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Interview with Diamanda Galas

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Holly Day (mouvement nouveau): You use a lot of religious imagery in your music. Did you come from a religious household?

Diamanda Galas: Absolutely not. I come from an agnostic family, but at the same time, it’s a Greek Orthodox, so there’s a combination of that. A lot of Greeks would agree with me when I say to be a Greek Orthodox atheist is to have the certainty of the Devil with no hope in God. And I’ve said that to a lot of Greeks in Greece, and they just laugh and say, “That’s it! Right on the money, Diamanda.”

H: Coming from an irreligious household do you find religions fascinating to study?

D: Yeah, I do. I look at religion more as geography of a mentality, of laws, you know? As a book of laws, rules of behavior that either allowed certain societies to evolve and then evolve the laws with them, or were not allowed to evolve and therefore are stentorian of all behavior and all freedoms. I don’t really have an interest in religion per se. These ceremonies of life and death have more to do with a more paganistic kind of thinking, or the way that the Greek women would celebrate death. I’m thinking of that just because of the nature of Defixiones, and how to relate this to the album. The Greek women in the death lament, they would talk directly to the dead, when someone died. They would not speak to the dead and be speaking to Christ. They would not be speaking of the dead as a manifestation of the crucifixion of Christ, They would be speaking to the dead in terms of the experience of that person’s life, and the sadness that that person has to give up that life, and how the mother and family misses that person, and so forth. They would not be speaking of Death as some sort of material incarnation of Chris. And that’s more or less a line that I would see myself as following.

H: That’s very pre-Christian, isn’t it? The tradition of placing a body in a large urn and then talking to the urn?

D: That’s correct.

H: I didn’t know that was still practiced.

D: Well, near Sparta, where my mother’s side is from, some of the oldest death rituals in the world. They’re portrayed often as wearing black, pulling their hair out, and shrieking, but actually, a lot of that—some of that is done by the family, but some of it is done by mercenaries, by women who were hired to come into a city and do that for the funeral. But you’re right. It’s definitely pre-Christian. It’s most ancient. The women from my mother’s area of the world would sing these songs that would sound—they’re not songs, per se, but they’re these laments, and they would start out sounding something like, “Take the beautiful English pilot,” and it would be a story about an Englishman that helped save their village, and at the end—and it sounds very beautiful—and then they’d say, “And may the plane of the German pilot crash into the sand and may he be burned alive very slowly.” And you just have to laugh, because you have these old women singing these things that sound very beautiful, and then suddenly, it gets very curse-like. And then they laugh. And there’re pictures of them wearing dark sunglasses, and smoking cigarettes and wearing these black veils, and I just love that, because it really shows the overall mentality of these women.

H: They’re very tough.

D: Yes, you know! They’re tough women who had to build houses out of rock, out of salt rock. There’s nothing that grows in that part of the world, so they’re really tough. Unfortunately, this is not shown enough, I think, in a lot of the writing, the journalistic writing about women in this part of the world. They’re just seen in kind of a victim-like status, and there’re all these discussions about the men being so dominant, and that’s a pity, because the power structure is just not that simple.

H: So how did Defixiones come about?

D: The Defixiones refers to “to fix,” to fix, to mark. It’s like a needle that goes into a doll. It’s marking a territory as your own, and it says that, with the marking of that territory, you have certain power. Whether this is the power to, say, put a curse on a competitor, or an enemy, or to say, “If you desecrate this grave, your daughter’s daughter’s daughter will perish slowly from a horrible disease.” That’s the nature of this. The nature of this type of curse. And it’s usually in practice throughout the Middle East, Italy as well, by people who have very little power, legal power, so they had to draw on their own resources as much as possible. For example, if you had Greek, Assyrians, Armenians, living under the power of the Turks, the Turks, because they can, could easily dig up a grave to steal the jewels, or steal anything that’s buried in the grave. So there would be curses on the graves to warn them, and maybe, that would be all they had, were those curses. That would be the only thing they had to protect them, and that may have been quite a delusional kind of power, but nonetheless, it was the only power that was had by these people. So that’s pretty much what the work is, is that you cannot desecrate this memory. You cannot pretend this grave did not exist by digging it up. It exists, and when you dig it up, the power of our anger will outlast you, and will drag you down screaming. /and that is to be hoped. One can’t guarantee it (laughs), but I can definitely say I’ve inherited that type of thinking. It manifests itself in my everyday life, for which I am grateful, I think.  (Laughs)

H: So was there a specific timing regarding when you wanted to release this?

D: Oh, no. God, it took me forever! I started in 1998. The first performance of the work, paradoxically, with in Gent, at the celebration of Charles the V. It was in memoriam of Charles the V, who was a tyrant responsible for burning many witches, and they asked me to be the main performer who commemorated it, with 12 performances of  Deficiones. The first performance was scheduled on September 11, 1999, and I had 12 performances after that. Within the last five years, I’ve developed the work, and now it’s almost at completion, but it’s taken me a long time to do it, because it’s hard work. I’ve added about 40 minutes that you don’t hear on the record. In the recordings, you’ll hear two sections—one is the more liturgical section, The Dance, and the second are Songs of Exile. In the performance I’m doing in St. Paul, I’m not doing Songs of Exile—I’m doing the Dance, to which has been added 40 minutes of new material based on the writings of some writers from El Salvador. There’s new text that deal with the torture of populations that people are attempting to drive out through this ethnic cleansing that the Turks have practiced, and it also discusses the Turkish invasion of Cypress in 1974. I have Turkish texts that were published in Turkish propaganda news. So I’ve added a lot of work to the Defixiones. I would like to stop adding sections to this piece. I don’t know when that’s going to happen. I think perhaps I just have to tour it a lot and say, that’s it. It’s very hard to stop adding things when the subject is so large. It’s just like The Plague Mask. People would ask me, “Are you still working on The Plague Mask?” And I’d say, “This is not a small subject, you know?” This is not a small subject! I’ve seen people do pieces on AIDS, and I’m like, Oh really? You did it for just one year? You did all the research done in one year? That’s pretty amazing, you know? Which aspect did you cover here? Once you get started in these areas, if you have any kind of research background, the question isn’t the ending—or it is. I don’t see how it’s possible, really.

H: What kind of research did you have to do to put this together?

D: Well, I was researching a tremendous amount of articles dealing with the genocides that took place in between the period, in particular, 19914 to 1923, with these three populations in Asia Minor. I also was doing a lot of back and forth letters with genocide scholars. I also had many books that I ordered from Greece or England that I couldn’t get here very easily, books that had been, for example, destroyed in libraries, the university libraries, or by Turks who through the books out, dealing with the genocides, because it’s not a subject that they want discussed in their country. And, because of the political relationships, the monetary relationships between the United States, Turkey, and Israel, these subjects are not very popular in certain areas. There are many, many Israeli scholars now who are very interested in the Armenian genocide, but, for a long tie, it was something that was not discussed because of the close relationship Turkey that Israel has always had. So these people are treated very badly. Some of the people—there are some Turkish scholars here in America, now, and their lives are in danger, often, because they depict a very—they consider my Website to be a Turkish hate site. I don’t hate the Turks, I hate their government. I hate mass poverty. I hate mass murder. I hate the fact that they have not apologize, that their government has not apologized for the genocide they committed. I dislike that, I hate that. But I don’t single out Turks, if I find them on the street I don’t follow them home. It’s not really my issue, although that might be the issue of the Gray Wolves, which is a very, very racist, kind of Hitlerian group in Turkey. They do a lot of truly nasty things, and mostly to their own people. I think we know that, in any country, you can find out how they’re going to treat other groups of people by how they treat their own people. That’s certainly a law we can say is pretty consistent.

H: So was it difficult finding the poetry you used on the album?

D: The poetry, yes. I haven’t discussed that yet! The poetry was—I went to Princeton University for a fellowship, in the Greek Studies Department. It was just for a month, but had the great opportunity, for that month, of being able to go through a lot of literature and decide what would be the appropriate text for the libretto. I found texts by Adonis (Ali Ahmad Said), the great Syrian/Lebanese writer. The Siamanto (Atom Yarjanian) text I had known about before that, the Armenian martyr-poet. I found texts by the Greek writer Dido Soteriou, who wrote about the deportations of the Greeks from Asia Minor—I found so many different writers, I was able to do a tremendous amount of study. I was also able to speak with Greek scholars there, which was very good.

H: Where did the photos in the album come from?

D: The photos come from the various genocide Web sites that have done research on genocide. Obviously, I got their permission to use them. Some of them.  A lot of photos, I found myself, in research and books and newspapers. There are many different sources. If you go on-line, actually, and you just Google “genocide  Assyria,” or “Assyrian Armenian genocide,” etc., etc., you will see many different Web sites that discuss these issues. But most people wouldn’t even know about the genocides, and so they wouldn’t even think of putting those words together in a search, as you know. There are subjects that aren’t discussed, and this is one of them. This is one of the reasons, of course, that I did discuss it, because I get so angry when people don’t know things like this. Of course, anyone who’s part of a culture which is invisible in a country like the United States is going to get angry.   When people here think of Greeks, they think ,”Ah, Aristotle, Socrates! You had a great culture, once,” and I just want to scream, “You idiot! We have a great culture now! What’sa matter with you?” People just don’t know, they don’t know anything past the three cultures in this country, and that’s it.

H: Is it frustrating to have to work so hard and still be so far “underground”?

D: Honey, I’m just living for my fucking legacy. If people don’t get it now, that’s fine. Because I am not making any approach pattern to the room temperature IQ of this fucking country. I am not. I am not going there. It’s not worth it.

By Holly Day

Medea Tarantula (1977)
Les yeux sans sang [Eyes Without Blood] (1978)
Tragouthia apo to aima exoun fonos [Song From The Blood Of Those Murdered] (1981)
Wild Women with Steak Knives for solo scream (1982-83)
Litanies of Satan (1982-83)
Panoptikon (1982-83)
Masque of the Red Death (The Divine Punishment (Deliver Me From Mine Enemies / Free Among The Dead, Saint of the Pit, You Must Be Certain Of The Devil; 1984-End of the Epidemic).
Plague Mass (1984-End of the Epidemic)
The Singer (1991)
Vena Cava (1992)
Insekta (1993 - Currently in Development)
The Sporting Life (with John Paul Jones; 1993-94)
Schrei 27 (1995)
Schrei X (1995)
Malediction and Prayer (1996-98)
Nekropolis (1997)
Defixiones, Will and Testament (2003)
La Serpenta Canta (2003)

Diamanda Galas

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