyrics: Lefteris Papadopoulos)
In her approach the passion and the anguish of the verse is like a wound, like a fatal disease, incurable. The dread of being refused cries in secret. I ask myself if the figurations of the piano part are suggestive of a string instrument such as the Oud or the Laouto. Perhaps the song is of Arabic descent, though its accent and vigour suggest the Black Sea. Thiswork needs the melody of a string instrument to accompany the voice in all its irridescent nuances of emotion. She explicitly emulates oriental sonority with distinctive ornamentation (also to be heard in her work ”Artemis” on this recording). Her playing becomes especially interesting when related less to western ideas of time. It is not just a mode or scale, but the way she progressively colours in the tonal canvas. Her beautifully performed aman[amanedhes1] opens windows to the seas so as not suffocate in the shadows. Lament is a figure on the threshold of feeling and language, at the moment when signification emerges and also dissolves.
1 Amanedhes is a Greco-Oriental vocal improvisation and lament based on the word aman.
Angels (Music:Albert Ayler)
When I use Albert Ayler's own recording of his work from 1966 as a point of reference for a comparison with Diamanda's version of Angels it is initially her reverence for the basic melody that strikes me. Furthermore, as the musician she isshe adds a melody over the chords, so the former harmonizes with the latter. Where Ayelr used a plucking harpsichord for the intro, Diamanda plays minor key chords of spatial depth. Withlong, flowing, boundless lines of melody and gorgoeus embellishmentsher voice soars. The tone retaining a recognizably open sound from the lowest to the highest pitches. Boundless is beautiful. All it takes is a willingness to listen and withhold judgment until the music gets inside your head.
Die Stunde Kommt (Music: Diamanda Galás | Text: Ferdinand Freiligrath)
Diamanda has set music to the poem O Lieb, so lang du lieben kannst (O Love, As Long As You Can Love) by Ferdinand Freiligrath (1810 – 1876).The predatory menace of the opening chords is a tour de force.Her approach and reading of the poem has just the right balance between interpretative word-shading and preservation of a fine voice production.When she is taking a high note softly, she produces a pure, almost spectral 'column' of sound which floats easily and remains to haunt the memory long afterwards. She has that natural feeling for the ways in which a phrase can be made meaningful and vivid, through a detailed, imaginative care for words. In, 'So lang ihm noch ein ander Herz. In Liebe warm entgegenschlägt!' (As long as another heart is still Warmly bestruck by love for you!), the range of shading from sorrow to acerbic irony, is incomparably moving. Diamanda's tone matching the poet's bittersweetly glowing and reflective melancholy.
Fernand (Music: Gérard Jouannest | Lyrics: Jacques Brel )
Firstly, a note on the lyrics by Jacques Brel. Despite the narrator's wish to bring his friend back to this world, and his own reluctance to leave it, he realises that death will ultimately win the day, the only means by which he may be reunited with Fernand. Secondly, I conceive the approach by Diamanda Galás as a transposition into another person’s suffering, as empathy is often circumscribed: we conceive ourselves enduring all the torments, we enter as it were into his body. Empathy has turned into another anguish, another incomprehensible pain, one that purifies and saves; and is transformed into light and supplication, yet I think we have to dissociate both the real author and performer from the narrative voice within the song. Please, pay attention to the dizzying chromatic scales incessantly spiralling up and down as to illustrate the unease of Fernand's friend who drags his body across Paris.
O' Death (traditional dirge)
O' Death has always been a experience recollected with disturbing vividness, the biting force of Diamanda's tone matching the grinding harmonies which accompany the narrator's frame of mind. The colour of her voice is sometimes sepulchral, or rather it seems as the controlled intensity of passionate grief and sorrow have etched themselves into the very timbre. I know no one else, who can direct the listener to the content, or rather the poetic idea, like she does by the means of the sheer sound that her voice produces, yet attending imaginatively to the enunciation and of the colouring of the text. Her echoing of the words 'Could you wait to call me another day?' is a long-drawn, breathed from the innermost, tragic ghost of hope. When she plays the blues and sings the aman she is synthesizing two musical systems. The piano improvisation with a strong ethnic component creates the bridge between them. Her playing has the power of a rock carving combined with the refinement of Scriabin. O' Death as performed here illustrates an emblematic accomplishment in this regard.
Amsterdam (Music & Lyrics: Jacques Brel)
Diamanda's playing has a grandeur and gravity that the original instrumental accompaniement lacks. This fact made me very curious about her approach, so I asked her about it. ”The piano intro is like the stretching back and forth of the boat on the sea, and the insanity of the mariner's life from cold lonely despair to maniacal joy, dancing belly to belly with the prostitutes on the shore. Like a mind being stretched.” Furthermore, it is said of Amsterdam that it is a pastiche of a traditional sea shanty. I don't know about a pastiche, but it is a kind of sea shanty, which bathes in the dirt, decay, seediness and poverty in the port. Diamanda Galás tells us the same story as Brel does, but in a different way. In addition, she has the rare gift of unfolding a scene as if it were present before her eyes. With her we are peering through the mists to catch the first glimpse of the town.
Artemis (Music: Diamanda Galás |Text: Gérard de Nerval )
She who rages, kissed and brought back a head. The introduction is improvised somewhat like a bull-fighting stunt. Artemis, just as her rendition of Anoixe Petra, has all the diversity of melodic and rythmic inflexions with the typical air and accent of the Black Sea region. And from it other modalities arise, saturated with thyme and lavender, born from the murmur of dry winds and steep steams of freezing water. Traditional Azeri singing comes to mind. A goddess of song green-eyed with a bitter smile staring defiantly at the implacable face of death. ”La Treizième revient... C'est encor la première” ( The thirteenth….She's forever the first) she sings, and Nerval was referring to the thirteenth Tarot card, which is Death. The aman carves a person-shaped hole in my heart.
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. By the way, DEEP EXPERIENCE IS NEVER PEACEFUL.