‘My voice was given to me as an instrument of inspiration for my friends,’ Diamanda Galás, never lost for a line, once said, ‘and a tool in the torture and destruction of my enemies.’ Nor is it an idle threat. In the mouth of Galás, utterances assume a dreadful weight worthy of the Greek tragedies of her ancestors.
But then her subject matter has always been tragedy – and Defixiones especially so. A massive song cycle – others include Plague Mass and La Serpenta Canta – Defixiones is her furious howl for the victims of the Armenian genocides, killed between 1914 and 1923. Though specific, it’s also a work that wants us to make links to other genocides.
A Galás work is explosive, in the sense that sound expands with violent, physical emotion. There is always a piano, a modicum of sound effect to enhance a spatial dimension – and then there’s that voice. Even her operatic training can’t prepare the novice listener: she stretches her vocal chords into bat squeaks one minute, then pulls it through a glorious three-and-a-half octave range to inject stirring dignity into a traditional blues number like ‘See That My Grave Is Kept Clean’.
Defixiones amasses a wealth of texts to speed it: Greek, French, German, Arabic, Armenian words from poets, witnesses, Galás herself. It’s music to raise the dead, but as Galás stresses, music is for the living and the reverberations of tragedy must always be heard.