MIAF: Songs of Exile ~ theatre notes

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

MIAF: Songs of Exile

Alison's Festival Diary #2

Songs of Exile, Diamanda Galas; Hamer Hall, Victorian Arts Centre.

There's no question that Diamanda Galas is demanding. She demands your attention from the moment she walks on to the stage and paces, without pause or preamble, towards the piano. She demands that you listen and that you think. Most of all, she demands that you feel.

But the feeling she summons is no gentle waft on the airs of sentiment. For Galas, feeling is passion: the passion of unconsoled grief and longing; the passion for a precise and ethical beauty in the face of the unhealable divisions which scar human existence.

And she earns the attention she asks for. The aggression with which Galas performs contains the arrogance of a vast generosity. Galas will give us her all: and she expects no less from her audience. For those who expect or desire a lower-octane experience of art, something like what Barry Humphries calls a "nice night's entertainment", this demand is more than confronting. It is felt as an assault, and expresses itself in tedium. But for those prepared to take up her gift, the experience is exhilarating.

Galas' voice, which can range from a deep growl to pure, enchanting melody to unrestrained ululation in the space of a few seconds, is an extraordinary instrument. She uses it to its fullest extent, ripping up the octaves like a wild animal. And there is indeed something absolutely predatory in this performance: how Galas crouches over the piano like a panther, the flexing sinews visible in her bare shoulders as she attacks the keyboard, her mouth almost swallowing the microphone. At one point she even slams the piano with her hands.

Songs of Exile is a concert performance of an eclectic mixture of songs, from Johnny Cash's 25 Minutes To Go to musical adaptations of poems by Henri Michaux, Paul Celan and Cesar Vallejo. The poems are set by Galas herself, and in her settings she displays an intuitive understanding of the carnal nature of poetry, how poems foreground the material nature of language. The poems remain in their original language, as the poets wrote them (if not as they heard them). There is nothing cerebral in these musical settings, even if they show a great deal of intelligence - in how, for example, Galas echoes the indigenous folk rhythms Vallejo exploits in his poetry in the fracturing melodies of her accompaniment. She reminds us, magnificently, that poetry is crucially an oral art.

In her book Eros the Bittersweet, the poet Anne Carson says that the acquiring of written language is inevitably a process of alienation. "A written text," she writes, "separates words from one another, separates words from the environment, separates words from reader (or writer) and separates the reader (or writer) from the environment.... As separable, controllable units of meaning...written words project their user into isolation."

Poetry is an artform that seeks to unite the irreparably divided, to bring language back into direct relationship with experience, to overcome, impossibly, this primal isolation. Galas' performance takes this one step further, vocalising words back into raw physical reality. But of course this sense of regained unity cannot erase its original fracture and remain true to itself: hence the refusal, everywhere in this performance, of ease. The truth can only ever be an exposure of woundedness.

A real highlight for me was her performance of Paul Celan's poem Todesfuge ("Death Fugue"), about the Nazi death camps in which his parents perished:

Black milk of daybreak we drink it at sundown
we drink it at noon in the morning we drink it at night
we drink it and drink it...

Galas' interpretation is nightmarish, a black parody of the mechanised rhythms of Nazi marches, or a broken and murderous nursery rhyme. Like the poem itself, the music shifts in an instant from one register to another, finishing on the lament: "Your golden hair Margarete / Your ashen hair Shulamith".

She sings several gospel and blues songs: what is amazing about these versions is how, despite her radical treatment, she plugs right into the anguished truth of the music. As the title of the concert suggests, the theme of the evening is exile: exile from a homeland, exile from whatever one loves, exile from oneself. The divisions that mark existence are opened rawly, without apology and without consolation. Galas' piercingly gorgeous voice is the finely tuned instrument of lamentation and of pain.

The miraculous effect is joy: a reconnection with the vital currents of living. The twin of the god Thanatos, who haunts this performance, is of course Eros: Galas' aggression is a pure expression of desire. I know that I went to bed very late that night: Galas' wild voice still echoed through my being, forbidding the anaesthetisation of sleep.

No comments: