I just can’t die now – all interiors sing:

A few notes on the vocalism of Diamanda Galás and “Lonely Woman” by Coleman/Galás

by Allan Nilsson

Let me put the record straight — a goddess or a she-devil is encountered, not defined. My approach to an understanding of the vocalism by Diamanda on “Lonely Woman” by Coleman/Galás are mere suggestions. I’m by no means a connoisseur of jazz music, let alone the freer form of it.

However, I think I can think inside the box. Form can hold great riches or it can hold nothing. Form is nothing without content. Coleman, describing to Derrida (in an interview he made with Coleman) the personal origins of his most famous composition:

Before becoming known as a musician, when I worked in a big department store,one day, during my lunch break, I came across a gallery where someone had painted a very rich white woman who had absolutely everything that you could desire in life, and she had the most solitary expression in the world. I had never been confronted with such solitude, and when I got back home, I wrote a piece that I called “Lonely Woman”.

This is a lovely anecdote. However, it doesn’t shed any light on the work in my opinion. It is also said about the work, that the melody line of “Lonely Woman” mimics the intonation of the human voice, hence the title. My guess is that the latter is in focus for Diamanda’s attention, and astounding rendition of Coleman’s work.

The singing

You have probably read somewhere Diamanda mentioning the bel canto as one of her singing approaches. What does it mean? What does that imply? One part of the bel canto method is to produce an even vocal cantabile line — vocal legato as the unrelenting flow of tone, which is the result of binding one sound to the next. One of the difficulties in singing the rather extended vocalisation as it is done in the aforementioned work, is the lack of consonant assistance. You need to cope with this issue with good management of breath control. That is part and parcel of the rock solid foundation in her vocal edifice. Artistic creativity and beautiful vocalism are in no way separated from each other. “First a musician, secondly a singer” is perhaps one of the oldest lines in the book, but nevertheless most certainly true about Diamanda Galás.

Just like the cornet and sax play mirror-sound-images of one another during most of this tune, Diamanda’s improvised singing and piano part will occasionally cut out to let the vocal line adventure out solo, but even then, the complimentary solos match each other. Her soaring, full-bodied vocal solo line emanates a third-dimension intensity and immediacy, bathing in kaleidoscopic fluctuations of light, colors, shapes and images. The communicative parameter — indeed, vocal technique without the parameter of communication has minimal value. Thusly, the art of singing is the art of communication.

What strikes me, while listening to Coleman/Galás, is her awareness of how harmonic language molds the melodic, dynamic nuance, the vocal coloration and, how to maintain the stabilized basic timbre of her vocal instrument throughout all the registers. If I was asked to place the voice in a bright-dark range — I would say it is dark crimson, burnished in the forest of the night, like Blake’s tiger.

The art of re-composing

Music concerns the organization of sound over time, the key word here being organization. Since any act of listening involves patterns of recognition and memory, based on what has been and will be sounded in the piece. It is here where Diamanda Galás gives us an object lesson on the art of re-composing and a re-creative interpretation. She explains lucidly her approach:

My first desire was to sing it in the way horn players would LIKE to play it. The greatest horn players always try for a vocal sound, and phrasing when they begin playing a piece like this, which is so lyrical and melodic, long lines of legato with changing timbre.

So I did it solo first, with a kind of crap tape in the background of a looped phrase I played on piano, to establish the tonality. In retrospect, I think it could have been approached differently, without the tape. Then I wanted to outline the chord structure more concisely, albeit the solo line does that also. So I next stepped to the piano to flesh out the piece in an orchestral sense, bringing in the voice over the chord changes and improvising both the vocal and piano work.