Diamanda Galás in New Orleans

Before this summer, I’d only listened to a few albums by Diamanda Galás. I knew she rarely toured the United States, and that her April show in New Orleans was a special occasion. The tour was promoting her two newest releases, All the Way, a collection of covers, and At Saint Thomas the Apostle Harlem, a live album. Her New Orleans performance was at the Joy Theatre. From all the things I’d read about Galás, I expected her to be theatrical, dripping with blood and guts like on the cover of her album Plague Mass. Instead, the show was quite reserved. Galás dressed in a dark gown that was almost funerary in appearance. It was like something someone would be buried in. She was seated at a black grand piano in the center of the stage. The minimal atmospheric lighting was accentuated by clouds of smoke.

Many of the numbers she played were sung in languages I didn’t understand. They weaved in and out of tongues. The music wasn’t restricted to any one form. It shape-shifted through cultures, melodies, and rhythms, making her work hard for a layperson such as myself to classify. At it’s best, the music was abstract and animalistic. The vocals ranged from the guttural to the angelic. Added lyrics often changed the meanings of the original lyrics, and the pounding tempos of the piano altered the demeanor. It is partly this transformative power that makes Galás so interesting. She deconstructs these songs and digests them into her own vision. What she does can be likened to appropriative art, but instead of glue and scissors she might as well be using flesh and knives.

It was the second number, a thunderous rendition of Bobby Bradford's “She” (also known as “Woman”), that impressed me most. Galás hammered on the piano like a singular force of nature. The music of the piano was accompanied by a sequence of almost never-ending wails and moans. It’s hard to believe Galás created all of that sound with just her voice and a piano. Beams of light reigned down on her like abstract laser lightning. There was this brutal, emotional weight to the tune. It was a feeling that picked up again at the end of the first set with her rendition of “O Death,” an American folk song. After three encores, that emotional gravity peaked once more with Galás’ version of “Let My People Go” (a song based on the American Negro spiritual ”Go Down Moses”). Galas’ renditions of these songs, with all their screaming and growling, are mutated and personal. They feel confessional, not traditional, and have an expressive violence that speaks to the nerves.

Galás has stated that her new live album At Saint Thomas the Apostle Harlem is a collection of “death songs” meant to reaffirm life. They are songs about the struggle to live in a world that is constantly trying to destroy you. Her music comes to me at a time of seemingly endless death. Over the past year I’ve had a number of my friends, all of them younger than me, pass away. They’ve succumbed to drugs, suicide, accidents, and even natural causes. For many, healthy mourning can often collapse into a kind of toxic lamenting. Listening to Galás, I am reminded that mourning, no matter how full of rage, doesn’t have to be self-destructive. The best funerary rites are cathartic and recognize what a privilege it is to be alive. I believe what Galás has given us in her music is on par with that kind of experience.

Like Cattle Towards Glow

In May of this year I went to the United States premier of Dennis Cooper and Zac Farley’s film Like Cattle Towards Glow. The screening was held at San Francisco’s Alamo Theatre, which felt almost too posh for a movie by Cooper. Cooper has always been one of the few modern fiction writers that piques my interest. I must admit, what I like best about Cooper’s work is his dangerous approach to sexuality. His stories are known for their carnal violence, and the characters in his novels often do things that should nauseate me, but somehow I feel excited. More often, I feel conflicted.

I know nothing about Cooper’s co-director, Zac Farley. He didn’t speak much at the premier, either. But this is not the first time Cooper has collaborated on a film: 1995 saw the release of a film adaptation of Cooper’s novel Frisk, which stylistically comes off as a lo-fi copycat of a Gregg Araki movie. I’m not sure how much involvement Cooper had with the Frisk adaption, but it didn’t seem to stay true to the tempo or voice of his writing. With Like Cattle Towards Glow, Cooper and Farley are able to find that balance in the cinematic realm. Following in the footsteps of the French director Robert Bresson, they use untrained actors and capture performances that are often made up of just movement and words. By eliminating the contrivances of professional actors, the characters come off as very cerebral and earnest.

But the minimalism doesn't stop with the performances. Split into five unrelated scenes, the film starts out very simple and realistic but gets otherworldly as it progresses. In the first scene, a young man hires a male prostitute to play dead for him. The second has a punk noise band performing at an underground club, where the singer is gang-raped in front of the audience. In the third, a junkie rims and fists a suicidal male prostitute near some train tracks. And the fourth has a young blond raped and murdered in a dreamlike snowscape. The culprits are two delinquents dressed as demons.

It’s the fifth and final scene that is, for me, the money shot. A young man is stalked by a woman using a remote control drone. She follows him along a beach. He takes solace in some old graffiti-covered ruins. Inside the ruins, the woman has set up surveillance cameras. Despite their different languages, the two are able to share a conversation, albeit one mediated by technology. Like many of the young men in this film, he looks lost, or as if he is running from something. The two seem to be having a conciliatory talk until the woman says, “There is a tragedy to you. What the drugs have done to your looks, that's incredibly hot.” Despite her nurturing, motherly side, she can’t help but see him as a sexual thing. Even with the most righteous intentions, desire’s predatory head can emerge.

Not every scene in Like Cattle Towards Glow involves fucking, but in each one there is sexual tension. The desire for another’s body, the want to dominate them, is always present. But these interactions don’t mimic the fake pleasures of an X-rated film. When we do see them, the erections and assholes are handled imperfectly. The unsimulated sex doesn’t get you off. More importantly, in each scene there is an awkwardness in how the actors interact with one another. I’ve always felt it’s very difficult to truly know another person. Our words, touches, and expressions often fail us. There is always something in the way. In a world that sees desire as a sinister force, wholeheartedly connecting with someone seems impossible. Simply fucking can’t always shatter that estrangement. And I think Like Cattle Towards Glow touches on that failure.