Halloween with Diamanda Galas at Brooklyn’s murmur
A Grown Man Cries and other Surprises
Daimanda Galas made a grown man cry. After at least two standing ovations, as Diamanda Galas did her final encore there was a man sitting directly behind me who was so moved by her performance that he was driven to tears. Composed in 1933 “Gloomy Sunday” by Hungarian Composer Rezső Seress is a song about about suicide, sometimes referred to as “The Hungarian Suicide Song” and was recorded by the likes of Paul Robeson and Billy Holiday. It has all the beauty and charm of a torch song but has had a controversial history. Galas did such a heart wrenching rendition of the song and the proof is in the tears.
If you are not familiar with Galas, here is a brief overview: her music has gotten attention for the last three decades or so and she is one of the few avant garde experimental composer/performers to make the cross over into the mainstream. Her music was used in several big Hollywood movies including The Serpent and the Rainbow, Natural Born Killers, and The Ring II. She did an album with John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin called The Sporting Life in 1994 also. Galas had lost her brother to AIDS many years ago and since then she has been very active in the fight against AIDS. She raises awareness of the issue with her dark and dantesque compositions.
I was blessed to see Galas at the murmrr performance space in Brooklyn, New York on Halloween night. Murmrr is a small auditorium, much like you would find in a school. it is inside The Union Temple of Brooklyn, an old synagogue practically across the street from the Brooklyn Museum and the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens. It’s in neighborhood has been a cultural hub for some time now.
The show was awesome. It was just Galas and a piano. There was only just a little bit of the theatrical spectacle she is known for. At the opening number the house lights went down and the stage was lit in red and black. There was a smoke machine. As the drama developed a strobe light was added to her eerie spectacle. The rest of the evening wasn’t as visual as I expected, this show was about the music.
I must confess that there was only one number I was really familiar that she did that night,“Pardon Me, I’ve Got Someone to Kill,” written oddly enough by country western singer Johnny Paycheck which is on her new album All the Way. I had given the album a listen beforehand and I thought it was superb. I was familiar with and a fan of some of her well known works like The Litanies of Satan and Masque of the Red Death, but not last night’s repertoire. If you are an attentive listener you don’t need to know her material to enjoy it. After all isn’t Galas about hearing something you haven’t heard before?
That being said, I’m going to try to describe this wonderful listening experience as someone unfamiliar with the set list. It seemed to me that most of what she did that evening were interpretations of great songs. The songs that she selected all had a deep emotional connection, truely beautiful melodies with interesting harmonic structures. Almost every piece she did expressed profound melodramatic sorrow. She kept things the vain of All the Way which is a collection of covers. On that album are “Round Midnight” by Thelonious Monk and “The Thrill is Gone” written by Lew Brown and Ray Henderson which was made a hit by B.B. King. These songs as well as other standards are given Galas’ cryptic treatment. Every piece Galas plays has enormous amount of musical tension. Part of what I mean by this is that she adds so much juxtapositioning. Section against section, vocals against piano and other contrasting elements that keeps you on the edge of your seat. I noted that in many of these works I would say that within one song there were different “feels” going on. Often her piano expressed one “feel” and her vocals another while all the same time she keeping it all together as a whole that worked.
How Galas approaches these cover tunes might be compared to how Picasso approached life drawing during his cubist phase. I might be a little ostentatious now, but this was my impression. She seems to cut the musical work into little pieces and then reconstructs it with the original elements but changes the perspectives of the elements. One of the most simple 101 example of cubism is a portrait that shows the subject as a full face and a profile at the same time. This is kind of what Galas does sonically when she interprets a musical piece. Creating something new out of the ruines. Galas is an accomplished pianist and it is evident she can play straight in almost any genre impressively.
Galas is known for atonality and dissonance and she has mastered the placement of dissonance. Many of the works that evening started out with tonal passages, moody and full of pathos, and then she would add sections with dissonance that would come in and out like peals of thunder. It was kind of like reading the Book of Revelations and every time one of the seven seals were opened the sky burst open. Galas uses tone clusters to create these effects. Tone clusters are notes that are next to each other on the keyboard played at the same time. For example if you play F, F#, and G together simultaneously that’s a tone cluster. This creates the disruption of harmony, opposing and conflicting the main idea and structure of the piece. Pianist Cecil Taylor is also known for using tone clusters in modern music as well as others. Taylor is known for smashing his whole forearm on the keyboard to create tone clusters (just one weapon in his arsenal). It looked to me like Galas was using the side of her wrist to get tone clusters from where I was sitting. The stage was set up nicely at murmrr, the piano was pitched at an angle so the piano keys were facing the audience so you can clearly see her technique if you knew what to look for.
In addition to the juxtaposition of tone, Galas used the juxtaposition of dynamics. She polarizes her music, by this I mean that the volume crescendos and decrescendos to extremes which adds to the melodrama of her music. She has an amazing vocal range and her voice is full of power. You can hear some blues in her vocals as well as touches of gypsy music.
Several of the works she performed were in Spanish and several in French. In the works in Spanish you can hear influence of the vocal tremolo that Spanish and gypsy music is known for. You can find similar vocal tremolo in East Indian music and Native American music. I have been to Native American pow wows that featured music of indigenous people and heard the vocal shirls that are are similar to the those I mentioned in in the above cultures. Galas’ music sure is an anomaly.
You could hear a pin drop in the performance space with exception of the weeping, the audience was so fixed on every sound she made. Everyone one in the room knew we were in the presence of genius.