De-formation: Piano Variations by Diamanda Galás

Release date: July 24, 2020
Label: Intravenal Sound Operations

Diamanda Galás matches the recent re-release of her starkly unique debut album with a brand new solo piano album. Entitled De-formation: Piano Variations, it’s a single 21-minute piece composed and recorded in September 2019, based on Georg Heym’s 1912 poem The Fever Hospital which depicts the warehousing and confinement of yellow fever patients, the music therefore inspired by the horrifying damage of sickness and infection but also from its bureaucratic, supposedly rationalised institutional responses.

There’s always been something almost Old Testament about Galas, something both operatic and carnivalesque, in her screeching of the Litanies of Satan, or her bloodsoaked Plague Mass, her staggeringly visceral performances and her piercing sonic skewering of hypocritical cruelty, such as in relation to the religious and political responses to the AIDS epidemic for example. So it’s somehow no surprise that an album comes out now that situates her as an apocalyptic prophet from six months and therefore an entire world ago, delivering a dark and foreboding piece about the devastations on bodies enacted by an infectious epidemic but also by the implacably violent structures of political response; accidentally prescient in a defining way like William Basinski’s coincidental, breathtaking elegy to New York on 9/11 in his Disintegration Loops.

Beginning with a cold shudder of hollow corridored institutions, low echoey chords roll out for nearly three minutes before a moment of near silence, a stifled claustrophobic gasp before ominous steppings and jabbings build out of the lowness. There’s a variety of ground covered in the longish piece, but this sets the rich but bleak tone, the stern throwing of sombre handfuls of deep chord notes never far away. At times there’s an approach to a kind of grandiose resolution, redemption even, in rising, clamoring chords, but the low shadows of gloom are always closing in at the edges, dragging down any misguided thoughts of noble suffering or transcendence back into the cold and dark realities of clammy bodies and unglamorous demise. Likewise with a more frantic, higher register shards and fragments that scrabble around about three quarters through, there’s a manic tone that’s energetic but doomed to exhaust itself, transitioning to a delicate play that’s still always at risk of the shadowy stabs that then take over for the remainder. Mournful but angry, a requiem that’s also a horror story.

I mean, you wouldn’t immediately spot that this collection of notes definitively refers to sickness, yellow fever or to gloomy hospital quarantines… Then again, knowing it’s Diamanda Galás for a start situates it as likely dealing with outcasts, prejudice and pestilence, with those topics almost unbearably acute now in our current world situation. But perhaps that’s part of the sombre reflection here, that there’s no escaping from what you know about the context. This record then, is a letter arriving from the recent but so distant past, that knows already the cruelties and injustices wreaked by plagues of disease twinned with the uncaring or incompetent dismissal of those raw human horrors by those who make the decisions about other’s fates in dark times.

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