Lost Chords & Serenades Divine #10 by Stephen McClurg
Diamanda Galás with John Paul Jones: The Sporting Life (1994)
[…]For beauty is nothing
but the beginning of terror, which we are still just able to endure,
and we are so awed because it serenely disdains
to annihilate us. Every angel is terrifying.
~Rainer Maria Rilke, The Duino Elegies, trans. Stephen Mitchell
“My voice was given to me as an inspiration for my friends, and a tool of torture and destruction to my enemies. An instrument of truth.” ~Diamanda Galás
In listening to this album again, I remembered how often I heard Diamanda Galás referred to as either “the crazy one” or “the one who shrieks.” There’s a certain amount of truth to this. Galás frequently portrays characters that run the border between sanity and insanity (a few examples–just on this record–include “Skótoseme,” “Devil’s Rodeo,” and “Baby’s Insane”), though I think she’s performing “madness” in a way to comment on what she sees in the world.
An Anne Carson essay, “The Gender of Sound,” is useful here. Carson writes, “It is in large part according to the sounds people make that we judge them sane or insane, male or female, good, evil, trustworthy, depressive, marriageable, moribund, likely or unlikely to make war on us, little better than animals, inspired by God.”
While Galás can conjure seemingly anyone or anything with her voice, she is often remembered for the high pitches and wailings which Carson says go “together with talkativeness to characterize a person who is deviant from or deficient in the masculine ideal of self control. […] Their sounds are bad to hear and make men uncomfortable.” I think this effusion, this overflow of sound and energy, levels this traditional idea of quiet or silenced women. I believe Galás is playing with the tensions that Carson discusses, reappropriating these gendered ideas similar to how Kara Walker reappropriates racist and sexist imagery in her art.
Carson writes that “Madness and witchery as well as bestiality are conditions commonly associated with the use of the female voice in public, in ancient as well as modern contexts.” Galás is no stranger to performance art (she also uses glossolalia, or speaking in tongues), even her persona as an artist could be described as a kind of possession or a kind of ecstatic ritual. Other than being “that one who screams,” she’s probably best known for performing topless and covered in cow’s blood in the Cathedral of St. John the Divine during her Plague Mass, part of a body of work protesting the Catholic Church’s treatment of those suffering during the AIDS epidemic.
In discussing a poem by Alkaios, Carson writes, “the women are uttering a particular kind of shriek, the ololyga. […] It is a highpitched piercing cry uttered at certain climactic moments in ritual practice (e.g., at the moment when a victim’s throat is slashed during sacrifice) or at climactic moments in real life (e.g., at the birth of a child) and also a common feature of women’s festivals.” The sound can represent either “intense pleasure or intense pain.” These outpourings had to be regulated in that they could either represent madness or create madness in the listener. Much of Sporting Life’s material represents scenes of amour fou, or obsessive love, also a weaving of pleasure and pain. It’s interesting to note that her music is called “sexy” by some and “demonic” by others. In other words, Galás reappropriates elements of the oloyyga and its rituals, and spins them into modern narratives.
One set of songs on the album is built out of the rhythm section of John Paul Jones and Pete Thomas (of Elvis Costello and the Attractions). The eight-string bass that Jones plays on the record mirrors the effect of a tightly played riffs played on both guitar and bass. In effect, he sounds more like Jesus Lizard on “Skótoseme” than Led Zeppelin. The title track riffs sound similar to Rage Against the Machine. “Do You Take This Man?” is built on a structure reminiscent of Morphine and the keyboard line on “Hex” could be on an early-post pop Ministry record.
The album opens with Jones tremolo picking on a reverby eight-string bass and Galás mirroring this on voice, similar to many styles of Arabic music. Galás doesn’t simply mimic musical genre, she incorporates textures and techniques from various sources and synthesizes them to express seemingly anything at whim. Galás often performs multiple voices like multiple characters in these songs. She sings in Greek, English, Spanish, and glossolalia–maybe even other languages I didn’t pick out–on this track alone. Each character seems to speak a different language and if you listen to the record on headphones, these voices float around you, an effect I think of as “The Furies.” At the end of this track, as on other tracks, she manages so much vocal force she overdrives the recording equipment, but controls it, similar to a guitarist using feedback. While the track features her fusion of extended vocal techniques, operatic vibrato, and blues, this overdriven effect is nothing I’ve ever heard another singer do.
The title track is in some ways an extension and lyrically an inversion of this opener (called “Skótoseme,” which means “kill me” in Greek). If “Skótoseme” is directed inward, then “The Sporting Life” is directed outward and ponders a variety of ways of destroying the once-beloved.
The other strand on the record includes ballads, particularly blues and soul ballads.“The Dark End of the Street” is unexpected, but magnificent. It’s a song frequently covered, and Galás and Jones perform a particularly gorgeous one here. The song is originally out of the Memphis Soul tradition, which Jones nails, while adding lines similar to James Jamerson of Motown fame. He spent several years as a session musician before Led Zeppelin, and at least at the recording of Sporting Life, hadn’t lost any of those chops.
Galás’s performance on this track, hammond organ and vocals, is sublime. In relation to the gendering of sound, this song is normally performed by men, so she also flips the power dynamic on the song, telling the man not to cry and just “walk on by.”
“Baby’s Insane” is a favorite not only of this album, but also of her catalogue, and it’s a gospel tune–of sorts. The hammond organ began as an alternative for churches that couldn’t afford a pipe organ. The musicians here are cheekily playing within the idiom, which often features vocals, hammond organ, drums (often tamborine, too, but they don’t go that far), and bass. The melody is fairly simple, as many sing-alongs are supposed to be. The refrain of “Baby’s Insane” is frequently repeated. The song is in a way an extension of how Galás uses ritual and music, and often fuses the sacred and profane. Here the lyrics provide the profane. They begin:
Arms covered in blood, the war has begun.
Hide the straight razor ’cause Baby’s insane.
New telephone number, new lock on the door.
Hide all the knives, ’cause Baby’s insane.
On top of incredible vocal technique, an intensity of performance, and sometimes serious and disturbing subject matter, Galás is often wickedly funny.
While Diamanda Galás still records and performs, Sporting Life is out-of-print, though there are copies floating around for sale online and in used bins. You can hear the record on YouTube, and see a few live videos, including a performance on The John Stewart Show.
Carson, Anne. “The Gender of Sound.” Glass, Irony, and God. New York: New Directions,
Stephen McClurg (Episode 24) writes and teaches in Birmingham, Alabama. He co-hosts The Outrider Podcast, writes at Eunoia Solstice, and infrequently blogs. He has contributed music as a solo artist and with the group Necronomikids to past episodes of The Drunken Odyssey.