Stellar Systems: Antony Hegarty’s Meltdown Festival Reviewed

Diamanda Galás
Royal Festival Hall, 1st August

Source: The Quietus, UK

As opening gambits for a twelve-day festival go, it’s an auspicious one: Diamanda Galás’ performance packs enough force to temporarily flatten her audience into a dazed submission that lasts long after she’s left the stage. That’s largely down to her voice – an otherworldly and mercurial thing, flexible enough to swiftly transform the mood of the room, often within the space of seconds. During ‘Man & Woman Go Through the Cancer Ward’, a deceptively quiet opening section gradually descends into a hell of abrasion, with Galás thrashing at her piano as though attempting to chase demonic inhabitants from inside its wooden body. As the song reaches its crescendo – loud enough to press in upon the eardrums – the tiny spotlight she’s sat within begins to strobe, lending her the awkward, jerky gait of a marionette.

It’s one of the few times the lighting matches the high drama of Galás’ performance. For most of her time on stage she sits side-on to the crowd, within a pool of moonlight that slowly waxes and wanes. She barely even acknowledges our presence until three songs into the set, but when she finally addresses the room it’s with her customary scathing wit; one heckler is swiftly put in his place with a stern “Do you know who you’re talking to?” There’s far more focus on the songs themselves, though: adaptations of older pieces in a variety of languages, taking her from Germany 1912 and Egypt 1923 to folk/blues standard ‘O Death’, via a couple of Jacques Brel songs along the way.

More than the songs themselves, though, it’s the sheer power of Galás performance that impresses the most. Combined with the low level of embellishment, the neural responses it provokes are less emotional than narcotic, reaching towards a continued peak of chemical intensity that’s strong enough to overpower the normal signifiers of passing time. She’s onstage for over 90 minutes, but by the time she finishes a brief encore and swiftly departs the stage, we could just as easily have been sat in the auditorium for half that time.

by Rory Gibb