SCHREI 27: Interview With Diamanda Galás


Hailed as one of the most important singers of our time, Diamanda Galás has earned international acclaim for her highly original and politically charged performance works, as well as her memorable rendition of jazz and blues. A resident of New York City since 1989, she was born to Anatolian and Greek parents, who always encouraged her gift for piano. From early on she studied both classical and jazz, accompanying her father's gospel choir before joining his New Orleans-style band, and performing as a piano soloist with the San Diego Symphony at 14.

In the '70s, Galás played piano in the improvisational scene around San Diego and Los Angeles with musicians such as Bobby Bradford, Mark Dresser, Roberto Miranda, Butch Morris, and David Murray. She made her performance debut at the Festival d'Avignon in 1979, where she sang the lead role in Vinko Globokar's opera, Un jour comme un autre, based upon the Amnesty International documentation of the arrest and torture of a Turkish woman for alleged treason. While in France, she also performed Iannis Xenakis's work with l'Ensemble Intercontemporain and Musique Vivante.

Galás first rose to international prominence with her quadrophonic performances of Wild Women with Steak Knives (1980) and the album The Litanies of Satan (1982). Later she created the controversial Plague Mass, a requiem for those dead and dying of AIDS, which she performed at Saint John the Divine cathedral in New York City and released as a double CD in 1991. In 1994, Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones and Diamanda Galás sought each other out for a collaboration that resulted in the visionary rock album, The Sporting Life.

Over the past two decades, Galás's wide range of musical and theatrical works have included The Singer (1992), a compilation of blues and gospel standards; Vena Cana (1993), exploring AIDS dementia and clinical depression; Schrei 27 (1996), a radical solo piece for voice and ring modulators about torture in isolation; Malediction and Prayer (1998), a setting of jazz and blues as well as love and death poems by Charles Baudelaire, Pier Paolo Pasolini and Salvadoran guerrilla fighter and poet Miguel Huezo Mixco, occasionally fused with the virtuosic singing of the Amanes (improvised lamentation from Asia Minor); La Serpenta Canta (2004), a greatest-hits collection from Hank Williams to Ornette Coleman; and Defixiones, Will and Testament (2004), an 80-minute memorial tribute to the Armenian, Greek and Assyrian victims of the Turkish genocides from 1914-1923.

Galás has contributed her voice and music to Francis Ford Coppola's film, Dracula, Oliver Stones' Natural Born Killers, Spanish / Nicaraguan filmmaker Mercedes Moncada Rodriguez's El Immortal (The Immortal), as well as films by Wes Craven, Clive Barker, Derek Jarman, Hideo Nakata, and many others. In 2005, Galas was awarded Italy's first Demetrio Stratos International Career Award. Her much-anticipated CD, Guilty Guilty Guilty, a compilation of tragic and homicidal love songs, was released by Caroline in the U.S. and MUTE UK worldwide on April 1, 2008. In 2005,

Diamanda Galás asked Italian filmmaker Davide Pepe to create the visual analogue to Schrei 27 (2010) based upon her eponymous 1994 radio piece, a co-commission of New American Radio and the Walker Art Center (Minneapolis). This is her first collaboration with a filmmaker on a major project and the world premiere of the filmic version of Schrei 27 is scheduled at the London's Barbican Theatre as part of the SPILL Festival of Performance on April 22-23, 2011. The work furthers a 1996 live performance staged in complete darkness under the title of Schrei X, which was subsequently presented by Divadlo Archa Theater (Prague), Wexner Center for the Arts (Columbus, OH), P.S. 122 (New York City), Portland Institute for Contemporary Arts (PICA), and On the Boards (Seattle).

In 1994, New American Radio in Staten Island commissioned Diamanda Galás to compose a work dealing with asylum institutionalization--the warehousing of an individual whether for political or personal reasons. The work was created with co-commissioning funds from the Walker Arts Center, where the radio version was recorded. 27 refers to the amount of minutes available for the radio broadcast, although Galás insisted upon silence between each of the many sections of the work on the radio. This proved controversial because nothing is more forbidden on radio than "silence".

The work consists of several short performances over the space of 27 minutes alternating extreme high-energy vocal work with absolute silence. The performances are chapters of a confession which might have been induced through a chemical or mechanical manipulation of the brain. They reflect the state of a patient subjected to torture in a confined space with periodically or randomly triggered bright light, heat, beatings or rapes. There is a high density of speech-sound over time which is often machine-like in its velocity. The work employs the atypical speech and vocal signal processing that Galás has been researching since 1979.

As synopsized in the chapter extract "Schrei ecstatic performance" from David F. Kuhns' German Expressionist Theatre: The Actor and the Stage (1997): "The term 'Schrei' has a rather narrow semantic range including: 'cry, shout, yell, howl, wail, scream, shriek.' As applied to Expressionist performance specifically, the significance of the Schrei varied according to the type of script and production it served, but all types appear to have found a use for it. ...More than any other performance feature, consequently, the Schrei became the hallmark of that breadth of vocal and physical performance capability--and endurance--which was the first standard of excellence in Expressionist acting. However, it seems to have assumed its most comprehensive meaning in certain of the earliest Expressionist dramas, where emotional expression itself was both the subject, and the chief agency, of dramatic action. ...[T]he phrase 'Schrei Expressionism' is meant to signify early stage Expressionism, the development of which occurs first not in Berlin or Vienna but in various progressive provincial theatres, chiefly located in the south-German cities of the Rhein-Main area, as well as Dresden, and Munich."

It was with great pleasure that I anticipated the premiere of Schrei 27 by way of a telephone conversation with Diamanda Galás. My sincere thanks to Janette Scott for facilitating same.

* * *

Michael Guillén: Diamanda, what does Schrei mean?

Diamanda Galás: Schrei means "shriek" but it can mean a shriek that's the sound of objection, or the sound of funereal mourning, it can be used many different ways. The tradition of Schrei theater comes from small German villages, not Berlin, not Munich, and it was a virtuosic tradition where movement was oral and the sound was corporeal. The idea was that the spoken word and gesture were one. When I started referencing Schrei theater years ago, I was thinking of it in its particular form as related to German Expressionism. It was a rigorous actors theater. A Schrei theater performer was expected to be virtuosic because the words were springboards for extreme mental states. In some cases, there were few words but the actor was expected to do a hell of a lot with those few words. Many times they would perform in cafés or small theaters. They were usually shut down because the subject matter was forbidden. It was a theater style that was considered decadent.

This was all before Hitler; but, it's a tradition whose documentation was destroyed during Hitler's era so there's not much to go on and little has been written about it. In any case, what I wanted to do in this collaboration with Davide Pepe was to develop a piece that had first been commissioned for the radio by New American Radio and the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. I worked on that and then went to the studio to perform the piece for the radio. The problem was that you couldn't have silence on the radio, even though the silence was part and parcel of the work. But it was forbidden on the radio. We couldn't get paid for silence.

So I did that piece of it and then I did live performances of it but I had created a work that was almost impossible to perform. The performances are all extremely intense. In order to do it right, I had to work very hard, to work with just voice, ring modulators, delay units, distortion units, a lot of different types of processing. My collaborator was Blaise Dupuy and he was incredible; but, we performed it only a few times and it was not a popular piece. As a matter of fact there was usually a lot of screaming in the middle of it and audience complaints because I performed it in darkness and it was unrelenting for 27 minutes. People were angry about the piece--that's just the way it was--but the idea was that it was a piece about isolation. The visual world, you know, is much easier to access than the sonic world. Chances are that when you get into the avant-garde sonic world, you don't even get paid.

Guillén: Why is that?

Galás: Why? First of all, if you look at a painting, you see it all at once. You can stand there and look at it as long as you want, from up and down to left and right; but, you have that one moment when you do see it. With an audio work that takes 27 minutes, you have to actually pay attention for 27 minutes. Most people can't even go to a concert anymore. They can't read a book anymore. They can't do that and sit in their seat. That means that--if you do an avant-garde work that is avant-garde by nature of the fact that you haven't heard it before and you'll never hear it anywhere else and true to its militaristic connotation it's on the front line--the audience can think, "Do I really want to go through this?" Whereas when you've seen a painting, you've already gone through it, unless you've decided not to. Film also allows the option of staying or leaving. While watching a film you might have expectations that things might change and become more entertaining; but, with audio it's not about being entertaining.

Guillén: I imagine sound also affects and interacts with the body differently than visual stimulation?

Galás: When it comes to audio, a person has to want to stand it, to sit through it, and I don't give them a chance. In 2007, Schrei 27 was curated as a quadrophonic installation in complete blackness by the notorious Basque transvestite curator Xabier Arakistain in the Canary Islands and in Victoria, Spain. Whereas everyone else was doing video performances, I said, "This is my video performance." I walked in, the room went completely black, and I performed in quadrophonic sound so that they could close their eyes and the video would be what they would see when they closed their eyes. Naturally, they were horrified by this! But I wasn't going to give them a damn video. I told them, "This is my video, okay? Take it or leave it." So that was the first "film" version of Schrei 27.

Then I saw the wonderful work of Davide Pepe who had been documenting my concerts for years. I didn't want to watch myself on video because I thought it was going to be awful to watch myself. But Davide said, "You must. Sit down. At least watch this film I did." He showed me his film Little Boy and it was incredible! Many of the things that I have been doing with audio were like these flickering gestures he is doing with film. His sense of time is scary. And his audio sensibility is astonishing because he uses the sound of the camera itself. When I saw how he used this in Little Boy, I thought, "Jesus Christ! This is my collaborator." The propulsion of his images, the flickering decontextualization of a situation, matched the kind of vocal work I was doing.

The truth is that you should also talk to him because we are both the filmmakers, both sound and visual. I'm only half the team. One could say, "Yeah, but you're the actor in the film" but that's not true either. His friend Salvatore Bevilacqua is one of the actors in the film too. I want to make that clear. I don't like the idea of not giving credit where credit is due. Davide is in Bologna right now working on all the final touches on the film. We continued from the idea of Schrei theater that the corporeal and aural merge and come out of each other; equal components of the mise-en-scène. It isn't that one accompanies the other; it's that they're both the same. You'll have a very loud sound coming out of the speakers while you're in a group of people watching this film and--in this regard--it's a similar thing to what was being done with Schrei theater. A lot of them would dress up wearing black costumes with only the bones of the face so that they looked like skulls. Or they would paint the nerves of the body so all you would see was red nerves on blue fabric. The idea was to get to an interior place and an extreme heightened emotional state.

When I saw Davide's film Little Boy, I thought, "Okay, this is the person I can do Schrei 27 with." But he had to understand that this was a relationship. I didn't want him to just film my performance, no, no, no. I wanted to work with him together. It's been such a great experience because I have many paintings and drawings--many of them are of the face or the body in different contortions--but they're scenes of military execution. The subject of the film is a person who has been isolated from society by being put into a mental hospital or a prison where they have been experimented upon in an attempt to confess what they know or to forget what they know. Sometimes it's just an attempt, as we all know, to research torture to see how it goes; to see what new techniques do this and what new techniques do that.

This is something that is commonly known among Greek prisoners who were sent to the Devil's Island many years back and tortured. They were hidden in mental institutions and by the time they got out of there, you never knew what to expect. A lot of them couldn't walk anymore. Not only were they beaten on their feet, but their entire legs were broken. A lot of these people you never hear from. You hear from people who were around the scene but the actual people who were tortured never want to talk to anyone again, ever. It's similar to Vietnam vets. If you go to a Vietnam vet and ask, "Tell me all about your experience", they'll say, "Forget about it."

In a sense this is all, again, connected to the idea of the schrei. The schrei is a scream of terror. It's a scream of the nightmare made flesh, which is something I also used to say to describe Plague Mass. I have worked with voice for many many years and I've trained with many teachers because I believe you must have extreme training to be able to move between--not only the speaking and the singing and all the vocal techniques and all the languages--but between dynamics, to move fluidly and with great dexterity, not having to stop because you can't make a sound you hear. But my desire was not just about wanting to become a virtuoso, it was to realize something emotional. What we have now in this film or this installation, whatever you want to call it, is a unique relationship between the audio and the visual. I don't know, perhaps you know more about this than I do, but I don't know of many films that are made like that.

Guillén: It intrigues me that even now you are ambivalent about whether Schrei 27 is a film or an installation. You don't consider this your first true film?

Galás: I think so, yes. You know my background with film. I've done videos with Peter "Sleazy" Christopherson for songs of mine like "Double-Barrel Prayer", but if you don't count those things, the only other film I've been involved with is David Wojnarowicz's Fire In the Belly, which is rarely seen because the "original" version is in dispute [see Pia Catton's Wall Street Journal article on this controversy].

Part of Schrei 27 also comes from my research on the Ewen Cameron mind-control experiments done for the CIA where he would subject people drugged on phenobarbital to a tape loop that would say, "I always wanted to fuck my father", then he would shoot them full of insulin, and leave them in isolation for 24 days. By the end of that period they had forgotten everything they'd ever known except that they had always wanted to fuck their father. Cameron was looking for alternate ways to eliminate information from someone's brain without killing them--very Manchurian Candidate kind of stuff--but he was paid a lot by the CIA. There were also places like Willowbrook where they conducted hepatitis experiments on children, injecting them with the hepatitis virus to see what would happen. They found out! Then the experiments were revealed. There have been so many people who have been experimented upon in mental hospitals, old folks homes, prisons.

Guillén: And I've no doubt such covert practices continue to this day.

Galás: Oh yes, big time! Actually, I did a lot of the drawings that are in this film when I was in an artists colony in Italy. I got kicked out of it for causing problems--what they called "insubordination"--and they had their security take me to another city where they dumped me off. I was suspicious of the colony because of the way we were treated. I felt they were covering themselves up as an artists colony but that, in fact, the colony was being used for some other purpose. We were put in rooms without heat, treated badly, given bad food, demoralized and humiliated; it was quite the experience. We were punished for speaking any language besides English. It was all the more shocking because it was run by distinguished people from the university. Here I was supposed to be working on a piece about institutionalized torture and found myself in this situation. A lot of the drawings in the film came out of my experience of being there.

The film also includes medical photographs of my vocal chords that were taken with a camera inserted into my throat. It's an awful process but a doctor friend of mine wanted to see what my vocal chords would look like when I was doing unorthodox sounds. Because he was my buddy, I said, "Okay, just this once." We did it, so we have the footage, and when you see my vocal chords, it's almost shocking. I also had to have some surgery on my hand and had those x-rays, and we collected other x-rays from doctors and different kinds of medical footage. We had engineers remix sections from Schrei 27 so--though parts of the film are like the original Schrei 27--the film includes additions to the work that make it different and more current than anything from before.

Guillén: I'm sure the film is going to rock your audiences when it premieres at the SPILL Festival of Performance at London's Barbican. You've attended the festival before?

Galás: No. But I've performed at the Barbican many times.

Guillén: And though Schrei 27 is perhaps truly your first collaborative film project, you have worked on other peoples' films, largely as a sound artist. I didn't realize until I was researching your career that you are the voice that has horrified me in several movies. You were the voice of the dead in Wes Craven's The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988). Your cover of the Schwartz-Dietz song "Dancing in the Dark" appeared in Clive Barker's film Lord Of Illusions (1995) during the closing credits. Your song "Exeloume" appeared on the soundtrack to Derek Jarman's The Last of England (1987).

Galás: That's so nice, with Tilda Swinton!

Guillén: "Exeloume" is a beautiful song. You were also the voice for the female vampires in Francis Ford Coppola's Dracula (1992), the voice of the witch in John Milius's Conan the Barbarian (1982), and several of your songs--"I Put a Spell On You", "Vena Cava", "The Lord is My Shepherd", and "Judgment Day"--were featured on the soundtrack for Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers (1994).

Galás: There was also a beautiful film called El Immortal about the war in Nicaragua by Mercedes Moncada Rodriguez. She used a lot of my music in that film too. You're right that I've worked on a lot of those films but I've never done a full soundtrack. I'm not convinced I would be a natural person to do that because ... well, let's put it this way: Bernard Herrmann was such an incredibly great composer, as you know, but I think it's odd that when people talk about Alfred Hitchcock, they rarely know who Bernard Herrmann is. I'm not saying that people in the film industry don't know; but, the average moviegoer doesn't know. But his work was so essential and terrifying. Have you heard Herrmann's soundtrack to Brian DePalma's Sisters (1973)? My God!! The combination of moog synthesizers and the orchestra was his incredible innovation. And the sounds of the birds in The Birds (1963) he got from an organ from a guy in Germany, an electronic music composer. He never used one real bird sound. He was constantly working on these effects and did a good job but was at the mercy of the studios. The way he ended up at the end of his life must mean it's only worse now.

Guillén: I'd like to think that there's more opportunity to--as you suggest--reveal how important those collaborations were. I was actually watching a video interview with you where you were talking about how little recognition has been received by the great ballad composers. I'm sure much of that neglect is based upon an over-reliance on auteurist notions of creativity as some kind of singular activity, when in truth these projects are co-auteurial and collaborative. I'm sure Schrei 27 has been a collaborative project?

Galás: Oh yes! For example, I did Litanies of Satan with Dave Hunt who produced the music. That guy has a monstrous knowledge of electronic music but has no interest in self-promotion. He could have if he had wanted to. I bring his name up because he's a complete genius. I brought him material from Schrei 27 and asked, "What do you think about this section here? Or what do you think about making this do that?" He did the remix and added sounds to that section, which is towards the end of the film. I won't tell you what happens there but it's just beautiful what he's done with ring modulation, delay and distortion. Obviously I'm making decisions about what I like or what I don't like and making technical decisions and requests and offering suggestions about what kind of ring modulations I want, but we're all working together. That's what I love! When you're working with Dave Hunt and Blaise Dupuy and engineers like them, you end up with something layered and complex. I'm adding something visual and they're contributing brilliant audio elements. I can't say, "Oh, I'm the composer and, therefore, you can't add anything." What a bunch of shit that would be. For what reason? He has great ears. Such collaboration is my dream with this film.

That was my basic idea in the first place. Film started with silents, then went to talkies, then added soundtracks, but by the time it got to Bernard Herrmann, he took it to an altogether different level that was beyond melodramatic compositions or the poor use of symphonic pieces from Rachmaninoff. He didn't just want people to weep their heads off. He worked at combining electronics with his lush symphonic scores, coming up with a hybrid that was truly terrifying. That's what I'm interested in. When you think of Herrmann's chord changes being dramatic elements and then you think of the electronics as being dramatic elements and then you think of all these modulations interfacing and interweaving, everything potentiates everything else. To say that he was just adding a "soundtrack" to a visual is simply absurd.

Guillén: Last night to prepare for today's interview, I spent about three hours watching every YouTube video of yours I could find.

Galás: Oh my God!

Guillén: I was surprised to discover how many standards you've sung.

Galás: For years I was in my father's band with my brother Philip-Dimitri--I started out with my father first and Philip joined us later--but I had to play four hours of standards a night. We did New Years Eve gigs and played all those songs.

Guillén: Well, what I was going to say was that--the way you perform these standards?--it's not accurate to say you're doing covers. That would be a ridiculous statement because covers imply a surface treatment of a song. You interpret these songs and they come from the inside out. For example, your interpretation of Holland-Dozier-Holland's "My World Is Empty Without You" downright blows me away.

Galás: Thank you. You would never say that John Coltrane was doing "covers." You might say Miles Davis, because his approach was different, but you'd never say John Coltrane or Ornette Coleman were doing covers. Hello! Coltrane knows the chord changes. He knows the melodies. He knows those are two different things. And then he also knows what the songs are about, which is usually indicated by the chord changes anyway, and then he goes! Any musician starts with knowing those things but then they take it into their own world--if they have one!--and, if they don't, then.... Or maybe you might want to do a song straight just because you want to play it straight. I'm like that too. The simple, stark, straight-up interpretations appeal to me because--if you use the same approach and play every song the same way--that's stupid and boring. When people say, "Oh, you're doing covers", I just look at them and think, "You're really fucking stupid. For God's sake!" When people say Rubinstein performed Chopin the same way every night, I don't think so. If that were the case, he would not have been able to perform Chopin the same way every night; he would have been too bored. There's a level after which you can't call it a "cover" and it's a level of knowledge and musicality. To call it a cover is just stupid.

Guillén: You have a palette you use and much of it leans into the horrific and the terrifying. Can you speak to the aesthetic that drives you in that direction and why it appeals to you?

Galás: I have to say it's autobiographical. God, when I say it that way it sounds like My Name is Barbra, doesn't it? But I know a lot about isolation and I know a lot about wanting to be alone; but, I also know what it does to you after a while. I know about the levels of extreme depression and mania. I know that whole route. I know a lot about the black and I know a lot about the white but I don't know much about the grey at all. That's something you try to learn so that you can stay in the game, you know? But the grey is not a natural thing for me. It wasn't natural for my father or for my brother Philip. We all share a certain temperament.

It has sometimes erroneously been said that Philip's work is comic and I think, "Are you fucking out of your mind? What he writes is tragic." And then they'll say, "But his work doesn't look at itself in that regard." And then I want to say, "You know what? Why don't you shut up? Do you not know that what is not part and parcel of the other is going to be inferior? Do you understand that?" Let's talk about the "comic" Lenny Bruce. Oh yeah, he was a real upbeat guy. C'mon!

I feel that Philip and I in a sense were doing the same kind of work; but, one sprung out of the word and the other out of the melody or however one might conceive of melody. Still, I would never be inane enough to say, "Oh yes, the theater of words. There's certain things you cannot express with words." I would say, "Well, yeah, if you're a bad poet there are certain things you cannot express with words." And then by the same token, "There are certain things you cannot express with music." Again, by the same token, if you're a bad musician, there are indeed some things that you cannot express with music. And it doesn't mean that you can't do one or the other, it means you have the ambition to combine things; but, that's not because you have a weakness.

Guillén: As a final question, then: the color black is so important to you and, of course, it's been mistakenly and tritely associated with goth; but, what does the color black mean for you?

Galás: It means cover. It means being unseen. It means being covered by blackness. My first experimental works were performed in the dark. I didn't want anyone to see my face. It's perhaps the same impulse as in Greek theater where they came onto the stage with huge masks. They didn't want people to see the nuances of their face while they performed. They wanted to be free. There's something that has to be free in order for you to express yourself fully and I like to work under cover of darkness--a lot of my lighting emphasizes darkness on stage--because ideally I wouldn't have lights on stage at all. It's hard for me to explain. I just like to be alone when I'm performing. I don't like people to see what I'm doing when I'm performing. But then eventually, one does use light for specific reasons, and then you start combining lights in interesting ways, but I still would say that as a performer black means I don't want to be looked at; I want people to listen.

Guillén: Which reminds me of a comment you made regarding Édith Piaf and how when she sang she disappeared into the song, into her music.

Galás: When I look at her filmed performances, I see that her gestures and her sound, the change of timber and the change of dynamic, are all the same. She was a classic actress in that regard. She was profound in her work. Her sense of timing, oh my God! The minimalism of her gestures. She didn't do big gestures. When she was asked, "How do you know what to do next?" she would say, "The music tells me." On a certain level you work with theatrical people to give you ideas--I haven't done that; perhaps I should--but the main instructor is always the music. Piaf understood these things and she was impeccable and, yes, there was a little black dress and that was it! It's not about you, really. It is you but it's you as the carrier and the conductor of something that your mastery has facilitated. Otherwise, why do it?

Guillén: It's interesting you mention Piaf's little black dress because I actually saw that little black dress in Paris at a major exhibition of her work at the Hôtel de Ville.

Galás: Did you?!

Guillén: I remember just standing there staring at it. I was caught in its orbit as if I were caught in the orbit of a painting by Gauguin or Van Gogh. It was a remarkable remnant of performance.

Galás: I love that.

Guillén: Another aspect of your performing under cover and not wanting to be seen is your habit of rapidly leaving the stage after you perform. I've noticed that in some of your videos.

Galás: I can't stand it! I don't want to be standing there after performing. My first instinct is: "Oh my God, here come the vegetables!" I don't want to hear anybody say anything to me. I don't want to know anything. I know how good the show was and if people disagree with me, that's their business. I don't like standing there not doing anything and standing there is being the recipient of the audience's reactions without any ability to do anything but stand there. I find that insane. It's like going into the ring without your boxing gloves.

Cross-published on The Evening Class.
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