Diamanda Gal·s: Savagery and Opulence

Now 61 years of age, the voice is as powerful, as cyclonic and ferocious as
it was when I last heard her over a decade ago in Defixiones, Will and Testament. If anything, the mezzo layer of
the voice is even more deeply impressive; she bevels her vocal range so
masterly to the lowest mezzo F and beyond but it’s as solid as steel; you
have to return to the recordings of some of the greatest Wagnerian mezzos
to find comparable depth. The projection remains fabulous – though this is
a voice as brilliantly and uniquely human as it is one that is filtered
through microphones and some digital processing. That it never seems
micro-managed, but a genuinely kaleidoscopic prism of the extremes of the
human voice remains a formidable achievement (the difference being what is
possible for Gal·s is impossible for others). Her stunning octave range
remains as secure and formidably exact as before, though with that unique
hard edge, like a saw against metal, that seems in part more Bel Canto than
purely lyrical.

It’s only when you come to the folk song O Death (which some might
know from the Coen Brothers) towards the end of the concert that the sheer
vocal range and the extended techniques make an unforgettable impression.
Many will never forget the thrilling sound of her floating long phrases –
absolutely Straussian in their beauty – and the pyrotechnic vocal
somersaults that enshrine the psychodramatic narrative that slices like a
scythe through sonics crackling like a current of electricity or a
semi-tuned radio. If this wrenching performance made you feel like glass is
being crushed under a lethal stiletto or gravel is being fed down the
throat until you howl – then it’s because that’s exactly how she sings it.
There’s no question that this is still a voice that empowers women in a
starkly dramatic way, though as so often is the case with this singer
sentimentality is eschewed.

This concert showcased her two new albums, her first for almost a decade: All the Way, a songstress’s reworking of mid-Twentieth Century
Thelonius Monk, Chet Baker, BB King and others whilst In Concert at Saint Thomas the Apostle Harlem highlights death
songs from artists like Jacques Brei (Fernand) and Albert Ayler ( Angel). The two albums are strikingly different, and playing works
from both in an alternative layering of them until you get a fusion of
different styles proved unsettling, but inspired. The opening line of her
poem Morphine (which she read so devastatingly), “There is no cure
for loneliness/But itself” is in part the spiritual lacuna of these song
cycles, one that has preoccupied Gal·s for decades. Loneliness,
dispossession, death, disease are private declarations of suffering, but
Gal·s sees them in a wider universal struggle of suffering. Mental and
physical states are in decay, fragile to the extent they are at breaking
point. Those who take their own life are celebrated. Gal·s challenges
head-on the orthodox teachings of all churches and religions, even if the
anguished madness and warrior-like anger at the principles of religion that
guided works like Plague Mass is no longer so heavily articulated.
The song Artemis, for example, is in part borne of personal
tragedy – the death from AIDS of her brother, Philip, examined in her
towering, ritualistic work Plague Mass – but grief is transposed
into a global rite of collective tragedy that is entirely inclusive. The
voice is everything here as it assaults the senses – or, as Gal·s herself
once said: “My voice is an instrument of inspiration for my friends, and a
tool of torture and destruction to my enemies”.

Likewise, the Italian poet Cesare Pavese, who hovers over some of this
cycle, is an implicit point of reference, not just for the theme of
loneliness but for some of the figures in this singer’s gallery of
untouchables. There are the dispossessed, like prostitutes, and the
isolated. When you read Pavese’s poetry the unescapable conclusion is that
the loneliest of all his characters is himself, and this seems doubly true
of Gal·s herself. Ferdinand Freiligrath, the other poetic inspiration for
this cycle, gets the Gal·s treatment in a powerful performance of Die Stunde kommt (The Hour Comes). Freiligrath encapsulates both
the exotic and the political – two Gal·s themes in her work – but Die Stunde kommt is co-morbid to the longer thematic reach of this
cycle. Freiligrath writes of love, but also of graves and grassy
cemeteries; Gal·s interprets it with all the monolithic darkness of the
human experience.

If the death poem settings are more virtuosic, the familiar songs are given
with a reshaping that is startling. This is a rebirth. The voice can be
both lush and rumbling, but it can also use a vibrato that shakes like a
siren. The pitch is perfect. Language is something that is torn from its
linguistic roots – whether it be French, German or Greek. The irony of not
necessarily understanding what she is singing needs no subtitles; her
message is a universal one that is charted through the emotions of the
voice. From the depths of her sepulchral mezzo through to the vertiginous,
cascading high notes that pierce the ears the meaning is always apparent.
It’s often noticeable that when she is thundering out bass chords on the
piano the voice is flirting at the other end of the scale; likewise, when
the keyboard is typed out at the higher registers, the voice is often
resonant and percussive.

These albums are in some ways a move towards the past, something which
Gal·s’s previous work doesn’t so obviously do. But the past is
uncomfortable and not a place for reflection or safety. With just a piano
(some of her previous concerts have been more instrumental) she cuts a
lonelier figure than ever. That we can empathise with this condition and
feel part of it is one of the positives from this concert. The operatic
pervades it, but this isn’t opera. In the past, the theatricality of a
Gal·s performance might have been more evident: the body swathed in blood.
Today, it’s the keyboard of her piano that is more obviously streaked with
the sweat, broken fingernails and blood from her hands that gives power to
the staging. There are nods towards Bellinian madness, Berg’s cathartic
power, or Schoenberg’s sprechgesang. But the opera singer is reinvented.
Bathed in smoky light, the voice often becomes inseparable from the
torch-like beams. As the voice becomes more hysterical and ecstatic light
is used like Morse code. That the music can at one minute seem entirely
never-ending, with those long notes floated for an eternity but not
tapering off into an ending, contrasts with the ephemeral nature of the
recital platform. It’s the very nature of some music, and singers, that it
does indeed achieve the status of ephemerality. Whether she intends or not,
Gal·s makes a concert unforgettable.

Marc Bridle

The Barbican, London; 19th June 2017.

image_description=Diamanda Gal·s: Savagery and Opulence.
product_title= Diamanda Gal·s: Savagery and Opulence
product_by=A review by Marc Bridle
product_id=Above: Diamanda Gal·s

Photo credit: Austin Young