RE/Search: What was your musical training?
Diamanda Galas: After many years of basic classical piano lessons, I studied these avant-garde piano works in university graduate school. Then I started playing with free jazz guys like David Murray, Butch Morris…post Albert Ayler, post-Coltrane musicians. At the time it was a very heavy black scene not open to women. But I had played piano for so many years that they couldn’t deny I could do it.
After playing piano for awhile with all these guys from the post-Ornette Coleman school, I thought, “No, the voice is the first instrument.” These players have always modeled their mode of expression after the voice. They revered singers like Billie Holiday; often, the way they played was a reaction to the voice. The voice is the primary vehicle of expression that transforms thought into sounds, thought into message. And beyond the words (with all due respect to them), the combinations of vocal and verbal energy can be overwhelming.
I started working on my AIDS project (Plague Mass) over two years before my brother became ill. Half my friends are HIV-positive; this is my life. These journalists who are outside the community look at my work and it scares them because it’s the voice of the people who are sick themselves. Because it doesn’t offer “entertainment,” they can’t imagine that people want to hear it. They look at music as a placating medium…I separated my work from a safe and useless concept of “music” back in 1974. Music that is truly meaningful contains a distillation of reality–and usually that’s tragedy.