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S & H Alternative Music Concert

Diamanda Galas, Defixiones, Will and Testament, RFH, 17th October 2003 (MB)

"A man’s throat is slit in Paris, it is called ‘murder’, but when a man’s throat is slit in the Middle East it’s called a ‘question’." Victor Hugo


The legendary Diamanda Galas, in her first Festival Hall concert for two years, easily confirmed her status as one of the most creative and iconographic musicians around with this, the first UK performance of Defixiones (with an impeccable audience of Goths, punks, skinheads, the dispossessed and not-so-dispossessed, left typically mesmerised). Although markedly less approachable than
La Serpenta Canta, which I reviewed in September 2001, Defixiones, in its intensity of language and rawness of expression, recalls her much earlier Plague Mass, a seminal work in both the Galas and the modern music canon. With a cerebral directness, and an emotivity that often feels like walking barefoot through a field of broken, needle-sharp glass, Defixiones reveals itself to be a toweringly creative work that, despite taking its subject matter from events that happened almost 90 years ago, has unerring contemporary relevance.

Defixiones is in part an attempt at catharsis and a broadening out into eternal values of redemption and hope. Inspired by the events of the ‘minor holocaust’, more specifically those of the Armenian, Assyrian and the Anatolian and Pontic Greek genocides that occurred between 1914 and 1923, it is not necessarily a work that is solely generic to that time. No Galas cycle, however intimate and personal, is ever that straightforward. It is all too easy to make parallels with other genocides and holocausts and her use, again, of ‘Todesfuge’, one the starkest and most anguished of her creations - inspired by the Auschwitz poet Paul Celan – illuminates the wider dimensions of Defixiones, which in a sweeping arc considers persecution of religious minorities, homosexuals, writers and other ‘undesirables’. Yet, the intolerance which Galas so nakedly describes – especially of Imperial dominance – exposes both ancient and contemporary hatreds as forever being universally present; it is almost impossible not to consider, even though this piece was premiered in Belgium in 1999, that it is a pacifist’s response to a war that began four years later in a region torn apart by religious turmoil and imperialist ambitions.

Defixiones follows many of Galas’ tested modes of expression. There is the linguistic – this work alone fuses texts from Armenian, Arabic, Greek, Spanish, French, German and English; there is the sonic, with that four-octave range used to astonishing effect and there is the musical with the piano taken almost to the limits of its range, from the thunderous explosions in the lower keys to the razor sharp injections in the uppermost ones. But what made Defixiones more compelling than it might have been was the use of eyewitness accounts of torture and human sacrifice relayed through speakers, something which melded the past to the present with catastrophic realism. Indeed, it was perhaps ‘The Eagle of Tkhuma’, the apotheosis of the first half of this work, which most vividly exploited both speakers and light. With Galas now writhing centre stage, calamitous piano chords are taken up by the speakers in one long death-like march that searingly laments on the brutality and butchery of genocide. The maelstrom of sound, with echoes and reverberation pounding like an invading army, are a mirror to the carrion shrieks and cries of Galas herself, now bathed in light. The rage and terror that the voice was able to project often felt like the vocal equivalent of having a knife slowly ratcheted into the chest. The howls briefly suggested King Lear, the lowest register often proving more unsettling because of the despondency Galas was able to achieve, as if reliving the terror before us.

The first part of this work – lasting some 45 minutes – is notable for Galas’ eschewing of sentimentality. Less tied to the piano than she is during the second part, it is the voice that is forced to carry the weight of her vision, the gravity of the poems she recites given a greater prominence than is usual in a Galas concert (where occasionally the pianism can impress more than the voice). The suffering was indeed palpable and you end the first half of this work feeling almost adrift, certainly more naked and vulnerable than when you first came into it. This almost made the twenty-minute interval a mistake since much of that wracked up anguish, so slowly built up like a tightening coil, had largely been disseminated by the time we returned.

And in many ways, Part II did not quite live up to expectations. True, many of these songs relived the despair, misery and persecution of the earlier pieces but the reinventiveness attributed to these past works, or their place in the overall conception of Defixiones, didn’t always seem logical, not least because the familiar was being placed beside something radically different. ‘Birds of Death’, for example, reprised from her AIDS trilogy, Masque of the Red Death, seemed less compelling in its middle-eastern rewrite, and ‘Artemis’, part of the same trilogy, seemed unsettled for the same reason. Yet, it is easy to see why they are in this cycle. Galas’ philosophical perspective is almost to suggest that personal suffering is inseparable from universal suffering, that one does not preclude the exclusion of the other. Celan’s ‘Todesfuge’, whilst partly broadening the themes of persecution beyond the literal religious genocides that begin the cycle, also highlight much wider perspectives on persecution and death that take in sexuality and unconformity. It might be the case that the first part of this cycle is the universal declaration of suffering, and part two the intimate declaration of suffering. ‘Birds of Death’, ‘Artemis’ and ‘Todesfuge’ all allude to Galas’ brother, Philip Dimitri, who died from AIDS, and was the inspiration for Plague Mass – and so much more of her work. The intimacy of these songs, and their inclusion here, can be seen as Galas’ own inversion of what has preceded it, her brother the omnipresent ghost-like conscience of her own creativity as she is the guiding principle behind our own consciences, individual and collective.

Yet, Defixiones is not just a lament for the past and this is why it is such an important work in Galas’ output. It is an unequivocal reminder, as TS Eliot wrote in the opening poem, ‘Burnt Norton’, of his Four Quartets, that, "Time present and time past/Are both perhaps present in time future/And time future contained in time past." Defixiones, written by a woman who is a song writer, poet, musician and philosopher, is a work of not just our time. It is timeless in what it has to tell us. And her performance of it here was ample proof that we all need to experience the scythe of justice and righteousness slice through our conscience to make us once again human beings capable of accepting, and delivering, tolerance in every form.

 

Marc Bridle

 

Defixiones, Will and Testament will be released in the UK, by Mute Records, on 24th November 2003.

Diamanda Galas’ website is at www.diamandagalas.com

 


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