"I've always had this problem of not being able to situate myself, of being a part of things that are so disparate I can't reconcile them," says Kristin Hayter, a classical vocalist and experimental musician who performs under the musical moniker Lingua Ignota. Lingua Ignota's debut EP, Let the Evil of His Own Lips Cover Him, was self-released on Valentine's Day 2017. 100 percent of proceeds from sales went to benefit the National Network to End Domestic Violence, and a second EP, All Bitches Die, just dropped on on June 7, 2017.
Taken from the sacred language of medieval visionary Hildegard of Bingen, Lingua Ignota translates to "unknown language." This moniker speaks to the unclassifiable genre of Hayter's music. "I don't know what I would call myself in a genre, and I don't know what I would call myself as a maker of things," Hayter says. "The liminal?" Let the Evil of His Own Lips Cover Him's tags on Bandcamp offer one nexus: experimental, classical, industrial, liturgical, power electronics, and Rhode Island, where Hayter is currently based. To me, Lingua Ignota's music feels like praying in tongues inside a burning church.
Hayter has recently toured with metal/noise outfit The Body, opened for Wolf Eyes, and played the Ende Tymes Festival. "When I came to Providence, I was still making tenuously academic work, but when I got rid of my abuser, I got involved in the scene and I started to make work that was more emotionally raw. And so it straddles this weird place right now where it's too upsetting for academia and too polished and tonal for noise. Whatever the hell it is—it's been called liturgical power electronics, operatic brutalism, beautified death industrial, 'Girl Swans,' whatever —I'm grateful that people respond to it at all."
Lingua Ignota's live performances obliterate their surroundings. During live shows, Hayter stands behind a keyboard painted ghost white and a laptop affixed with a sticker that says BELIEVE SURVIVORS, screaming and singing as her body is bathed in projected visuals: a forest fire; a dance troupe performing Pina Bausch choreography; a Pentecostal baptism; walls of sans-serif misogynist pornogrind lyrics. Throughout, she embodies "[an] ambiguous schizoid character that is the work and the performance practice." Her embodiment of this character feels demonic, from the Greek daimōn, meaning 'deity, genius.' "I very much try to get to a place where [the performance] no longer feels like me, and where something else is moving through me, whether that's my abuser, or god, or something that can create a voice I wouldn't have myself. It's like an exorcism."
A survivor of domestic violence, Hayter describes her work as "painful to perform." "[I always think] everyone's going to hate it, that I'm going to make fellow survivors angry, and that dudes are going to be like, 'This is feminist garbage." But for her, these preoccupations deliver more questions than answers. "Who am I actually making the work for? Am I making it for bad men to hear so that they can have a perception of this experience, or am I making it for fellow survivors or victims?" And if it's for a mixed audience, how do we inhabit the same room?
Hayter was born in 1986 and grew up in Del Mar, CA. "There's a liquid quality to time [in Del Mar]. Everything is very slow-moving and sunny. But it still has that insidious Southern California mindset of, like, 'we live in a completely idyllic bubble and sphere of perfect beauty and women who look like polarized photographs." Her description reminds me of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, where a high school in Southern California is literally located on a hellmouth. "I think of [Del Mar] as a sort of hell in the way that I was so different than everyone else when I was growing up and couldn't situate myself, couldn't find myself there at all."
Raised Catholic, Hayter's religion distinguished her from others and continues to inflect her musical practice. "I was in parochial school until sixth grade. My Catholic upbringing is huge in all the stuff I do, as far as the way liturgical music has influenced me, and the rituals of the church and even that homogeny and having to conform to a very specific mold of existing, of moral existence, of appearance."
"[When I entered public school,] I started to notice that I didn't fit. I became obsessed with Nirvana, and with Kurt Cobain. I found this cassette tape of Nevermind that my cousin had left when he'd come to visit. I listened to it, and I was just floored. I became enamored of [Cobain] and wanted to be him, wanted to make music like him, wanted to have a voice like him." Soon thereafter, Hayter enrolled in classical singing lessons.
Hayter speaks thoughtfully about the way her classical singing practice conceptually links to the music she makes. "When we sing classically, we try to create seamlessness between the registers—between the head and the chest voice. What I try to do is play with the spot between them where my voice breaks, and I write most of my songs to have my break be central, so that I move between the registers quickly and it creates this destabilizing sense that there's multiple voices in the song, that the voice is in this state of constant flux, dynamic and imperfect, alchemizing itself." In other words, although her music has beautiful passages, it also travels into abject spaces. "There will be half a phrase of straight classical singing and then it will drop down to a weird death growl or a fraction of a second of Bulgarian-like belting and then extended technique, a rush of air. I'm very intentionally manipulating my voice to make these kind of gross glides and transitions between these two registers."
Currently living in what she calls "a shed in the woods" in Lincoln, RI, Hayter completed an MFA in Literary Art at Brown University in Providence, RI in 2016. At Brown, she completed a thesis called Burn Everything Trust No One Kill Yourself, a 10,000-page manuscript composed of appropriated material—"lyrics, message board posts, and liner notes from subgenres of extreme music that mythologize misogyny, […] [and] court papers, audio recordings, and police filings from [her] own experiences of violence"—assembled using a Markov chain. Prior to this, she attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where she studied across disciplines. "I ended up in visual/critical studies and art history. I was really into research and having a research-based practice, and then I got into writing, and then I got into the sonification of the voices I had written."
"I created abstract pieces with a lot of texture and layers to them with heavily manipulated vocals, and I learned how to do circuit-bending and work with analog electronics and signal processing. That's when my interest in avant-garde electronic music started to blossom. I'd developed an interest in DIY abstract music in high school as I got into noise, and piecing together how the academic avant-garde and the underground experimental scenes intertwined and responded to each other was really compelling to me. The space between DIY and academia was where I made my home."
Hayter's undergraduate thesis, Architect and Vapor, was about anorexia. It recomposed J.S. Bach's The Well-Tempered Clavier into procedural poetry, and then into music. "I was anorexic for over a decade, and the latter half of that decade was a waking nightmare. I couldn't keep a job, I couldn't stay in school, I couldn't sustain any form of relationship with anyone. All I did was restrict, exercise, and purge. My doctors told me, 'you will die,' and at first this death was nebulously abstract in the future, but then it became: 'you will die this week, this month, tomorrow.' There were times when I would just stare at the clock in my apartment and wait to die, thinking 'this is it.' Anorexia is such a strange illness because you live with such reckless disregard for your body while the body remains the locus of your obsession and care."
As with Architect and Vapour, Burn Everything Trust No One Kill Yourself's subject matter emerged from Hayter's experiences as a survivor of domestic violence. With the exception of the COPS theme song "Bad Boys," all of the tracks on the album were also part of Hayter's graduate thesis. "I've been in several relationships with men who were physically, emotionally, sexually, or psychologically violent. The most significant abuse came from a relationship that lasted five years. He was biblically evil, absolute in his cruelty, manipulative like the adder. Even now, picturing him, he is post-human, pale and dark and spindly, like a specter or a spider. He was arrested for assaulting me and some of my most traumatic memories are from being re-victimized by police, by my school, and by the court. The system is so fucking broken for victims of sexual and domestic violence, and I also recognize that if I weren't a cis white woman things would have been ten times worse."
"Not ascribing to traditional models of healing such as gentleness and self-love has allowed me to be very raw and aggressive in my recounting of abuse through art. I think that's the part of it that maybe touches other survivors: mine isn't the way we're accustomed to addressing such things. I was reading several books about surviving abuse and they're basically like, 'be nice and get a hobby.' I feel like this enforces patriarchal models of civilized femininity. Instead, I come out and scream at you—'BURN EVERYTHING TRUST NO ONE KILL YOURSELF' and 'REPAY EVIL WITH EVIL,' she says. "Part of the reason I use tropes of extreme music is because that was my abuser's world, that was his music. It has also been my music since I was a kid, and as much as I genuinely love metal, hardcore, noise—I will never be able to relate to it in the same way because of him."
Currently, Hayter is preparing for a west coast tour with The Body and Muslin. About the new EP, All Bitches Must Die, Hayter remarks that "it is about vengeance of biblical proportions. Blind, ecstatic suffering, delusions, repaying evil with evil." As she tells me, her next full-length record-in-progress, will be mostly covers. Hayter's interpretations of songs like Foreigner's 'I Want To Know What Love Is," Eminem's "Kim," an old Quaker hymn, and Toni Braxton's "Unbreak My Heart" engage forms of literary art entwined with Dada, conceptual poetics, and remix writing practices, often radically recontextualizes original sources via textual substitution. For example, in a cover of The Brothers Bright's song "O Blessed Child," Hayter rewrites the following lyrics—"that captors kingdom shall be burned for all to see / and that flesh shall not be our home"—as "that this earthly kingdom will be burned for all to see / and this body shall not be your own."
The conversation between literary art and contemporary music is not a common one. When it does take place, there are not many women moving between the disciplines. Hayter says: "I don't consider myself a writer now because I don't work with very much original material. I work with pre-existing content that I inhabit and reformulate and rearrange." To call Hayter a writer wouldn't begin to cover it.
As we wrap up the conversation, I ask her what she currently listens to during her scant downtime. "I listen to classical music almost exclusively—mostly early choral. I listen to a lot of medieval. Pérotin, Josquin des Prez, Oswald von Wolkenstein," she tells me. "That, and the music my friends make, because I'm blessed to have insanely talented friends: The Body, Work/Death, The Rita. Friends and dead people. That's all I listen to."
Cover portrait by the artist.
Live photo by Eli Milholland.
Claire Donato is staying alive on Twitter.