Diamanda Galás

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Diamanda Galás
Diamanda Galas at Thalia Hall, Chicago.jpg
Diamanda Galás at Thalia Hall in Chicago, 2016
Background information
Born (1955-08-29) August 29, 1955 (age 65)[1]
San Diego, California, U.S.
Occupation(s)Vocalist, keyboardist, composer
InstrumentsVocals, piano, keyboard, organ
Years active1973–present
LabelsMute Records, Intravenal Sound Operations

Diamanda Galás (born August 29, 1955) is an American musician and visual artist.

Her commitment to addressing social issues and her involvement in collective action has made her concentrate on themes as diverse as the AIDS epidemic, mental illness, despair, loss of dignity, as well as political injustice, historical revisionism and war crimes, among much else.[3][4] Galás has attracted the attention of the press particularly for her voice – a soprano sfogato – and written accounts that describe her work as original and thought-provoking refer to her as "capable of the most unnerving vocal terror",[2] an "aesthetic revolutionary",[5] "a mourner for the world's victims" and "an envoy of risk, honesty and commitment".[6][7]

As a composer, pianist, organist and performance artist, Galás has presented mainly her own work, but her live performances have also included works by other musicians, such as the avant-garde composers Iannis Xenakis and Vinko Globokar, jazz musician Bobby Bradford, and collaborations with saxophonist John Zorn, the bands Recoil and Erasure, and bassist for Led Zeppelin, John Paul Jones.[8]

Background and education[edit]

Galás was born and raised in San Diego, California, to a Maniot Greek-American mother from Dover, New Hampshire, Georgianna Koutrelakos-Galás, and an Egyptian-American father from Lynn, Massachusetts, James Galás, both of whom were Greek Orthodox Christians.[9][10] Her father's Greek ancestors were from Smyrna, Pontus, and Chios, while one of his grandmothers was an Egyptian from Alexandria. Galás does not refer to her Smyrniote and Pontic ancestry as "Turkish", but rather as Anatolian.[11][12][3]

Galás's first contact with music was during her childhood in San Diego, where her parents lived and worked as teachers.[13] Her father, who was a gospel choir director, taught her how to play the piano when she was three years old, while introducing her later to classical music, the New Orleans jazz tradition, rebetika and other classics of his Greek heritage, some Blues standards, and other historical music genres. Galas also took cello and violin lessons, and studied a wide range of musical forms.[14][10] By the age of fourteen, she had been playing gigs in San Diego with her father's band, performing Greek and Arabic music, and she had also made her orchestral debut with the San Diego Symphony as the soloist for Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 1.[14][10] But while her father encouraged her to play the piano, he did not want her to sing because he believed that singing was for "hookers and idiots."[15]

Galás and her brother Phillip-Dimitri acquired a taste for dark literature at an early age. Their inspirations were Marquis de Sade, Friedrich Nietzsche, Antonin Artaud, and Edgar Allan Poe.[6][16]

In the 1970s, Galás studied biochemistry at the University of Southern California, specializing in immunology and hematology studies.[15]


Early years (1979–1986)[edit]

In the early 1970s, Galás and her friend contra-bass player Mark Dresser joined the jazz band Black Music Infinity, which included drummer Stanley Crouch, trumpeter Bobby Bradford, cornetist Butch Morris, flutist James Newton and saxophonist David Murray. She later collaborated with members of the San Diego band CETA VI, which included, among others, jazz saxophonist Jim French, with whom Galás went on to record and release her first compositions, as part of the album If Looks Could Kill (1979), together with guitarist and sound engineer Henry Kaiser.[10] At the same time, Galás was preparing for her live solo debut, which took place at the 1979 Festival d'Avignon, in France, where she was doing post-graduate studies. It was a performance of Vinko Globokar's Un Jour comme un autre, an opera based on Amnesty International's documentation about the arrest and torture of a Turkish woman for alleged treason.[15][17][18]

Her first solo album, The Litanies of Satan (1982), was also an operatic work. It included only two compositions: a twelve-minute piece entitled 'Wild Women with Steak-Knives', which was described by Galás in the album notes as tragedy-grotesque deriving from her work "Eyes Without Blood", and another lengthy composition, 'Litanies of Satan', an adaptation to music of a section from Charles Baudelare's poem Les Fleurs du Mal.[19] Her second album, Diamanda Galas (1984), contained two lengthy compositions, too. They were 'Panoptikon', which was dedicated to Jack Henry Abbott, whose 1981 autobiographical book In the Belly of the Beast described his experience of the prison system, and 'Tragoudia Apo To Aima Exoun Fonos' ('Song From the Blood of Those Murdered'), a Greek-language piece dedicated to those political prisoners who were either murdered or executed during the Greek military regimes in the years 1967-74.[20][21][22]

Mute Records (1986–2008)[edit]

Galás began writing and performing on the subject of AIDS around 1984, while living in San Francisco.[23] This theme resulted in the trilogy Masque of the Red Death, an operatic trilogy which included The Divine Punishment (1986), Saint of the Pit (1986) and You Must Be Certain of the Devil (1988). In these three works Galás detailed the suffering of people with AIDS. Shortly after the recording of the trilogy's first volume began, her brother, playwright Philip-Dimitri Galás, became sick with AIDS, which inspired her to join activist groups that raised awareness about this new illness. Her brother died in 1986, just before the completion of the trilogy.[24][15]

Taking a break from her own recordings, Galás appeared on the 1989 studio album Moss Side Story by former Magazine and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds instrumentalist Barry Adamson. In Moss Side Story, which was described by the press as a "soundtrack for a non-existent film-noir", Galás sang the opening track, 'On the Wrong Side of Relaxation'.[25] In 1992, Galás released the album Vena Cava, a series of unaccompanied voice pieces recorded in New York during a live performance at The Kitchen.[24] For her next record, Galás changed stylistic direction by turning to the blues tradition and interpreting a wide range of songs with only a piano and solo voice. This stylistic turn produced the studio album The Singer (1992), on which she covered songs by Willie Dixon, Roy Acuff, and Screamin' Jay Hawkins, as well as "Gloomy Sunday", a song written by Hungarian pianist and composer Rezső Seress in 1933 and translated into English by Desmond Carter. This material formed the basis of the video Judgement Day, which was released in 1993. [26]

In the next three years, Galás returned to collaborations with other musicians. She first worked with Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones, a longtime admirer of her work, to write material for a record, and the album The Sporting Life was produced with him in 1994. A tour that followed the album's release saw the two musicians performing together live on stage as well as on the popular MTV show The Jon Stewart Show.[27] Then, in the same year, two of Galás's songs from her previous album were featured on the soundtrack for Oliver Stone's film Natural Born Killers. In 1995, Galás contributed vocals to the eponymous album of British synth-pop duo Erasure at the invitation of the lead singer, Andy Bell,[28] and the following year she took part in the album Closed on Account of Rabies, a tribute to Edgar Allan Poe which also included Iggy Pop, Debbie Harry and Marianne Faithfull, who lent their voices to the tales of the legendary author. Galás's reading of "The Black Cat" was the longest recording on the compilation.[29]

In 1998, Galás released Malediction and Prayer, which was recorded live in 1996 and 1997.[30]

In 2000, Galás worked with Recoil by contributing her voice to the album Liquid. She was the lead vocalist on the album's first single, "Strange Hours", for which she also wrote the lyrics, and can be heard on "Jezebel" and "Vertigen" as a backing vocalist.

Galás's next project revolved around the Armenian, Anatolian-Greek and Assyrian genocides that occurred between 1914 and 1923. This work took the title 'Defixiones – Will and Testament' in reference to the last wishes of the dead who had been taken to their graves under extreme circumstances, as 'defixiones' in Greece and Asia Minor is associated with the warnings written on gravestones by relatives of the dead to warn people against desecrating them. This material formed part of the 80-minute long album Defixiones: Will and Testament (2003), which was released simultaneously with La Serpenta Canta (2003), a live album including cover versions recorded between May 1999 and November 2002.[31] One of the unaccompanied vocal pieces from Defixiones: Will and Testament (2003), "Orders from the Dead", was later used on the album Aealo (2010) by Greek black metal band Rotting Christ.[32]

In 2008, Galás released her seventh live album, Guilty Guilty Guilty.[30]

Diamanda Galás at the QE Hall in London

Intravenal Sound Operations (2009–present)[edit]

After 2009 Galás found herself without a record deal, and until 2016 she was remixing and remastering her earlier works as well as recording some new songs which were made available online digitally as self-released singles. Galás's focus in this period was on regaining ownership and control of her entire catalogue, since the selling of her records by Mute to EMI, which passed them to BMG, had made Galás's back catalogue unavailable. In the meantime, two new albums, All the Way (2017) and At Saint Thomas the Apostle Harlem (2017), were released through her own label simultaneously, and a world tour followed.[33]

In 2019, Galás regained the rights of her back catalogue and her discography was made available again. The result was the release of a remastered version of her debut album The Litanies of Satan (1982), which had been originally released on Y Records. This was followed by the 21-minute piano work De-formation: Piano Variations (2020), which was based on music for the 1912 poem Das Fieberspital (The Fever Hospital) by the German expressionist writer Georg Heym.[7]


Performance art[edit]

Although Galás found herself in the mid-70s studying and practicing music and performance in the West Coast, where performance artists tended to be much more reliant on text and closer to the theatrical event than their European and East-Coast counterparts, her use of text did not restrict her performances to a script, as her introduction of electronically processed sounds shifted her attention towards vocal improvisation to allow more freedom.[34] Her first public performances at New York's The Kitchen and the 1980 Moers Festival reflect this direction, and works such as 'Wild Women with Steak-Knives' and 'Panoptikon', which were developed in this period and used heavily the improvisation element and vocal experimentation, were later recorded and released as music records for her first two solo albums in 1982 and 1984 respectively.[35][36]

In 1990, Galás selected material from her AIDS trilogy and created a performance piece for the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York. With a theme addressing the Roman Catholic Church's indifference to sufferers of HIV and Galás's introduction of theatrical props, such as artificial blood and special lights, her performance, for some members of her audience, "combined ululating shrieks, whispers and howls with an intensity that left the audience stunned."[37] The performance was documented in photographs and audio, and a live album was released under the title Plague Mass in 1991.[38]


Galás has stated that, for her, painting acts as "an exorcism of that which is troubling [her] deeply", and that the visual language she uses allows her "to paint an analogue of the experience, the misery, and therefore get rid of it for the time being. But only because of that vocabulary", she adds.[4] Galás paints in the neo-expressionistic style, which is similar to that of the late-70s and early-80s style used by Georg Baselitz, Paula Rego and Jean-Michel Basquiat, who painted objects and human forms in a distorted way, yet not entirely un-recognisable. According to Donald Kuspit, neo-expressionist artists look back to the roots of modern art, particularly to Expressionism, because they are interested in returning to the past.[39] Many of Galás's paintings, which often borrow their subjects from themes she has explored in her performances and music, engage with the past, too. Titles such as 'Ragip:Turkish Prison for Infidels', 'Medusa', 'Artemis', Cleopatra', 'Mani: Me Epifilakzin – Salt Maketh A Man Who Fears No God' and 'Ethiopian Martyr/Amharic Brother to Greek Orthodox, Egyptian Coptic and Palestinian Orthodox', among others, look back to the same historical events that have been inspiring her to write lyrics and compose music.[40]


In 2011, Galás collaborated with Soviet dissident artist Vladislav Shabalin on Aquarium, a sound installation inspired by the environmental disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. The event took place at Leonhardskirche in Basel (Switzerland) from June 12 to 19.[41] Aquarium was then installed at the church of San Francesco in Udine (Italy), at the festival "Vicino/Lontano", from May 9 to 12, 2013.[42][43]

In July 2020, Galas presented via Fridman Gallery's online space a work inspired by poetry and visuals related to physical and mental scars in soldiers who were injured in the First World War. With collaborators such as artist and sound engineer Daniel Neumann, video artist Carlton Bright, and artist Robert Knocke on a guest appearance, Galás produced 'Broken Gargoyles', an installation based on the words of German poet Georg Heym and on photographs by Ernst Friedrich.[44][45]


In 1984, Galás made a voice cameo appearance, performing the voices for the Japanese assassins and flying weapons in Cannon Films' Ninja III: The Domination.[15] This was followed by three more film appearances: she made the voice of the witch in John Milius's Conan the Barbarian (1982), the voice of the dead in Wes Craven's film The Serpent and the Rainbow,[46] and also offered her voice to Francis Ford Coppola's 1992 film, Dracula, for one of the Brides of Dracula.[47] In 1995, Galás was commissioned to record a cover version of the Schwartz-Dietz song "Dancing in the Dark" for Clive Barker's film Lord of Illusions, and her song appeared during the closing credits.[48]

While two of her earlier recordings, "Le Treizième Revient" and "Exeloume", appeared on the soundtrack to Derek Jarman's The Last of England (1987), Galás herself also made an appearance in a film, as in 1990 she took part in Rosa von Praunheim's documentary Positive about AIDS in the New York gay scene.[49] Also, excerpts from Galás's "I Put a Spell on You", "Vena Cava", "The Lord is My Shepherd" and "Judgement Day" can be heard in Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers, and her vocal improvisation in Hideo Nakata's film The Ring Two (2005).

In 2011, Galás premiered Schrei 27, a film made in collaboration with Italian filmmaker Davide Pepe. It was based on Schrei X, a 1994 radio piece which was a co-commission to Galás by New American Radio and the Walker Art Center, and it has been described as an "unrelenting" portrait of a body suffering torture in a medical facility.[50][51]

Most recently, Galás contributed work to James Wan's 2013 horror film, The Conjuring, and her composition "Free Among the Dead" from the album The Divine Punishment (1986) was featured in Zoe Mavroudi's Ruins: Chronicle of an HIV Witch-Hunt (2013), a documentary about the criminalization of AIDS.[52]


In 2005, Galás was awarded Italy's prestigious Demetrio Stratos International Career Award.[53]


In 1986, Galás's brother, playwright Philip-Dimitri Galás, died from AIDS, and this inspired her to join the AIDS activist group ACT UP.[23] Her subsequent involvement in ACT UP's Stop the Church demonstration resulted in her arrest on December 10, 1989 during her performance inside Saint Patrick's Cathedral. The group was protesting John Cardinal O'Connor's opposition to AIDS education and to the distribution of condoms in public schools. A total of 53 people were arrested that day, and Galás was one of them.[54]

Cultural references[edit]

Galás was mentioned in Michael Kustow's autobiographical book One in Four (1987), which uses the form of a journal to tell the author's story for the year 1986, when he was working as a Commissioning Editor for the Arts in the British TV station Channel Four. Galás's name does not appear directly in the book, but several references to her are made in a conversation between the author and the owner of the independent music label Some Bizzare Records Stevo Pearce, such as the use of cutting-edge technology in her live performances, her singing technique, and her Greek heritage. The following dialogue between these two persons illustrates best how this is an indirect mention of Galás:

My label's called Some Bizzare. ... I've got the best f***ing TV show you'll ever see. Drama, video art, music, films made by the bands themselves. You'll get ratings. Innovation? I can give Channel Four all the innovation it wants. Greek singer, for example. She wears twenty contact microphones round her body, like necklaces, she's an opera singer, it's pure unaccompanied transformed voice. It'll drive your viewers crazy![55]

Critical analyses[edit]

Art historian Nicholas Chare discusses the concert performance Todesfuge [Death's Fugue] by Diamanda Galás in his study Auschwitz and Afterimages: Abjection, Witnessing and Representation (2011). Chare is interested in the Holocaust and representations of it in painting, photography, musical performance and museum artefacts, so in the section where he examines how Galás has transformed the words in the poem Todesfuge, which was written by the Romanian-born German-language poet Paul Celan, he looks at her work to investigate the relationship between style and horror in music, poetry and art.[56]


Galás has cited multiple artists as influences on her music, including Maria Callas, Annette Peacock, Patty Waters, John Lee Hooker, Johnny Cash, Ray Charles, and Jimi Hendrix.[10] She is additionally influenced greatly by Greek and Middle Eastern styles of singing, and also blues music.[8] Galás has also expressed admiration for the comedian Don Rickles, who she has called "my hero", as well as the work of poets such as Henri Michaux and Georg Heym, and an array of other musicians, including Chet Baker, Doris Day, The Supremes, Gladys Knight, Miki Howard, Whitney Houston, Amy Winehouse, and Adele.[57][10] [58][59]


Long-form videos[edit]

  • 1986 – The Litanies of Satan (VHS)
  • 1993 – Judgement Day (VHS)

Promotional videos[edit]

  • 1988 – Double-Barrel Prayer[60]
  • 1994 – Do You Take This Man?[61]


  • 1996 – The Shit of God
  • 2017 – "Morphine & Others" featured in Outside: An Anthology


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  57. ^ Weingarten, Christopher R. (January 19, 2017). "Diamanda Galas: Hear Apocalyptic 'O Death' From Her First LP in Years".
  58. ^ Montoro, Philip. "Diamanda Galas on the death of Whitney Houston".
  59. ^ Payne, John (March 2008). "Vengeance Is Hers: A Conversation with Diamanda Galás". Arthur.
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  61. ^ "Diamanda Galas "Do you take this man"". YouTube. Retrieved June 13, 2014.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]