Friday, May 1, 2009

The Queen of the Avant-Garde

The reigning queen of the avant-garde, Diamanda Galas has one of the most bizarre vocal presentations around. She uses her four octave vocal range to extrude shrieks and howls that awaken all the terror and demons from hell. Her voice and imagery are the epitome of darkness.

In a strict Greek Orthodox home in San Diego, Diamanda grew up in a musical family that envisioned her becoming a classical piano virtuoso. By her teens she wanted to start singing to accompany her piano playing, but this was frowned upon by her father. So what does an intelligent artist being oppressed by San Diego do? She doesn't cry about being beat up by bros everyday like the Wavves drummer. She goes to UC San Diego in the 70's and takes lots of LSD. Tripping on LSD, Diamanda would lock her self into the sound booth practice rooms on campus and just scream for eight hours straight, arousing every sort of possible sound out of her soul. Through this drug induced screaming she unveiled a huge vocal range and developed her unorthodox style of singing.

After performing locally for a few years in her teens and college years, avant-garde composer Vinko Globokar heard her perform and wrote an opera for her to sing based on the Amnesty International report of the arrest and torture of a Turkish woman. Her debut was made singing the lead of Globokar's opera in France, where she quickly gained critical admiration.

In the 1980's she developed her sound as a recording artist and created extremely dark and difficult sounding albums. She tackled issues about the injustice of AIDS victims around the world and the torturing and suffering of innocent peoples. A lot of her focus has been narrowed to the crimes and pains against the Greeks of her heritage and of the Armenian genocide. Despite being American born, she relates to the Greek people and her singing style is filled with distinctly Greek characteristics. Her voice bubbles with the howls and cries of traditional Greek singers, expressing the pains and sorrows unique to the them. Comparisons have been made to Maria Callas, the Greek Opera singer whose legends are unparalleled in the realm of singing. However, due to the rawness of Diamanda's voice, comparisons could be equally argued towards Greek folk singers such as Marika Papagika.

One key to the sound of Diamanda is her use of quadrophonic performance. Quadrophonic sound was attempted to be brought to the public in stereo equipment, but its flawed design to the public led to its failure before it could be corrected and succombed to 5.1 surround sound. Diamanda uses a similar concept using several microphones during her performances. Some of the microphones are used simultaneously, each one having a different effect on them. The mastering of this technique and her extraordinary vocal presentation allows her to get a live sound that no other singer could achieve without the help of a studio or a giant mixing board altering the live voice. This is a large reason why she is so highly regarded, no other singer in the world is physically capable of duplicating her performances.

The closest thing I could compare her to in Rock and Roll terms for you readers is to The Birthday Party. I see a lot of similarities between Diamanda and Nick Cave. Both had a manic and overwhelming vocal style. Both crush the listener with a sonic assault filled with spastic bursts of noise and disturbing imagery. In the 80's you could find either of them flailing themselves around the stage barking and howling into the microphone with a relentless fever. Nowadays one would most likely find either of them behind a piano performing.

With the ripening of age comes a calming of the soul, as is the case with Diamanda's music. The last decade and a half has seen her divulge into blues music. Her latest album, Guilty! Guilty! Guilty! finds her performing a collection of standards live. Although she isn't just rolling over and cranking out standards albums like Rod Stewart's abysmal Great American Songbook releases. Diamanda makes these songs very much her own with great renditions of blues classics like Long Black Veil and Heaven Have Mercy. This is a great introduction to her and is miles more accessible than her early work.

Diamanda Galas
Guilty! Guilty! Guilty!
Mute 2008 192 kbps


  1. Here's some videos of her other work:

    Performing in a candle lit room one of her early pieces, Saint of the Pit. I fucking love this video.

    Double Barrel Prayer

    I Put A Spell On You

    I Put A Spell On You (The Birthday Party) For comparison.

  2. i thought I was the queen of the avant garde...weird. i thought i even had like a wikipedia and everything.

  3. I'll make you a wikipedia entry.

  4. The O Death cover on this album is NUCKING FUTS!

  5. I love her version of Swing Low Sweet Chariot