When I spoke with avant-garde legend Diamanda Galás in 2017, she had some understandably harsh words for critics who fail to understand both the deep and intense emotional veins running through her discography as well as the actual musical history behind her work. “People who do not know anything about music—notably, most music critics—really should equip themselves with the changes of the original song and realize that every single one of the chord changes I use are connected to the original chord changes,” she said, speaking about misinterpretations of her performance of Thelonious Monk’s “‘Round Midnight” on All the Way. “It is not a bunch of keys falling down the stairs, and it is not someone who uses the song to her own ends only to destroy it and desecrate it and dismember it.”
This is a woman, after all, who was born into a musical bloodline, who began playing the piano at the age of three under the tutelage of her gospel choir-director father and who debuted with the San Diego Symphony Orchestra at 14, in 1969. She has a vocal range listed from three-and-a-half octaves to five, with which she’s able to reach crystal-sharp notes at the top end and full, rich ones at the bottom. She is as versed in the blues and jazz as she is in opera and composition. She did lab work in immunology and hematology at ScrIpps Hospital in La Jolla, and studied neurochemistry at UCSD Medical School, all as part of an eclectic set of collegiate studies. She was the voice of the leader of Japanese assassins in American Ninja 2 (for which she wrote her own script, flipping the banal and schlocky invocations suggested to her into rude, funny indictments of rape culture). You may also know her as the voice of the dead in Wes Craven’s The Serpent and the Rainbow, and the voice of a group of female vampires in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 Dracula.
She has worked with video artists and documentarians, published a book of her poetic song lyrics, and worked with musicians from Erasure to Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones to Rotting Christ. She is a lifetime activist, well-known for her confrontational pieces on AIDS and her considerable work with ACT UP. As an interview subject she’s whip-smart, suffering exactly zero fools, but if you’re able to talk to her on her level, she’s remarkably kind. This is not someone you underestimate. This is not someone who ever places a single note without purpose.
Most of Galás’s formidable catalog is now available on Bandcamp. This includes many of her best-known works, like her Plague Mass, a beautiful and brutal celebration of lives lost to AIDS and condemnation of institutional, particularly religiously-driven, homophobia. In Galás’s world, there is no division between high and low culture—popular song from across the decades, pointed politics, and body horror rub elbows with canonical literature and operatic virtuosity, all rendered with piercing clarity. A Galás work can feel dizzying, and may seem difficult or unpleasant at first for those unused to being challenged, but the emotion she works with is raw and universal, the very stuff of humanity’s core. Her voice is that of pain and rage, of mourning and love, of the oppressed and the forgotten, of those who would step to the seat of power, look into its eyes without fear, and spit the truth. Here are five portals.
Saint of the Pit
Saint of the Pit is the second installment in Galás’s Masque of the Red Death trilogy, the first works with which she would begin directly addressing the AIDS epidemic. It’s also, perhaps surprisingly, one of the more immediately accessible albums in her oeuvre, with these pieces having slightly more pop structures. Here, she channels horror scores (including touching on the famous Berlioz piece “Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath”), with a perilous and winding composition for Hammond organ, and evokes the sounds of deepest hells, demons creeling as they flit back and forth through dense fog, with Einstürzende Neubauten’s FM Einheit on “ξελόυμε (Deliver Me).” The latter three tracks use texts from three French poets of the 1800s beloved by the surrealists—Baudelaire, Gérard de Nerval, and Tristan Corbière—to bring the suffering AIDS patients faced (and, in some circumstances, still face), to the door of those who had never seen the cruelty of dying in silence, shunned, a secret. The Corbière piece, “Cris d’aveugle (Blind Man’s Cry),” is particularly affecting, Galás’s voice recalling gospel convention as she sings the text with depth and empathy; overlaid, her wordless creaking and chattering brings those demons back, and spare percussive elements provide a lonely, rattling echo.
Opening with the startling “There Are No More Tickets to the Funeral,” in which Galás mixes wordless trills from the top of her range and guttural exclamations with spoken-word urgency, Plague Mass remains a deeply unsettling and touching piece, which she began her work on in 1986 as her brother Philip-Dimitri was dying of AIDS. She performed the entire piece in 1990 at New York’s Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, and this is the resultant recording. During the performance of “Funeral,” she appeared half-naked and covered with what appeared to be blood, in reference to the Crucifixion; though the text to Plague Mass is mostly original, it also includes a number of Biblical passages, and is meant to lay bare the hypocrisy of a church which claims to offer ethical rules for living while letting others suffer just for their sexual differences. (Listen to her brutal diatribe, delivered in televangelist-voice, on “Let Us Praise the Masters of Slow Death.”) Though the landscape looks a bit different these days than it did in 1991, when the fight against AIDS was beginning to become institutionally legitimate, Plague Mass is no less stirring, confrontational, and crucial a listen today.
These are Galás’s takes on blues, soul, and gospel classics, including the stunning version of “I Put A Spell On You” used on the Natural Born Killers soundtrack. The range and power of her voice is on full display, as is her deep reverence for the source material. Her keen piano and organ accompaniment is just as soulful as her delivery. It’s hard not to get a lump in one’s throat listening to Galás’s version of “Gloomy Sunday,” for example; the song known as the “Hungarian Suicide Song” (for its writer and theme) is full of pathos, and feels like it’s teeming with ghosts. The very slight delay on Galás’s vocal here works; usually, her vocals are best presented without any interfering effects, but when she does use effects, it’s purposeful and meaningful.
The Sporting Life
This collaboration with Led Zeppelin’s bassist John Paul Jones (and Pete Thomas of the Attractions on drums) is a good deal of fun, though it’s by no means a light or easy listen. The trio find common and fertile ground in their love of blues and soul; Galás’s original lyrics take on love at its lustiest, at its most raw and primal, and there’s a full-throated, whole-hearted version here of the soul classic made famous by James Carr, “Dark End of the Street.” The purposeful lack of guitar allows each element here to really shine.
Defixiones—Will and Testament
This 2003 work was composed in memoriam for the Armenian, Assyrian, and Greek victims of the Turkish genocide of the early 1900s. Galás interprets the words of poets speaking from exile, as refugees, displaced—luminaries like Paul Celan and César Vallejo, as well as Armenian and Syrian poets like Atom Yarjanian and Ali Ahmad Said Esber, interspersed with Armenian liturgy. This all folds together for a heartfelt and haunting reflection on isolation and marginalization; it is a piece, like Galás’s work around AIDS, that asks us to remember, to honor, when the state asks us to turn away, to forget. One of the most stirring pieces is the 11-minute “Orders from the Dead,” featuring the words of Greek anti-fascist communist journalist Dido Sotiriou; Galás’s delivery is biting and powerful, emphasizing injustice and calling for change.