Diamanda Gal commemorates victims of a long-forgotten Turkish ethnic cleansing
Ages ago at college in her native California, singer, composer, and cultural provocatrice Diamanda Gal abandoned the study of science to pursue her true passion: experimental music. But biochemistry's loss is our gain; over the last two decades, her controversial works have earned her a place high in the avant-garde music pantheon. Fearlessly outspoken, frighteningly knowledgeable, and dangerously openhearted, Gal dedicates her latest work, Defixiones: Orders From the Dead to the estimated 3 million to 4 million victims of the Armenian, Assyrian, and Anatolian Greek "ethnic cleansing" committed by the Ottoman Turks between 1914 and 1923.
Since 1999, Defixiones has been performed to near unanimous acclaim at prestigious venues the world over, from London's Royal Festival Hall to the Sydney Opera House, from the Athens National Opera to Mexico City's Universidad del Claustro de Sor Juana. Its New York premiere (presented by the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council's "What Comes After: Cities, Art + Recovery" international summit) is scheduled for September 8 and 10 at Michael Schimmel Center for the Arts, Pace University—appropriately enough, just across from City Hall, mere blocks from ground zero.
The word defixiones refers to warnings engraved in lead placed onto graves in Greece and Asia Minor, threatening desecraters with grievous harm. Gal uses this term in a broader memorializing sense, urging us to remember the forgotten dead, the "erased," the massacred. Her epic performance for solo voice, piano, and electronics speaks for the poet-author in exile—both far from home and in his homeland—as well as for "born outlaws," as Gal calls homosexuals, echoing Genet.
Informed by excerpts from the Armenian Orthodox liturgy and the traditional amanethes, or improvisatory lamentations sung at Greek funerals, Gal 70-minute masterwork showcases both her astounding vocal technique and her enormous capacity for rage, compassion, defiance, and ferocious emotionalism. Though at times truly fearsome in its raw, insistent pathos—familiar to those who know her crushing Plague Mass (1990) or Schrei X (1996)—Defixiones' real power lies in those seductively lyrical, quiet passages that occur just before Gal wail of existential anguish erupts in reverberant majesty. Iraqi artist-scholar Selim Abdullah notes, "The sentiment, strength . . . and sensitivity contained in this Saturnian representation go back to the very aspects the Greeks gave to a whole Occidental culture." Awash in blood and tears, and haunted by images of unspeakable (and until now, largely unspoken) butchery, Gal funeral mass is cathartic, but neither glib nor sentimental. Any redemption is hard-won.
I spoke with Miss Gal who has lived in the East Village for the past 10 years, on two occasions in mid August. Over multiple cappuccinos—caffeine being her current drug of choice—she dazzled me with her famous intelligence and often barbed wit. Onstage she's a mythic figure come to life; in person she is perhaps even more mesmerizing.
Few people in America, other than those of Greek, Armenian, or Assyrian descent, seem to have heard of this horror. Why is it so unknown? This country discusses one or two genocides and markets them in very contrived ways. They don't write about them truthfully, the way [author and concentration camp survivor] Primo Levi did. Think of Spielberg and the legions of mediocrity he has propagated.
And there's the conflicting numbers, and . . . What does it matter if it was 6 million or 2 million or 200? Genocide is genocide. Every culture has its particular way of killing and torturing its enemies. And the Turks are still trying to cover it up by calling it deportation, but that's just another word for "death sentence."
You're perceived as the voice of the fallen and forgotten. Is that something you've chosen? No—I hated being the poster girl for the AIDS epidemic. It had to be done, but I hated it. I never meant to be political— I'm an artist. An artist can only speak for herself. But if you get particularly good at something it has a sort of universality, and then it has a certain audience, and you're answerable for that. Like Adon [Syrian-born poet Adon Ali Ahmed Said]—a great, great poet—who is seen as the voice of a "leftist movement" of some sort, but he's only writing about what is truth to him.
How did you come to create Defixiones? My father is an Anatolian Greek. All my life he's talked about how the finest Greek culture was from Anatolia—home to Assyrians, Armenians, Greeks, and Jews, who for centuries traded languages, songs, ideas, histories—and how many of these cultures are indistinguishable from one another. So the notion of racial purity there is just absurd. He also told me about the atrocities committed by the Turks against Greeks from Asia Minor. But the direct catalyst was an interview I saw with Dr. [Jack] Kevorkian, who said, "I'm Armenian, I know what torture is all about. I know the difference between homicide and helping people end a life of misery." He was so articulate, and he was discussing Greek Stoic philosophy and the Armenians in the same breath, which I found very unusual at the time. So in 1998 I said to myself: It's time to do this work.
Later I read Peter Balakian's book Black Dog of Fate, which talks about what being an Armenian in America means—it means you're invisible. It's the same with the Greeks. Most people think of Greek culture as a dead culture: Socrates and Aristotle and the statues . . . And they think Assyrians are the same as Syrians.
Then, as a fellow at Princeton in 1999, I studied texts by Giorgos Seferis and others in preparation for a performance at the Vooruit Festival at the Castle of Ghent [in Belgium].
Defixiones was more a song cycle then, with [the underground Greek protest music known as] rembetika and works by Paul Celan, Henri Michaux, and César Vallejo. I concentrated on exiled poets like the Anatolian Greek refugees of the 1920s—my father's people. The premiere was on September 11, 1999, which marked the anniversary of the reign of terror under Charles V, who persecuted homosexuals, women thought to be witches, and other heretics.
Defixiones is somewhat a work in progress? Yes. Currently I'm using texts by Giorgos Seferis, [who] is like my bible—and Nikos Kazantzakis, who people will know from his novel The Last Temptation of Christ. And Pier Paolo Pasolini, whose poem is addressed to the people who survived. Everyone just hated him. And Yannis Ritsos. And "The Dance" by Siamanto, with its description of brides being burned alive. And the pro-genocide poem "Hate," which was published by [the Turkish newspaper] Hürriyet and broadcast by the BBC in 1974, right before the invasion of Cyprus—about why the Turks should decapitate the Greeks.
September is such a politically charged month . . . Yes, starting with the destruction of Smyrna in September 1922. And Black September 1955, when Turkish officials waged a disinformation campaign stating that Greeks had bombed the consulate in Thessalon resulted in the desecration of Greek churches and the mutilation and murder of priests and other men. And the Black September of Ariel Sharon's going into Lebanon in '82. He was doing a real con job. And then the situation in America in 2001 . . .
Your aggressive style and disturbing subject matter automatically put you outside the mainstream. Yet your music has a surprisingly broad appeal. Well, I've been creating sacred masses, which are not exactly a popular art form in this country today. But they're meant to be, literally, for the people. The American idea of a populist art form is rap. Some of it is good, but most is appalling in that it promotes stupidity and the abuse of the same groups that monotheist totalitarian governments persecute: women, homosexuals, and anyone who doesn't speak precisely your language.
You must get tons of hate mail. Fundamentalists of all sorts despise me. I'm attacked by my own people too—American Greek men who are homo- phobic and think everything I say is heresy. I got shit recently from a Jewish promoter about doingDefixiones in Mexico. She asked me if I really believed people would be interested. And I thought: "Please don't insult my intelligence—or theirs. They'll understand the concept of genocide as it has occurred and continues to occur to so many people around the world . . . "
I want to perform Defixiones in Istanbul and Smyrna. The psychic manifestations of violence can be just as devastating as the physical acts—especially when people refuse to recognize them. It's depersonalizing. I have a line in INSEKTA: "Believe me, believe me." Not being believed can kill.
Who are your fans? People who find it necessary to think for themselves in order to survive, because they're damned by the fact they don't agree with the mediocrity that society shoves down their throats. They rise above this by continuing to educate themselves. This is especially true of homosexuals, who are born outside the law anyway. They're still figuratively and literally buried alive by the Egyptians and Turks. Here in New York they're visited upon by the Aesthetic Realism Foundation and treated with electroshock. In Iran, they hang teenage "infidels." It's unbelievable that ethnic groups still shut out those who can be so disciplined and organized, and who can do great things. [Gay men] either disappear completely or they address the situation. They've had to—to save their own lives. They are great fighters. I say these are the first soldiers you should enlist, not the last. This is the man to whom you should say, "Will you be my brother? Will you help me?"
Will the Turkish government ever admit these atrocities? I think it will be forced to, through the ongoing work of their own scholars, both old and young, and by artists and writers who want to be part of the rest of the world, despite the horrific censorship that the Turkish government exercises over them. My website is listed as a hate site, which is completely ridiculous. I do not hate the Turkish scholars who are trying to address true events in the world. There are many Turks who want to see things change, but they're not given the opportunity to express themselves. When they do, they get sent to prison or mental asylums. Midnight Express is absolutely the truth.
But until the government officially apologizes, there is no reason for it to be accepted by the European Union. You must admit what you've done—it shows that your present actions will be mandated by the apology for your past actions. But until this happens there can be no trust at all.