Wednesday, March 24, 2010

An Armenian lament - Diamanda Galás and Defixiones, Will and Testament

Well, it’s nice to be back. And if there’s one good thing about neglecting this blog for nearly a week, it’s that it has at least given me time to find something that I really didn’t expect to find – an appropriate segue for last weeks Zeichnungen des Patienten O.T. (see 18th March).

As I mentioned at the time, the highlight of that album was, for me, the devastatingly powerful ‘Armenia’. Blixa Bargeld himself once noted that Einstürzende Neubauten’s song titles often have nothing to do with the content of the song, and so I have really no idea whether ‘Armenia’ is about Armenia or not, but it was nevertheless enough to get me listening to Diamanda Galás’s Defixiones, Will and Testament, her utterly shattering elegy to the victims of the early 20th century genocide of Armenian, Assyrian and Greek people.

There are only a couple of degrees of musical separation between Einstürzende Neubauten and Diamanda Galás, both pulling traditional music to pieces and putting it back together again in ways that confront you, in ways that are meant to sound hard and unpleasant, both creating music by taking sound and voice to their most unmusical extremes.

While Diamanda Galás can certainly produce an awesomely good album of conventional(ish) songs (albeit it in a totally unconventional way) (see 19th October, 2009) she is surely at her best when she produces her single-vision works that take an idea, bash it and smash it and drench it of everything it has to give, and mould it all into a solid monolith of artistic brilliance. She did it in Plague Mass, her lament for the religious, political and social slaughter committed in world’s response to HIV/AIDS, and she has achieved it again in this, her indictment not just of the atrocities of one war, but of all the wars that raged then and now and that will rage into the future, where, be it by bullets or bombs or indifference, humans mutilate and massacre each other.

Defixiones, Will and Testament is a lament but, as you might expect from Diamanda Galás, with her terrifyingly gruesome voice, snarling at the bottom of the human register, screeching at its heights, and her pounding out of savage discords on the piano, there is not a hint of sentimentality here. The thousands upon millions of dead souls that cry out here are made strong in death, and they are relentless in their accusations not only of their killers, but of all of us who have stood by and watched them die.

The music itself is a chillingly effective mix of influences – everything from the traditional music of the lamented people through to avant-garde opera – Diamanda’s voice spanning its famous four octave range with the sort of commanding power that knocks you over from the moment you hear its wailing chant, as high as the sky one moment, as deep as the underworld the next, against a stony subterranean drone, in the opening incantation ‘Ter Vogomia’, itself the first part of the mammoth six part almost liturgical opening, ‘The Dance’, taking us into the very blackest heart of genocidal hatred and torment.

Diamanda’s voice moves from sombre chanting to half spoken recitation to mournful moans to gut-wrenching cries of anger and anguish, sometimes supported by her ferocious piano work, sometimes by that static, haunted drone, sometimes with the winds of uncounted years of unnamed deserts blowing, empty, in the distance, sometimes, like in the harrowing ‘Holokaftoma’, with the screams of what sounds like a whole race of slaughtered spirits.

There’s the sad, sorrowful song of a boys’ choir, singing excerpts of an Assyrian Mass against a recitation of martyrdom at the hands of Ottoman butchers in ‘The Eagle of Tkhuma’; the sombre drum beat of ‘Orders from the Dead’ pounding beneath Diamanda’s grim accusations from the slaughtered masses, “the man unburied who cannot sleep in forty pieces … the girl, dismembered and unblessed”. There’s the wild shifts of mood, from demented screams to listless quiet in ‘Je Rame’ (I row), and the way ‘Artémis’ seems to shift from a ghostly French torchsong, to an exotic middle-eastern lament and back again, giving way finally to a terrifying rendition of the American gospel blues 'See that my Grave is Kept Clean' – here human suffering is the same no matter where it happens, or who it happens to.

This is music which, with not all that many resources – a voice, a piano, and a handful of backing effects – sounds epic, colossal, partly because of the titanic power and range of Diamanda’s voice, partly because of the unbridled intensity of what she does with it, partly because of the way she turns the piano into an extension of the darkest depths of her soul, and partly because she has this astonishing knack of creating music that, even when it is at its most still, shakes you to the core, because you know that it is only lurking in the dark, waiting to pounce on you, like in ‘Birds of Deaths’ which howls out at you form the depths of its own despair, from its dirge-like chant, into passionate lament that grabs you by the throat, as if to ask you why you have allowed all this to happen.

Clearly, Defixiones, Will and Testament is not music to listen to if you want something to calm your nerves at the end of a stressful day. It is remorselessly brutal and grim. It is a eulogy, but it is also a lesson, a reminder that the blood of human atrocities is on all our hands when we stand by and watch them happen.

Defixiones, Will and Testament will take you into the very core of humanity’s darkest horrors, and its deepest suffering, but it is a journey you will regret taking only if you let it shake you without letting it teach you, too.


  1. Do you have any information about the piece Armenian Lament and Dance by Bela Kovacs. I am trying to write a paper and need some more information as to what type of dance this is. In fact anything about it would be most helpful. I did find some information about Kovacs.

  2. Sorry ... I wish I could help, bu unfortunately I don't know of it at all. The only thing I could think to do was to resort to Google, but I presume you've already done that, and that that's ho you stumbled across my blog. Sorry I can't be of any help ... other than to wish you good luck in your search.