I saw Diamanda Galás at the Union Temple of Brooklyn on 10/31/17. Perfect that she'd be doing a show on Halloween, because she's the most terrifying performer I ever seen! And on closer inspection, half of the times I've seen her, it's been on a holiday:
Easter Sunday 1992: *Plague Mass,* at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis
Circa 1994: concert, First Avenue, Minneapolis
Circa 2004: concert, Joe's Pub, NYC
2005: *Defixiones,* Pace University, NYC
Valentine's Day 2007: Valentine's Day Massacre, The Knitting Factory, NYC
Halloween 2017: concert, Union Temple of Brooklyn NYC
I've always described Galás as the most incredible singer I've ever heard. Yes, she takes a back seat to Leontyne Price (I'm sure Miss Price would not be happy about that, neither would she understand it). I put Galás above all others because she does things with her voice that are completely unimaginable, bizarre, and horrific. And then two minutes later she sounds glorious and pure. I don't know how she does it, I've never heard anything like it. More than any other performer I've seen in my life, what she does is completely unlike anyone else I've seen or heard.
The only comparison I could make is with Meredith Monk - - I often describe Galás as "the dark side of Meredith Monk." They both use what's called extended vocal techniques, strange use of the voice, doing things you don't learn at the conservatory. Monk's work is infused with light, heavenly energy, and spiritual beauty. Galás's work is infused with darkness, demonic energy, and horrific beauty.
Let me give you a "for instance" - - the first thing I ever heard of Galás, her version of "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot:"
The things she does with her voice - - unimaginable, right? The template was set the first time I saw her, doing her then-signature work, *Plague Mass,* written for the victims of the AIDS crisis. It's not unusual for someone to say that they were frozen by an overwhelming experience. She took it to an extreme: I was frozen on a cellular level.
Here's an exchange between my mom and her sister Karen, from my parents' Easter Sunday dinner table:
KAREN: Nita, where are the boys today? I don't think we've ever had a family holiday without at least two of them here.
MOM: They're in Minneapolis hearing a Satanic performance artist.
KAREN: Oh, how nice for them. Ken, pass the corn casserole.
I went to a dinner party in 2005 and told my friends that she was doing a show at Pace University that coming fall. I said that they had to come with me, they had to get a load of her. I explained what she does, I probably described her as sounding "like a turkey being electrocuted." My friend Jere listened to all of this and said, "I can understand why you'd be impressed with what she does. But I don't understand why you'd want to hear it again." Ha! The long answer is that she performs with an uncommon dedication and involvement, it's thrilling to be in the presence of such a complete and unique artist. The short answer is that I find her work thrilling.
Jere (and his partner Dale) did not attend that performance at Pace, but Karen Miller and our friends Liz and Tom did, also my old boyfriend Alan. It was the second week of September, the first concert in the Pace series. She started the show doing a lot of straight up beautiful singing, which was impressive and a nice change. But after a couple of songs, hearing her do that, I started to get a little itchy. That isn't exactly what I signed up for. Then, in the third or fourth song, a booming, thumping beat and dark, spooky music started coming through the sound system. She climbed onto the stage and came down the central runway doing what I call The Frankenstein Walk. She had a cordless microphone in each hand. She rattled off something in Green or Turkish or Aramaic, speaking in a forceful manner. And then she bent at the waist and totally went to town with her electrocuted turkey experience. I looked at Alan on my left, whose mouth was open and eyes wide. I looked at Karen, Liz, and Tom on my right, who had blanched. They appeared to be drained of blood. Possibly also experiencing some neuropathy in their extremities.
We walked out of there and Karen said, "And for the rest of their lives, they spoke in hushed tones of the horrific events of September 10th."
I missed her the last time she was in New York, I didn't hear about the show until after it had sold out. So when I heard she was performing again, and on Halloween, I was quick to buy a ticket.
The time of the show was listed as 7 to 10 PM. I couldn't imagine that she could sing for that long, and my skepticism was correct. I got there at 6:30 PM, the doors opened at 7:10, and the lights didn't go down until 8:28. Maybe this kind of thing happens in rock concerts, but not with the kind of concerts I go to. I was getting rather skittish.
I started getting really worried at 8:15. I had a sneaking feeling that someone would come out to say, "It is with deep regret that we tell you that Miss Galás needs to cancel tonight's performance. After thirty years of unimaginable vocal abuse, she's no longer able to phonate."
But then the lights went down and there she was! Let me tell you, all was forgiven, with the hypnotic, jaw-dropping first song. It was an intricate song with a continually shifting, overlapping bass line, low in the piano. Her vocals went on top of that, wordless powerful wailing, intense and glorious. At one point she was singing in unison with one of the inner voices of the piano part, it was fascinating to listen to. Hearing that song made me wish I could hear her with a full orchestra. She's a first-class composer, and it's a shame that her singing overshadows her compositions.
She finished the song and the audience applauded, some of them whooping and howling. She looked out into the theater, narrowed her eyes, and said, "Some freaks out there." Which made us all chuckle, and got a smile out of her. She smiled a few times that night, and it was a treat every time. It's not often we see her smile.
My friend Nicola asked me the next day if people in the audience were in costume. Some of them were clearly in costume, they had cat ears or big blonde wigs or whatever. But with some of them, it was hard to tell - - that full goth look, the white makeup, jet black hair, black rouge (which might be a contradiction in terms), elaborate piercings, tattoos, and filmy, ratty, lacy, creepy clothes...that might be what they normally wear. Or, as Nicola said, "It's not Halloween, it's just Tuesday." I'm the one who felt like he was wearing a costume, in my Classic American Sportswear. I felt like Marilyn on *The Munsters.*
A few words about what Galás was wearing: I heard talk in the line before the show that she was wearing a black Tammy Wynette-style wig these days, and sure enough, she was. It had some kind of bump up on the top of the head. It was black and it was very long, nearly down to her waist. Her dress was (get this) black, and had sequins or similar on the peplum. She looked pretty.
She did songs in many languages and a few in seemingly no human language. She did a couple of breast-beating flamenco ballads in Spanish. One song, in German, sounded like Schumann having a bad acid trip. On his deathbed. She sang really high in a few songs, and that was a thrill to hear - - she sounded like Lucia di Lammermoor getting intense electroshock therapy while singing her mad scene.
She used some interesting sound effects in a couple songs, an effect where the sound was duplicated and played on a delay. Let me tell you, two simultaneous Diamandas, that's gonna make an impression. And her piano playing, which has always been stellar, seemed to have a greater range of expression and more color than in the past.
I hate to say this, but some of the songs got a little monotonous. Another dirge, heavy in the bass, with intense cathartic caterwauling, the songs started to sound alike after a while. She could have broken it up with a song maybe possibly dipping its toe into a livelier tempo, or maybe she could have done a song or two that we all knew.
The audience was insane. I think some of them might have altars to Galás in their apartments in Sunnyside or wherever. They applauded vigorously after every number and would not stop applauding after she left the stage. I think the applause went on for about five minutes, and the security guards looked at each other sheepishly. They finally piped in some droopy music, and we got the hint and left.
She did a killer recording of the Screamin' Jay Hawkins song on her 1992 album *The Singer.* She didn't do that song in this concert, but she didn't need to. She really did put a spell on us.