REVIEW: Diamanda Galás at the Barbican

A window to the inner soul - Diamanda Galás at the piano
at her Barbican concert
Drawing by Geoff Winston. © 2017. All Rights Reserved


Diamanda Galás
(Barbican, 16 June 2017. Review and drawing by Geoff Winston)


Seeing American singer/ performance artist Diamanda Galás for the first time was a baptism of fire! To say that she is a powerful performer is something of an understatement. Solo at the piano, or at the mic when reciting poetry, her delivery was intense in the extreme. She pushed herself to the limits. Gave no quarter.

Galás views the song and the poem through an utterly personal looking glass. She exploits to the limit the myriad possibilities offered by word and melody and offered no concessions to the quotidien. Her selections, both self-penned and covers, from her two new albums and older material, focused on the unsettling and the portentous. She uncovers the dark side of the most innocent sounding lyrics, yet it is often the innately uncomfortable that is her favoured territory, walking the tightrope which defines the boundary between death and life.

Stretching, distorting, bending a song way beyond instant recognition she created new recipes from standard ingredients. Judicious touches of reverb added increased edge to her resounding vocals - ranging from dramatically operatic high register to out-and-out shrieks and wails, feline hisses, nasal sneers and slurs. Verging on the unrecognisable and incomprehensible, recognising no language boundaries, she cut through to the emotional core of her repertoire. No sentimental baggage allowed.

The chanson and the cabaret, the vampire and the Victorian, the blues and Schubert’s Winterreise, the delivery of Patty Waters at her most radical - these were all points of reference. The poetry of anguish, rooted in her own experience and the hubris of Greek tragedy, rubbed shoulders with her rethreading of tradition in the shape of a spine-chilling O Death (‘Death is a movin’ upon my soul’), a tortured rendition of the irresistibly titled Johnny Paycheck number, Pardon Me, I’ve Got Somebody To Kill and, at the last roll of the dice, Let My People Go. Homage was paid to her ‘friend and teacher’, the cornettist, Bobby Bradford, whose early career took in stints with Ornette Coleman. Galás also peddled a mean line in piano technique with sharp, swiftly mobile runs and rolls that complemented her untrammelled vocal onslaught.

Pared-back, synchronised shafts of lighting and a whiff of dry ice added a theatrical dimension within the spacious Barbican Hall, populated by an audience of devoted fans, drawing out three encores from this remarkable performer, who, to quote writer Christos Tsiamis [LINK], ‘intervenes to interject into the melodic line the actual sound of the raw human feeling which was only imagined by the poetry of the lyric.’ That she certainly did!

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