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INTERVIEW: Diamanda Galás talks to Leslie Deere

A film by Davide Pepe and Diamanda Galás

Diamanda Galás is a Greek-American artist originally from San Diego, California.  A classically trained musician steeped in jazz, blues and the avant-garde, she is an accomplished vocalist, pianist and performance artist. 

Writer John Gill described her as: "Whore, saint, demon, lover, madwoman or angel, there is no other voice in rock, jazz or the avant-garde with her violence, consuming passion and pure elemental force."  Galás speaks five languages, has sung in ten and holds several degrees in biochemistry too.

This lady has covered old country & blues classics by Willie Dixon, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and Hank Williams.  A prolific experimental musician, she has collaborated with composers such as Xanakis, Vinko Globokar and John Zorn.  Adding to her recording repertoire are ventures with Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones, Erasure’s Andy Bell and former Depeche Mode’s Alan Wilder.

Galás has also provided sound and music for several films including Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula, Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers and Darek Jarman’s The Last of England.

This Friday and Saturday Diamanda Galás and filmmaker Davide Pepe will present the World Première of their new film Schrei 27 at Barbican’s SPILL Festival.

Schrei 27  was originally commissioned in 1994 as a radiophonic work by New American Radio and the Walker Arts Center in Minneapolis.  The subject deals with asylum institutionalisation from the patient’s point of view, while being subjected to chemical and mental torture.  

Diamanda Galás talks to Leslie Deere

Leslie Deere: So tell us about the film.

Diamanda Galás: First of all, I would like to say I am not holding the camera ever.  So this is the reason that this film has both of our names – Davide Pepe, who I put first, because he’s holding the camera and that’s the first thing people are going to be aware of is that they are in a cinema.  But the reason I put my name up there is that it is based upon the original work which is, I want to read something I wrote which is pretty important –

For years, I have had a dream of the voice as a protagonist, as a horrific vocal spine to a black screen of flickering images.  I’ve wanted to do this for years, 20 if not more.  And when I saw Davide’s film Little Boy I grabbed his hand and asked him to do Schrei.  We discussed the idea that people should see what constitutes the singing of these sounds - the ribcage, the vocal chord.

A few times doctors have asked if they could see how the vocal chords work – to conduct a recording made with a rubber tube down my throat making the sounds I make.

This is important.  It explains why the voice is at the center – it’s ring modulated, distorted, delayed.  The voice is the protagonist of this film about torture.  It's a person in actual isolation.

It's the same as when you had Greek intellectuals condemned to the island of Makronisos, especially around the time of the Junta.  The most famous of these is Yiannis Ritsos, who had to hide his writing in bottles and he inserted them into holes in the wall.  Another place unknown to the general populace was and is Yaros, for those who were considered to be the ‘criminal element,’ per se.

The place was notorious for having scorpions and rats and El Ntampa, essentially barbed wire cages where an inmate would roast in the scorching sun during the day and freeze at night.  The person to my knowledge who has researched this most currently is Neni Panourgia in her superb work Dangerous Citizens.

I only read this book in the last weeks while touring and was astonished that we have been working in such a parallel direction and I did not know this.  Even more astonishing because I met her and her husband several times at Princeton, where I had a fellowship in Greek Studies.  I did not put this together until last week.

These stories, this history - They put these people in these prisons.  They demoralized them so that they became animals.  These are the songs of exile I’ve done for years. 

LD: Can you share the notion behind Schrei?
DG: There is a traditional reference to the theatre with Schrei.  It used to be part of an actor’s training to convey extreme states without much text, and Kokoschka worked this way in Murder, the Hope of Woman.  I read something paradoxically by Philip Roth and he talks about a woman who finds out there is polio in the village and she shrieks, and he describes the sound of the shriek and I thought, my God you’ve done it.

He knows a shriek is something that is involuntarily produced – it comes from the back of the throat – it's a sound that sounds extreme, it's a protracted sound that people would say sounds inhuman.  It’s of such terror that it’s pushed out of the body.  It's a very high pitched sound.  How he described it, I was astonished.

The shriek you hear in our film is really Schrei 27, but I’ve added a lot of sounds, vocal sounds, other sounds, both of us did.  Davide is so phenomenal about using the sounds of the camera itself, then he distorts them.

This guy knows about temporal propulsion, he knows about using sounds as instruments, he knows about using sounds that would be inaudible unless they were magnified, the sound of breathing for instance.  It takes on another meaning.  It’s like an obscenity you don’t want to know about, and then there you have it.

LD: Any other interesting background with this piece?
DG: In fact, it was a film before…

Xabier Artisain, transvestite, famous curator in the Basque part of Spain, presented the quadraphonic installation of Schrei 27 in blackness several years ago.  He wanted the doors locked during performances, allowing no entrance or exit.  It was a video festival.  But my video is behind the eyelids.  I wasn’t going to give them some visual escape from what I do, so they can look at some stupid images on a video.

You know art garbage is sold for millions of pounds that is considered ‘difficult’ when it is yet another poor dead horse, for Christ’s sake.  Heaven forbid you should have to scour your own nightmares, you pathetic sod.  Leave the bloody horse alone, will ya?  He is already a slave.  You are not making him an icon by putting his body in the Tate.

Because sound is so much harder in general.  It is too easy for an audience to get away with not listening to difficult sound.  With film, people can look at the whole thing, and by a process of subtractive synthesis they can eventually look at the parts – but with music, people have to sit there for 25 minutes.

LD: Sound takes more effort absolutely -

DG: Yes, so people have attention deficit disorder, which is part and parcel of our society because we have laptops and phones and computers and advertisements on TV, you know.

These things are introduced to people as a good thing.  When you talk to a person you tend to free associate – and I do it too – these things become free association devices.  So you read Diamanda Galas is a singer – underlined singer – OK you fucking imbeciles, we don’t assume you know what a singer is.

So I was like no way, fuck this noise, and all these people like Yoko, had their videos and I said here’s my video – it's a quadraphonic sound installation in black - created by the audience, who have to sit there for 27 minutes in a lost chamber.

LD: So it becomes an imagined film in real-time, different for each person, from the experience of listening?

DG: Yes you got it right on the money.

So I said - that’s my film.

Xabier is an unbelievable person, he called me about 25 times before I answered, I didn’t know who he was, and I am very much a hermit.  I leave my phone turned off all day.  He was so visionary that he believed in the idea.

It was a video festival (Diamanda says chuckling) with Debbie Harry and Pat Benatar.  (Ah ha-ha) And you had all these videos and then you had this very dark room.  And all the people were like no, we want to have fun.  And I was like fuck you and your fun.

LD: So now it actually is a film in the more traditional sense.

DG: Yes and you can see the transition to Davide.  This person knows.  You have to know what this feeling is, you have to know about isolation, but at the same time have this gigantic heart.

Davide and I speak, and half of the time we talk about our family.  If someone is sick in our family, if we find out one person in our family is suffering, we have a hard time working.  Really, I mean it’s that sort of thing.

So when we started working together I sent him the CD.  He sent me some images back, and immediately I knew he got it.  I saw extreme close ups.  He approached the camera in a very surgical way.  Extreme close ups to the point that someone could call it surrealistic if they wanted to use those expressions.

The body has such close ups that it becomes decontextualised.  It's a close up of suffering.  It’s an internal view of suffering.  It’s not like some Hollywood film where you see some guy getting beaten to death.

LD: I have to say, Davide really wanted to tell the story of how you all met, and it was inspiring.  He didn’t know how to approach you, but he loved your work and he stuck in there and now he’s working with you.

DG: He stuck in there so long, and there he was this little boy, he’s not a little boy, but for me he is always like my little brother.  You know I thought, what’s the chance someone that recognised you on a bicycle in Bologna one day is going to have great talent?

He’s got such an incredible gift though.  Not just the visual ability to see pictures and think of things instantly, connections and ideas – he also has this notion for the propulsion of images.  If you’re doing experimental – quote unquote experimental work - this is great.  But you know what else, he’s got great ears.  He’ll look at something and he understands why the sound has to be what it is, and then he’ll make a suggestion.  And then I’ll say ok, how about this, and he’ll say you’re probably not going to like it – but he tried it and it worked.

But you know, if you look at the history of film – you know Hitchcock and Bernard Herrmann, which its the best example, you realize that these people worked together.  Bernard Herrmann was amazing.  He did the sound effects and the composition.  He did the shower scene in Psycho and Hitchcock wanted it to be silent – and Bernard said no way, and it worked.

Sometimes in Schrei 27 the sound and the image – sometimes they are hitting at the same time, but there is never a sense where either is accompanying the other – and this for me is very experimental.

LD: Who else has influenced you?

DG: In my vocal experience I was very much inspired by Alfred Wolfsohn, maybe people in England know him.  He had been in the war (WWI) and was traumatised by what he heard.  He came back and said - Why are these sounds not in the theatre?  They should be.

He observed the horrific sounds of soldiers in the battlefield and thought that the theatre was anaemic by not using the voice to illustrate this kind of suffering.  He began a theatre company featuring Roy Hart.  He trained the actors.

There is this long ability to breathe, to have changes of timbre, but without having to stop and re-arrange.  The idea is to do this flexibly.  This takes years to do.  It’s about the maximum use of your instrument as a soloist.

The vocabulary has got to equal the changes of life, or you can’t survive as a human being.  There’s that Artaud quote about creating in order to get out of hell.**  This is accurate for me.

If I do not write all the time I am completely paralyzed by what I know and see, unless I am actually grabbing a nurse throwing her to the ground and insisting she administer the medicines she was instructed to give, instead of sitting around doing nothing.

I have had a great deal of experience terrorizing doctors and nurses who refuse to do their jobs.  I do online research all the time so I trust no one´s assessment of a case other than my own in collaboration with professionals.

This is the future for civilians.  You are your own overall doctor and never forget it.

So that’s why I write, that’s why I sing, that’s why I play the piano – I do this stuff so I don’t have to live with the nightmares that exist during the day while I’m walking down the street.

Both Davide and I have such great love for our families.  Empathy is to feel what someone else is feeling, but the Italian word, compassione - this means to feel with.  This means it is impossible for us not to feel a great deal on a daily basis and it makes it impossible for us to ignore the kind of suffering that comprises our work.

It's a living horror when you feel too much, so the only thing you can be is either sedated from it, or make work through it.

LD: Are you working on anything new at the moment?  What else is coming up for you in 2011?

DG: A large work dealing with Alzheimer’s and dementia in the very old and the horror of that ignominiousness as it is experienced.

Yes, for those who laugh, more unpleasant subject matter from Ms. Galás, and eat it bitches, you too boys who laugh in the pubs.  When you die you will cry alone and the smell of your own shit will be your only best friend.  Have a nice life, pansies!

* Demetrio Stratos prize - Prestigious international award in Italy for experimental music.
** No one has ever written, painted, sculpted, modeled, built, or invented except literally to get out of hell.  - Antonin Artaud
22 - 23 April 2011
Silk Street Theatre
: £5
Performance time: Time slots from 13:00
Running time: 27mins