Defixiones by Diamanda Galas

Howard Grady Brown

[October 2005.]

Like the pedal notes that begin Der Ring des Nibelungen and Also Sprach Zarathustra, a deep, a slowly amplified bass note underscores a horrific narrative. Thus begins Defixiones, Orders From The Dead, a music-theater piece by Diamanda Galás, performed by the composer on September 8 and 10 at Pace University’s Michael Schimmel Center for the Arts, in New York City.

From the program notes:

Defixiones refers to the warnings engraved in lead […] placed on the graves of the dead in Greece, Asia Minor, and elsewhere in the Middle East. They cautioned against moving or desecrating the corpses under threat of extreme harm. Orders From The Dead refers to the last wishes of the dead […] taken to their graves under unnatural circumstances. Defixiones, Orders From The Dead speaks for individuals who have had to live as outlaws, as they were treated as outlaws; and for those who have had to create houses out of rock. Defixiones, Orders From The Dead, is dedicated to the forgotten and erased of the Armenian, Assyrian and Greek genocides [of] Asia Minor, Pontos and Thrace between 1914-1923.”

This 70-minute work — the performance differed in a number of details from the recording on Mute Records STUMM 205 — has been performed several times in the US and Europe. The performance I attended included settings of poems not found in the recording, lengthening the work by about a third. The texts, in all cases, include poems and accounts of the genocides in Anatolia. A tone of outrage and a demand for recognition and justice — even revenge — permeate.

Diamanda Galás’ voice is an incredible instrument, spanning a range (it is claimed — I have no reason to doubt) of four octaves, which she wields like a weapon: moans, howls, shrieks, whispers, keens and croons, as the text requires. She recites as often as she sings, and in her recitations, each syllable is given equal weight until ululation takes over, spun and whirled as if a spell were being cast on those guilty of the atrocities. The poems by Yannis Ritsos, Atom Yarjanian, Ali Ahmad Said, Freidoun Bet-Oraham, Dido Soteriou, Giorgos Seferis, and Diamanda Galás cited in the program are in Armenian, Assyrian, Greek, English, and in one notorious example, Turkish: “Hatred,” published in a Turkish newspaper before Turkey invaded Cypress in 1974, depicting Greeks in a manner similar to the Japanese in American posters and films between 1941 and 1945. Here, no balanced view of events is admissible, and neither the subject nor the manner in which it is expressed can be called entertainment. I am reminded of Woody Allen’s character in Stardust Memories, upon whose apartment wall is an enormous blowup of the famous photo of General Nguyen Loan executing a Viet Cong terrorist. So too with this account of genocide from the second decade of the last century. In a spirit of confrontation, the work demands that a culture not be forgotten.

At the performance I attended the house was full. A man and woman seated next to me had come up from Baltimore. Now in his 20s, the man has followed Ms. Galás’ career since he was 14. The attraction has to be the texts’ contents as much as their execution, though the two are fused in an extraordinary manner. I was reminded of the Shostakovich Eighth Symphony, in which the very form of the work seems to support the need to scream, mourn, bear witness to the unspeakable. In this case, there is no time to mourn. The need to bear witness and curse the outrage against humanity overwhelms all other emotions. Is this inability to mourn a weakness of the piece, or is the voice of the dispossessed of Anatolia so foreign to my experience that I cannot hear the mourning buried within rage?

The only instrument onstage was a piano. The work relies on extensive amplification and electronic processing, as well as taped voiceovers. During one passage, piano chords seem to have been electronically altered to sound like an insidious machine. A tape loop of the sound accompanied the horrific account of Armenian women burned alive.

Diamanda Galás has won praise in some quarters as a pianist — The Age (Australia), The Vancouver Sun and the L.A. Weekly, in particular — but the pounding ostinatos and tinkling figurations among the high-octave white keys did not convince me that the praise is justified. Her technique certainly supports her performance, and yet it is not of the order of an Ursula Oppens, Yvonne Loriod, Martha Argerich or, in another vein, Diana Krall. To be fair, Prokofiev and Messiaen are not Galás’ fach, and neither is dazzling jazz improvisation. When she does address popular or traditional material, she works it to the nth degree. Her performance of “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean” on disc two of the Mute recording of Defixiones reminds me of Nina Simone and Janis Joplin in personal identification with the lyric, with her voice going well beyond the ability of either Simone or Joplin to match concept with execution. I would refer anyone to the two-disc set as an illustration.

She is a fierce onstage presence. In the performance I attended Galás materialized out of the dark in a black robe with metallic trim: the chorus in Greek tragedy — in this case, a chorus of one. Over the pedal point she began ululating into the microphone, and I could only wonder how much the power of the voice depended on amplification. Could the performance have as much force were it unamplified? But this was not a recital of Lieder or opera arias. Galás borrows the devices of popular music and culture, specifically, a battery of loudspeakers pointed out at the audience and several aimed back at her, the better to hear herself over the processed sounds.

Cover of Mute Stumm 205

I still have to wonder how effective Defixiones might have been were the trappings of popular culture — especially the omnipresent microphones held to the face — dropped in favor of a human scale. Does the potency of the work depend upon the volume at which it is presented, or are the material and wide-ranging voice sufficient to hold our attention? Must everything be pushed to rock-concert levels before we pay attention? Unfortunately, her audience — those who follow her work and point of view regarding the world in general — not only accept the rock-concert aesthetic, they would be disappointed by its absence. Even when Eric Clapton went “acoustic,” the mics and amps were on. How else could a large audience experience the new sound? The setting for Defixiones, however, was fairly intimate. The Pace University hall’s volume seemed to me close to Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall. If Galás’ intent was to batter the audience with a raw voice bearing witness to an atrocity, she succeeded.

[See also http://www.diamandagalas.com/defixiones/defixiones.htm.]

[Galáswise I lost my virginity at a 1982 Hollywood show of Wild Women with Steak Knives. Certainly the sense of being shut in with a lunatic was palpable; if the idea thrills (Marat/Sade writ very, very small), Ms. Galás will leave you ecstatic but even multi-channel DVD can’t reproduce the live event’s impact. Besides, a large component is surrendering control; if you command the remote, so to speak, the experience is fatally compromised. W.M.]