Diamanda Galás and the Mythic Image, by Michael Flanagan

September 2, 2014

Filed under: Blog, Writings

When listening to Diamanda Galás in the past I have been struck by both the imagery she uses and that she evokes both audibly and visually.  For me she has struck on a number of iconic images, both from Greek cultural history and myth, which enrich and inform her work in a way that few other current performers could.  In this essay I will outline the many ways this underlying imagery enriches her art.

In 1991 I attended a performance of Diamanda Galás’ ‘Plague Mass’ at the Lycabettus Theater in Athens.  In an article describing the performance I wrote:

“Diamanda’s performances have always been dramatic, but now she was to perform in the land of Dionysus – god of theater and divine madness.  This is also the land of the bloody stories of Oedipus and Medea, the perfect setting for the blood right of the Plague Mass….The performance at the Lycabettus was a cathartic pagan ritual, howling with anger and pain….”This Is The Law of the Plague” began atop a platform.  Smoke, lit red, created a vortex around her, evoking goddesses of anger and vengeance such as the Erinyes and Hecate.  Diamanda moved to the foot of the stage and crouched, flagellating the stage with her hair, calling to mind the mourning of Demeter over Persephone.”

To the casual reader (or someone unfamiliar with Diamanda) this evocation of Greek myths might seem excessive.  It is, however, something that has struck me about her since the very first time I saw her perform.

If you look at images of Diamanda through the release of ‘Saint of the Pit’ you will notice that her hair is often extraordinarily high, ratted and wild.  This could be seen as a tip of the hat to the wild woman mentioned in ‘Wild Women With Steak-knives’ or as the personification of extreme emotional states from the German expressionist theater that inspired her, but I have always seen it as being something else as well:   the personification of archetypal imagery from Greek mythology of demi-goddesses of revenge and extreme emotion such as Medusa.

This is not a new idea for me – quite the opposite.  On December 14, 1984 I saw Diamanda perform the first time as part of the San Francisco Symphony’s ‘New and Unusual Music’ series.  She was part of a three person lineup for the evening, with Paul Dresher and Anthony Davis.  She came on first, much, I would suppose, to the chagrin of Mr. Dresher & Davis.  For when she stepped on that stage and performed ‘Les Yeux sans sang’ and ‘Panoptikon’ I was awestruck.  Clearly this was not only something very new, but something very old as well.  I was acquainted with her music (I had heard ‘Litanies of Satan’), but seeing her live was something quite else.  I was transported.  And suddenly the rage and the venom at the clinical detachment in ‘Les Yeux’ and the horror of being constantly watched in ‘Panoptikon’ clicked into place and made perfect sense.  She was there as a Fury – to transport us to the battlefield and witness the horror.   She is the perfect embodiment of a Fury, as they were created from the blood of Cronus castrating Uranus.   Yes, she was evoking these emotions years before she said ‘I don’t like him…let’s kill him’ on “The Sporting Life.”

Iconography of this nature exists from the beginning of Diamanda’s work.  The notes for ‘Medea Tarantula’, her first performance work, used a Henry Miller quote: “There is a kind of ingratitude among the Greeks which the foreigner is quick to smell out.  It is the evil flower, one might say, of anarchy.  Ultimately the Greek stands alone.  Ultimately he devours his own progeny.  It is in the blood.”  So from her work on the U.C. San Diego campus forward she has been evoking her Greek heritage and the myths of her culture.

Medea, then, was there at the beginning.  A woman scorned by a husband who has (at least according to Euripides) traded her in for a politically expedient marriage.  And much like it does not end well for the unnamed man in ‘The Sporting Life’ it does not end well for Jason’s children.  The primordial spirit of vengeance comes forth across the battlefield from the very beginning.  And Medea remains a constant presence in Diamanda’s work from the homicidal love song ‘Wild Women with Steak-Knives’ to the song cycles she currently sings.

The Henry Miller quote is doubly resonant in that he says ‘It is in the blood.’  Diamanda’s blood is not just Greek – her family comes from Mani.  And the influence of Mani runs deep in her music.  Mani was the only part of Greece that stood independent and remained free of Ottoman rule.  It was a very bloody independence – and one fought for by both the men and women of the region.  So when she says ‘The World Is Going Up In Flames’ in “Defixiones, Will and Testament: Orders from the Dead” it is indeed the fire from the genocides, but it also reflects the fires which burned in Mani from the 15th to the 19th centuries.

Mani is also one of the places in Greece where the Moirologia dirges were kept alive to the present era.  These dirges are laments regarding the fate of the dead (and the living they leave behind).  They often reflect the natural world, speaking of birds, trees and mountains, as well as the supernatural world – that of Charon and Hades.  And there is a distinctly pre-Christian feel to them:

“Go back, O Charon; and take your sword with you” (from ‘Mourning Songs of Greek Women’ by Konstantinos Lardas)

The most direct use of material which is like the Moirologia is from Diamanda’s eponymous album on the cut ‘Tragouthia Apo To Aima Exoun Fonos (Songs From The Blood Of Those Murdered)’, however it is not the only place I see its influence.  Indeed the entire ‘Plague Mass’ song cycle can be seen as a lament – and in place of a cold, unfeeling boatman who ferries the souls to the world of the dead you have a cold, unfeeling government (and populace) that stands by while the inevitable happens.  In the case of both ‘Tragouthia’ and ‘Plague Mass’ the ancient fears have been supplanted by modern ones – the horror of the Greek Junta and the lack of response to the AIDS crisis, but the primeval horror and sadness remain as much as in the original.  Indeed even the imagery from the albums reflects the mourning tradition – on the cover of ‘The Divine Punishment’ Diamanda is draped much as the Greek women are when they go into mourning.

I am not alone in my appreciation of Diamanda’s use of Greek lament in her work and its evocation of her Maniot cultural heritage.  In her book “Dangerous Voices: Women’s Laments and Greek Literature” Gail Holst-Warhaft says:  “…one of the few artists to confront the horror of AIDS in a head-on collision is the American singer/song-writer Diamanda Galás.  Galás, whose origins are Greek, draws on her ancestry in her work.  She appears on the cover of…’You Must Be Certain of the Devil’ dressed in the traditional clothing of a Greek village woman in mourning, with her finger on the trigger of a pistol.  The songs…draw on…texts from Poe to Baudelaire, but it is her ability to interweave these poetic texts with the laments of Mani…that give her work its compelling power.  ‘Let’s not chat about despair,’ says Galás on the cover of the same record….Laments do not chat about despair.  They confront death with open eyes.”

Certainly Diamanda has been working with this iconography from the beginning of her work – as she says; she was born ‘somewhere between Tijuana and Sparta.’  Her parents were the first people to point out to me the connection between Moirologia and her music.  And it was in her family’s home that she first heard Rembetika music.  Her father had been in a band which played Rembetika on the East Coast of the United States.  Her parents met when he was playing in the town where her mother lived.  And Rembetika too has had an influence on her imagery and identity – and can be linked to her family history in Mani.  As Mani had existed outside the realm of nation states from the fall of the Byzantine Empire to the formation of the modern state of Greece they were often seen by the authorities (or invaders) as outlaws, pirates or highwaymen (they were called ‘Klephts’, a word which shares its root with kleptomania).  This was a fertile ground for the Rembetes who were a criminal subculture the came from the transfer of populations after the Greco-Turkish war.  And though her father played music associated with his group he didn’t identify with their lifestyle.  This is where his admonition to his daughter not to become a singer comes from – the women who sang for the Rembetika bands back in Greece were not exactly role models in his view (nor was their world where he envisioned his daughter).  And, of course, there was nothing he could say which would make this more attractive to her.  And it was a short journey from her work with jazz musicians in the 70s (and the streets of Oakland) to singing Rembetika.  Still, it wasn’t until the 90s that she was playing and recording Rembetika songs in concert (the first recorded was “Keigome Keigome” on her 1998 release “Malediction and Prayer”) so her father’s concerns may have had some effect.

Perhaps the strangest, most heart-wrenching and compelling connection Diamanda has to Greek myth is her connection to the myth of Cassandra.  Cassandra had the gift of prophecy and is cursed in that she watches the future she has envisioned come to pass in Troy.  What many have misunderstood about ‘Plague Mass’ is that they have believed it to be inspired by the death of Diamanda’s brother Philip.  Indeed it is informed by his death (particularly in ‘Saint of the Pit’ and ‘You Must Be Certain of the Devil’), but the actual inspiration for the work came in 1984 when she visited Tom Hopkins, who died in 1985, at St. Luke’s hospital (as close readers of the liner notes of ‘The Divine Punishment’ know).    The first performance of ‘Free Among the Dead’ was at Club 9 in San Francisco on Oct. 27, 1985 (it was absolutely riveting).  So her work on ‘Plague Mass/Masque of the Red Death’ started in 1984 and had already taken shape to the point where she was performing pieces from in in 1985.  Diamanda’s brother Philip didn’t become sick until early 1986 – at around the same time she was recording ‘The Divine Punishment’ in England.  She premiered the ‘Masque of the Red Death’ in Linz on June 23, 1986.  What 21st century readers may not understand about the progress of AIDS in the 1980s is how stunningly fast people went from becoming sick to dying.  Philip went from just being sick at the beginning of the year to dying within eight months.  Now clearly she had not envisioned the way the disease would impact her personal life, but still Diamanda had developed a work or rage and mourning about the horror of this disease.  Lesser people would have been defeated or driven mad by such a personal loss and given up the project.

In discussing ‘Plague Mass/Masque of the Red Death’ and iconic Greek imagery there is a somewhat startling juxtaposition which merits comment:  the uses of biblical texts in the work.  What are we to make of the use of Jewish and Christian texts in the context of a work so strongly Hellenic?  The truly odd thing about the uses of these texts, whether Leviticus, Psalms or Revelation is that they do not call into contrast the views that were held in in Bible or in Greek Myth – they actually complement one another in the attempt by humans to explain a world which is so out of their control.  For much as Cassandra is cursed by Apollo and therefore lives her life in tragedy, so the use of Psalm 22 with its plaintive ‘Why have you forsaken me?’ speaks to a world out of control where humans seek a context for meaningless tragedy.  Yes, the use of Leviticus with its admonitions of what is clean and unclean is an indictment of a cold and unfeeling society and god, but no more so than what Euripides has the attendants of Dionysus say in the Bacchanals: ‘Divine strength is roused with difficulty, but still is sure.  It chastises those mortals who honor folly and those who in their insanity do not extol the gods.  The gods cunningly conceal the long pace of time and hunt the impious.  For it is not right to determine or plan anything beyond the laws.’  For the listener who is puzzled by this convergence of cultures there is one clear answer.  The person who is mixing these traditions is beyond belief in either of them.  It took an atheist to see the connection between the horror of tragedy in the Hellenic tradition and the judgment of the legalistic God of the Bible.  One additional note regarding Diamanda’s use of Revelation in Plague Mass:  the view of what John of Patmos’ book means is evolving over time.  As Elaine Pagels points out in her latest book (‘Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, & Politics in the Book of Revelation’) the people of God and the people of the enemy have evolved over time: from the followers of the apostle Paul to heretics to Martin Luther and the Pope.  ‘Plague Mass’ continues in this tradition by casting the enemies of people with AIDS as the enemies of God.

“Vena Cava” is a work that we can look at with new eyes when we examine it in terms of the mythic and iconic.  Certainly it is a work that concerns AIDS and dementia in a hospital context, and therefore is a very modern work.  But the central questions it asks regarding the mind, its grasp on reality and the implications of the release into death for both the person dying and the survivors are as old as Orpheus and Persephone.  References to sickness as being either a demonic plague released on the Earth along with all other troubles go back to Hesiod, who saw illness as the Nosoi, which were released by Pandora. The Romans equivalent of one of the Nosoi was named Pestis, who gave his name to the bacteria for the plague and it is in the Roman evocations of Greek spirits in Seneca’s ‘Oedipus’ that we hear an echo of ‘Vena Cava’, when Teiresias calls upon the spirits to discover the cause of a plague affecting Thebes:  “Suddenly the earth yawned and opened wide….Forth leaped a savage cohort and stood full-armed….Then grim Erinys shrieked, and blind Fury and Horror, and all the forms which spawn and lurk midst the eternal shades: Grief, tearing her hair; Disease, scarce holding up her wearied head; Age, burdened with herself; impending Fear, and greedy Pestilence….Our spirits died within us.”  Sickness and death were directly linked with the underworld in Ancient Greece, and in a time of a plague which is incurable we get an echo of the pale and morbid world:  “I wake up and I see the face of the devil and I ask him, “What time is it?”  And he says, how much time do you want?”  The devil and his infernal underworld are invoked as the touchstone for the poison invading our world much as the Erinys and Pestilence were in Thebes.

Looking at Diamanda’s work through the lens of ancient myth also allows us to make a direct connection between ‘Vena Cava’ and ‘Schrei X’, for to the ancients it was clear that the source of both illness and madness was in the dark stygian depths of the underworld and that they are forces which are more primeval than even the gods.  The Maniae are related to the furies and Lyssa (rabid rage).  They are the daughters of Nyx, the Goddess of the night (and therefore it is appropriate for them to appear in the total darkness of ‘Schrei X) and are said to dwell past the river Styx.  In ancient times the connection between madness and illness was clear and the goddess Lyssa was both the spirit of mad rage and rabies in animals.  There is no doubt that the ancients would recognize the spirit of madness in ‘Schrei X.’ Consider how Euripides describes her descent using a chorus of Theban elders in the ‘Madness of Heracles’:  “She is mounted on her car, the queen of sorrow and sighing, and is goading on her steeds, as if for outrage, the Gorgon child of Night, with hundred hissing serpent-heads, Madness of the flashing eyes.”

Given the imagery I have talked about in Diamanda’s work it is not at all hard to see the direct connection to iconic Greek myth.  Perhaps what is most astounding about her work is that she is not a classicist:  she has not (to my knowledge) made a direct attempt to draw this material into her work.  In that there is honesty which make the connection all the more visceral.  The spirits (daimon and theos both) speak directly through her work, making it more direct than even the operas which retold ancient myths – and certainly evocative in a way that very little else is in modern music.   Perhaps the connection has been clear to me because I saw her perform on a mountaintop in Athens or perhaps because I saw the frenzy of the maenads in her work when I first saw her perform 28 years ago in San Francisco.  It is doubtless to me that the archetype of our own avenging Gorgon has been loosed upon the world by some ancient connection and we are all much the better for it.  All praise to the primeval spirits of the night.