Friday, April 2, 2010

The universal message and heresy of Easter - Diamanda Galás, Plague Mass

If there is a message that all of us can do well to hear on Easter Friday, regardless of what we believe, it’s that suffering and persecution in the name of religion and bigotry seems to have always been a part of the human experience. And perhaps the conventional church’s condemnation of Diamanda Galás comes not so much from its reaction to her alleged heresy, as from its uneasiness with her accusations of its own hypocrisy and with her powerful message that it was not just the carpenter from Nazareth who suffered unjustly in the name of the established Church of the day.

Her Plague Mass is one of her most catastrophic works, written and performed in the name of people who have lived and died with HIV/AIDS. It’s a work that evolved over several years and is available on CD in a few different incarnations. The last of these is her live recording from the Cathedral of St John the Divine in New York City, where she performed the Mass in October 1990, presumably without the church really knowing what they were in for or what they had consented to. This performance brings together excerpts from the earlier Masque of the Red Death, also available on CD, as well as adding some new material.

For an obsessive compulsive completist such as myself, it’s pretty disappointing that this recording omits some of the original 95 minute performance in order to fit the whole thing onto one CD, and I have little doubt that anyone who is prepared to immerse themselves in this music would have been more than happy to have paid a little extra for a double CD.

But, even so, it is a phenomenal recording and, cut though it may be, represents that last version of this seminal work, and the only recording to capture it at its most powerful - as a performance piece.

After the opening ‘Were You a Witness’, where declaimed and violent speech weaves in amongst a frightening rendition of ‘Were you there when they crucified my Lord’, a pounding drum beat ushers in ‘This is the Law of the Plague’, dragging the music along with haunted chanting from male voices while Diamanda’s wild and bilious voice spits out its venom, its screechingly high notes, its accusations and its madness, music that takes you right into the very heart of unholy rage, crazed with hysterical terror, spewed out in the texts of Old Testament venom and pleas for deliverance.

These wild, unbridled dialogues between rage and horror, Diamanda shifting her voice from register to register, moving between ferocity and ferocity, from screeches to wails to mad babble, are what dominate the whole of this overwhelmingly powerful performance. The texts are taken from some of the Bible’s most gruesome passages, like the horrific visions of apocalypse from the Book of Revelations in ‘How Shall Our Judgement Be Carried Out On The Wicked’, as well as from Diamanda’s own texts, just as brutal and confronting, like the way her wild crazed frenzy gives way suddenly to her guttural cry, “Give me sodomy or give me death”.

You will be shattered by the intensity of it all, like the chorus of screams against the pounding drumbeat in which ‘Let Us Praise the Masters of Slow Death’ climaxes; you will shudder at the solemn horror of ‘Consecration’; you will be confronted by the indictments of moral pomposity and human indifference, staggered by the things that she does with her voice, arrested by the way she turns unrelenting ugliness into art that holds you, aghast, in its grip from beginning to end.

This is music that totally consumes you and everything around you. There is no way to listen to it other than to give it your undivided attention, to let yourself be carried away in its iron grip, to let it shake you and shackle you, to let its cavernous sounds, as they bounce off the cathedral walls, swarm around you and enshroud you, to let yourself march along to the sombre funeral march of ‘Sono l’Antichristo’, to add your plaintive moans to hers in the devastating ‘Cris d’Aveugle: Blind Man’s Cry’ or in her crushing version of ‘Let My People Go’ and her words “O Lord Jesus, do you think I’ve served my time … The eight legs of the Devil will not let my people go”.

As you might expect with Diamanda Galás, Plague Mass is utterly uncompromising. It is frightening, fierce and freaky and it would be impossible to listen to it without being deeply affected by its untamed ferocity. It is music from the heart of horror, minimalist and yet boundless, and you need to be ready for it to give you nightmares.

But when human horrors are committed in the name of holiness, when evil parades as virtue, we are meant to feel unsettled.

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