Have you not taken encouragement to sin against God, on that very presumption, that God would show you mercy when you sought it? (Jonathan Edwards, “The Justice of God in the Damnation of Sinners”)
Were you a witness: those first words, more a demand than a question, and how she intones it, chants it really, changes whoever listens to this. To witness something means to become part of its community, to take a moral responsibility for it. (In Michael Herr’s words, “you were as responsible for everything you saw as you were for everything you did.”) This is the beginning of the Plague Mass by Diamanda Galás, performed in 1990 at the Church of St. John the Divine in New York City. Even a quarter-century later, this pulls the listener into becoming something more; into becoming part of this particular world. It reverses what’s meant by a historical work: it doesn’t consign the past to the past but brings that past into right now, and calls us to account. Whatever judgment she makes applies to us too.
The Plague Mass came out of the AIDS epidemic in 1980s New York, and it has a lot in common with works like Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart; it’s founded on an absolute, unappeasable rage. New York City had such a strong community of artists then, and it was getting (almost literally) decimated by this disease as official America almost completely ignored it; if it paid attention to AIDS, it was only to see it as a necessary judgment against gay people. If there was a common theme to art in NYC coming into the epidemic, it was the energy and precision with which artists executed their vision; it’s something I see that binds the music of Lou Reed, John Zorn, Arto Lindsay, Laurie Anderson, the paintings of Julian Schnabel, Robert Longo, David Wojnarowicz, Jean-Michel Basquiat, the theater of the Wooster Group, the films of Martin Scorsese and Abel Ferrara. Galás fits into that tradition; every line here lands with a precise force, every breath and shriek counts. That precision serves the absolutism here; she may be a madwoman, but she cannot be dismissed as one.
Galás has one of the most astonishing voices around, and she’s going to work it all through this. She can range across four octaves effortlessly; I know of no another non-electronic instrument that can pull off the range and velocity of glissandi that she does. On the Plague Mass, the mic catches not just her voice but her breathing, and she uses that too. She assumes not just a range of sounds her–grunting, shrieking, speaking, crying–but a range of female personae. She is a witch, a priestess, a torture victim, a crying child, a blues singer, and all of those things hit with an immediate emotional force. I don’t respond to this musically (in technical musical terms, the Mass no more complex than it needs to be) but as an emotional performance. Galás’ work, here and elsewhere, falls in a place between music and theater and becomes something older than either one.
Galás rips her voice right out of the category of “music”; this is not about melody or harmony or spirit, it’s about confronting us with the humanity of that voice. Her sudden shrieks on were you? don’t belong on a musical staff; notating it with “glissando” is beyond pointless. Like noise, Galás reclaims the voice as a physical thing, even as a weapon. (Yoko Ono’s screams are nothing compared to this, because she wants us to hear screams as music.) She confronts us with emotion rather than beauty; the way she shifts it so unpredictably and the sheer loudness of her screaming makes it impossible to ignore, impossible to not respond. If there’s been a trend in Western music ever since the Greeks to make music into an abstraction, even into mathematics, Galás jumps backwards over all of it. At moments, she jumps back even farther than language, into the production of sound from the throat and the way that carries an emotional charge. (She would go farther than this with another work, Schrei X, which culminates in what sounds like Galás dying in hysteria and orgasm.) As a ritual, the Plague Mass is a scourging, a necessary torture (the liner notes for it and Schrei X instruct “Play at maximum volume only”) inflicted on the listeners to turn them into witnesses.
The time of the Plague Mass isn’t just pre-Enlightenment, it’s pre-Classical, the mythical time of the Old Testament. In “This Is the Law of the Plague,” Galás sets verses from Leviticus as the backbone of the song, words that condemn anyone who contacts anyone else infected.
She’s not singing here but snarling; her performance of these words goes beyond sarcasm into pure, bloodspitting hate. She instantly shifts from that into a babble that could be a Pentecostal speaking-in-tongues or AIDS dementia and then shifts back again. The accelerating pace of the music and background chants make this a ritual of purgation, of throwing things onto a fire. (At a later point in the Plague Mass she dumps a bucket of blood on herself.) Galás rages unbound here: against the Levite priests who made loving a sin, against the modern world that makes caring for others a crime, most of all against a God who let it all happen. She believes in this God and hates him with all her heart. She brings the merciless God of the Old Testament, specifically the rule-demanding God of the Priests, back into the church here and demands that He account for His crimes against us. If God does not forgive her, she will not forgive God, and this is the song of her wrath.
For all its simplicity and directness, the Plague Mass has a lot of subtle musical skill; over an hour, it shifts from ritual to sermon to song cycle, creating a spike of tension in the middle and then releasing. In its final ten minutes, each of the last three songs pick up on material from the previous one, each song functioning as a prelude to the next. For the last one, her own spiritual “Let My People Go,” Galás shifts to a quieter voice, caressing rather than declaiming, staying in her lower octaves with long notes and vibrato. It’s only superficially different from everything that came before it, haunting rather than terrifying, as she takes on a new tone of anguish. She’s no longer fighting AIDS but acknowledging it, calling up everyone who won’t make it out alive no matter how strong her hate. She has been so many things, but here she’s vulnerable, human-scaled: one of us. Making this the end of the Mass pays off because everything that went before is in her voice and now it’s in these words; centuries of singers and preachers have sung of “the eight legs of the Devil” but Galás gives it a force and presence that none of them could match. (Her album Malediction and Prayer consists of mostly cover versions, including a stunning one of Shel Silverstein’s death-row “25 Minutes to Go,” and feels like an album-length version of this one song.) She finishes by once again telling us “the funeral is crowded!” her biting version of the equally quick close of the Catholic Mass: ite, missa est (go, you are dismissed).
Galás enacts a judgment that goes far beyond politics, because the response to AIDS went far beyond politics. Too often, “sin” has come to be used in the same way as “crime”: a choice and act that violates a social norm and causes hurt to others. Sin means something different, though, and it’s not about will or action. Sin is the necessary distance between us and God. Jonathan Edwards, who would have recognized the Plague Mass and run screaming from it, said “as men come into the world, their natures are dreadfully depraved. . . .There is in the nature of man enmity against God, contempt of God, rebellion against God.” Holiness, for Edwards, was casting away human nature and “conformity of the heart and the life unto God.” This is what Original Sin means: we are born fallen and have to actively change to become good; Edwards’ sermons continually refer to the need of people to change to become holy. There is no innocence here, rather the understanding that sin was the price we paid for our life and our humanity; Nic Pizzolatto’s line in the second season of True Detective “at least with your kid, it’s your sins” gets this too.
David Rosenberg, translating Genesis 18:20 from the Torah, where God prepares to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah–“And the LORD said: ‘Verily, the cry of Sodom and Gomorrah is great, and, verily, their sin is exceeding grievous'”–renders “sin” as “contempt.” That was the real sin of the Sodomites: not any kind of butt play, but the denial of any power higher than themselves. The plague years of the 1980s were like this, as so many saw not people before them, but only their own fears made manifest–and in their contempt of God, they invoked God to justify it. Men and women died of AIDS and were shunned, made alone, sometimes homeless, with no human contact except through gloves. That inability to love each other, the way that it was promoted as a holy virtue for some, becomes the original sin here; the Plague Mass is Galás’ jeremiad against all who couldn’t love, the language and cadences of the true Sodomites turned back upon them. Her invocation is “give me sodomy or give me death!”; her final curse, “impotent homophobe and coward!”
Galás shreds any sense of “spiritual but not religious”; there is no God here that will grant us peace, no God without Law. She enacts the God of the Puritans, the one who set the rules, made them known to us, and would destroy us if we broke them. Nothing can be forgiven in this world; the laws are known to all, and the consequences too. The absence of God’s mercy is the necessary counterpart to free will: the right to choose demands the responsibility of consequence. Perhaps the Law of the Puritan God could be summed as “you get exactly what you deserve,” and the operative word is exactly. Galás joins an American tradition from John Winthrop to Jonathan Edwards to Cotton Mather to Abraham Lincoln in his Second Inaugural Address to Stephen King’s Mother Abigail in The Stand (“Do as you will. There’s no set of leg-irons on you. But. . .this is what God wants of you”) to Johnny Cash in his last song, “The Man Comes Around,” who spoke for this God, reminded Americans that their sin was the cause of their destruction. She never has to say their words to call up their visions; you can hear in the Plague Mass Winthrop’s warning to the people of the Massachusetts Bay Colony on the ship in 1632: “for it is a true rule, that private estates cannot subsist in the ruin of the public.” You can hear her judging America as Lincoln did, warning that if the “great scourge” of war continues until all America is destroyed (“until every drop of blood drawn with the lash is paid for another drawn with the sword,”) then that is righteous. For all of these authors, their role was the same: to bring to the people the word of God, to warn them that “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.” For all of these authors, they were clear as to what sin is: the refusal to see God in each other.
The music of Galina Ustvolskaya, dead since 2006, sounds nothing like Galás and exists in a similar relation to God. She studied under Dmitri Shostakovich, who said “It is I who am influenced by you, not you who are influenced by me”; he used one of her themes in his Piano Quintet. Her acknowledged collected works number twenty-five, written from 1946 to 1990; beginning with a Concerto for Piano and Orchestra and then moving to works that are mostly solos for piano, duets, or pieces for small and unusual ensembles–Composition #3 (“Benedictus qui venit”) requires four flutes, four bassoons, and a piano–and have a common spareness and simplicity, the colloquial meaning of “Puritan.” It fits the more rigorous definition, too, calling back to the Puritan belief that sensual beauty was itself a sin, of this world rather than God’s.
Fifth Piano Sonata, introduction
No other composer makes the underlying silence so clear; her severe, spare lines are the equivalent of Franz Kline’s stark black strokes on the white canvas. Ustvolskaya usually builds her compositions out of iambic (two-beat) melodies. There’s never any kind of legato or flow to them, they’re always heavily stressed, either da-DA or DA-da. Almost all featured the piano, almost always as a percussion instrument; that Concerto has moments that are almost conventional but ends in an obsessive repetition of short motives. She stays away from any kind of conventional harmony, keeping the ear from anticipating what comes next. She creates continuity by repeating the fragments of melody rather than any kind of harmonic progression; you can only accept what she gives you. Really, neither harmony nor melody applies here: harmony implies a musical relation between things happening at once, and the music is far too sparse for that; and melody implies the idea of a tune or singing. Ustvolskaya’s musical lines don’t sing, nor do they speak in the way Elliott Carter’s do; they declaim; the critic Elmer Schönberger called her “the lady with the hammer.”
Among her contemporaries, she has some similarities to Arvo Pärt, but those disappear the moment you hear either one. Both of them favor minimal, clean lines against silence, but Pärt’s lines are definitely melodies. Many of them derive from sung lines (his Summa is an instrumental version of his Credo, his setting of the Nicene Creed) and he carefully sets those sung melodies to match the language used. His music is also strongly consonant, rarely creating any kind of harmonic tension. Ustvolskaya’s music is nothing but tension, and barely refers to the human voice at all.
The fragmented, jarring motives can barely be described as music; they are gestures, not sound, and have force rather than beauty. Jamming together a tuba and a piccolo in Composition #1 (“Dona nobis pacem”), placing the rumbles of one and the squeaks of the other together, is impossible and it never comes across as any kind of union of opposites. The tuba plays in its blattiest lower registers, the piccolo hits quick two-note motives in the highest, and it’s ugly to hear them together. It’s also unforgettable. Her Grand Duet for cello and piano has slashing, imitated lines for both instruments, a work of mad counterpoint; it creates a strong beat but if it was a dance it would be something violent, like The Rite of Spring as a cage match. (A lot of her work has this feeling, of taking something that has its origins in human action and abstracting it to something essentially different.) Composition #2 (“Dies irae”) uses eight double basses for both their lowest and highest registers, using them as melody rather than rhythm instruments, getting sounds out of them no one else does. In her 6th Piano Sonata, the player pounds chords at maximum volume until the ringing-away of the notes overwhelms the actual notes played, like Ustvolskaya wants to obliterate her own music.
That feel rather than the sound makes Ustvolskaya kin to Galás. If you purified the shrieks and sermons of the latter almost to an abstraction you’d get Ustvolskaya’s slashing, pounding instrumental sounds, the same level of gestures in different media. Their works push past the categories of music, criticism, expression, and appreciation into something earlier; evaluating these works in terms of beauty or harmony becomes pointless when there’s so little of either, when both artists seem on a mission to destroy them. Harry Partch said of his “music drama” compositions, which blend dancing, singing, his own instruments, and visual spectacle, that he was trying to recreate the artistic unity of primitive man. Ustvolskaya and Galás don’t quite go to the same place, but they go in the same direction. They discard music as an experience of beauty, of emotion, even of sound, and bring it back to ritual. Calling the Plague Mass “confrontational” or saying “it challenges the audience” misses the point; what else could she do but confront? You don’t call people at a funeral mass the audience but the congregation. Its first line tells us: you are not an audience, you are a witness, and the purpose of this ritual nothing but confrontation. Both Galás and Ustvolskaya are closer to prophets than artists and their work has the same effect on me: play as quietly as I want and in whatever context, they command the full and only attention, and for as long as I hear and remember this, no other music exists, and music itself barely exists. The reality greater than all other realities: that is God.
If there’s an unsuperficial difference between the two, it’s that Ustvolskaya’s God does not judge but has gone, and that might be worse. Her God exists, but has withdrawn; Don deLillo, glossing on the anonymous medieval text The Cloud of Unknowing, said of its vision “This is what I respected about God. He keeps his secret.” The hammerblows of Ustvolskaya’s sound, the way each sound gets separated by silence, come to us as if from darkness and distance, messages that are there but can’t be interpreted, keeping the secret. Think of Martin Scorsese’s Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ, asking what may be the hardest question for the faithful, “Is this what you want from me?” Galás answers that question and Ustvolskaya does not.
She published her final composition, her Fifth Symphony, sixteen years before she died, and it gave every indication of being the last thing she wanted to say. “Symphony” doesn’t mean the same thing to her as to everyone else; she uses the term for chamber works with vocals, all with religious texts. This symphony is twelve minutes long, with instruments of violin, oboe, trumpet, tuba, cube, and a single male voice (her only work without a piano). (That cube appears in Composition #2 as well, hollow, wooden, and precisely 43 centimeters on a side. Much as it would suit the purpose of this essay to be a Biblical reference, Ustvolskaya had it built to those specifications to get the sound right.) Motives and lines are repeated, like ritual; the score instructs the violinist to dress in all black; the words are from the Lord’s Prayer, all of them pleas: deliver us from evil, forgive us our sins. I was in the audience for the West Coast premiere, and we were all stunned. It felt wrong for a concert hall, wrong to be a social event for a Friday night. It was an act that carries its own sacredness–its own separateness–with it.
As the piece ticks on, never changing speed, the violinist never playing anything but the same phrase, the other instruments barely varying their gestures, the voice keeps intoning отец наш, our Father. The voice implores, it doesn’t sing or cry; there isn’t pain but only the continual address to God, unanswered but not unheard. Like Galás, this piece could be performed a thousand years ago, and the response would be the same our our part, and on God’s. A ritual like this or the Plague Mass, maybe all ritual, dramatizes the heart of the audience before itself, makes what is held there present to our eyes and ears. (Were you a witness?) What is dramatized here is our sin, the awful and necessary distance between ourselves and God, the thing that cannot be forgiven because it is what we are. Before us and for us, Ustvolskaya’s final work calls to God, and God does not respond.