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Ages ago at college in her native California, singer, composer, and cultural provocatrice Diamanda Galás abandoned the study of science to pursue her true passion: experimental music. But biochemistry's loss is our gain; over the last two decades, her controversial works have earned her a place high in the avant-garde music pantheon. Fearlessly outspoken, frighteningly knowledgeable, and dangerously openhearted, Galás dedicates her latest work, Defixiones: Orders From the Dead to the estimated 3 million to 4 million victims of the Armenian, Assyrian, and Anatolian Greek "ethnic cleansing" committed by the Ottoman Turks between 1914 and 1923.
Since 1999, Defixiones has been performed to near unanimous acclaim at prestigious venues the world over, from London's Royal Festival Hall to the Sydney Opera House, from the Athens National Opera to Mexico City's Universidad del Claustro de Sor Juana. Its New York premiere (presented by the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council's "What Comes After: Cities, Art + Recovery" international summit) is scheduled for September 8 and 10 at Michael Schimmel Center for the Arts, Pace Universityappropriately enough, just across from City Hall, mere blocks from ground zero.
The word defixiones refers to warnings engraved in lead placed onto graves in Greece and Asia Minor, threatening desecraters with grievous harm. Galás uses this term in a broader memorializing sense, urging us to remember the forgotten dead, the "erased," the massacred. Her epic performance for solo voice, piano, and electronics speaks for the poet-author in exileboth far from home and in his homelandas well as for "born outlaws," as Galás calls homosexuals, echoing Genet.
Informed by excerpts from the Armenian Orthodox liturgy and the traditional amanethes, or improvisatory lamentations sung at Greek funerals, Galás 70-minute masterwork showcases both her astounding vocal technique and her enormous capacity for rage, compassion, defiance, and ferocious emotionalism. Though at times truly fearsome in its raw, insistent pathosfamiliar to those who know her crushing Plague Mass (1990) or Schrei X (1996)Defixiones' real power lies in those seductively lyrical, quiet passages that occur just before Galás wail of existential anguish erupts in reverberant majesty. Iraqi artist-scholar Selim Abdullah notes, "The sentiment, strength . . . and sensitivity contained in this Saturnian representation go back to the very aspects the Greeks gave to a whole Occidental culture." Awash in blood and tears, and haunted by images of unspeakable (and until now, largely unspoken) butchery, Galás funeral mass is cathartic, but neither glib nor sentimental. Any redemption is hard-won.
I spoke with Miss Galás who has lived in the East Village for the past 10 years, on two occasions in mid August. Over multiple cappuccinoscaffeine being her current drug of choiceshe dazzled me with her famous intelligence and often barbed wit. Onstage she's a mythic figure come to life; in person she is perhaps even more mesmerizing.
Few people in America, other than those of Greek, Armenian, or Assyrian descent, seem to have heard of this horror. Why is it so unknown? This country discusses one or two genocides and markets them in very contrived ways. They don't write about them truthfully, the way [author and concentration camp survivor] Primo Levi did. Think of Spielberg and the legions of mediocrity he has propagated.
And there's the conflicting numbers, and . . .What does it matter if it was 6 million or 2 million or 200? Genocide is genocide. Every culture has its particular way of killing and torturing its enemies. And the Turks are still trying to cover it up by calling it deportation, but that's just another word for "death sentence."
You're perceived as the voice of the fallen and forgotten. Is that something you've chosen? NoI hated being the poster girl for the AIDS epidemic. It had to be done, but I hated it. I never meant to be political I'm an artist. An artist can only speak for herself. But if you get particularly good at something it has a sort of universality, and then it has a certain audience, and you're answerable for that. Like Adon [Syrian-born poet Adon Ali Ahmed Said]a great, great poetwho is seen as the voice of a "leftist movement" of some sort, but he's only writing about what is truth to him.
How did you come to create Defixiones? My father is an Anatolian Greek. All my life he's talked about how the finest Greek culture was from Anatoliahome to Assyrians, Armenians, Greeks, and Jews, who for centuries traded languages, songs, ideas, historiesand how many of these cultures are indistinguishable from one another. So the notion of racial purity there is just absurd. He also told me about the atrocities committed by the Turks against Greeks from Asia Minor. But the direct catalyst was an interview I saw with Dr. [Jack] Kevorkian, who said, "I'm Armenian, I know what torture is all about. I know the difference between homicide and helping people end a life of misery." He was so articulate, and he was discussing Greek Stoic philosophy and the Armenians in the same breath, which I found very unusual at the time. So in 1998 I said to myself: It's time to do this work.