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The Lead Review

That Which Cannot Be Said: Caligula By Lingua Ignota
Robert Barry , July 18th, 2019 07:57

CALIGULA, the new album by LINGUA IGNOTA plunges into the ocean with the visionary force of the 12th century mystic who inspired it

Hildegard of Bingen was only three when the visions started. It would be another two years before she understood them as such. Still she told no-one of her experiences for some time, and even then confiding only with great hesitancy to a single person, an older nun called Jutta, with whom Hildegard was enclosed, while still a child, at the Benedictine monastery at Disibodenberg in what was then a Frankish settlement on the edge of the Holy Roman Empire.

She saw the stars turn black and plunge into the ocean, the air turn green, great ornamental castles and dazzling mandalas, monstrous forms emerging from her own genitals, everything burning.

These “reflections of the living light” would leave the child confused, terrified, sick to her stomach. But as an adult she grew powerful, head of her own monastery, her visions recognised as authentic by the Pope. She stood up for herself against the patriarchal authority of the church and was an outspoken supporter of the education and independence of women. She wrote dozens of songs, painted vivid pictures inspired by her visions.

The same divine inspiration gave birth in her also to a language – the lingua ignota or ‘unknown language’. A weird, alien tongue, grammatically related to Latin but with a sound utterly distinct. Only a small fragment of the text survives.

O orzchis Ecclesia, armis divinis praecincta, et hyacinto ornata, tu es caldemia stigmatum loifolum et urbs scienciarum. O, o tu es etiam crizanta in alto sono, et es chorzta gemma

Despite a metropolitan population scarcely in excess of Chelmsford, over the last few decades, the New England city of Providence, Rhode Island, has developed a reputation for its music scene out of all proportion to the city’s relatively modest size. Fed by students from Rhode Island School of Design and Brown University, nurtured by legendary venues like Fort Thunder, groups like Lightning Bolt, Black Dice, Mindflayer, Bonedust, Kites, and White Mice lent the city a reputation for visceral intensity and electrifying live shows.

Kristin Hayter moved to Providence after graduating from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. But for Hayter, the Rhode Island state capital’s music scene was not quite the caring, sharing, nurturing, collective hug that Pitchfork editorials might make it out to be. As she told Maya Kalev in The Guardian earlier this year, Hayter was the victim of abuse at the hands of “a very powerful noise musician in the Providence community”. When he was arrested, she found herself further subjected to abuse and humiliation at the hands of the police and judicial system, an ordeal which her new album, CALIGULA, seems at times to narrate. “How can you doubt me now?” she croaks on ‘DO YOU DOUBT ME TRAITOR’ over a plangent cycle of adagio piano chords and the steady thrum of an almost medieval sounding drum.

Ultimately earning an MFA from Brown in 2016, Hayter’s thesis paper consisted of a ten thousand page document drawing together “lyrics, message board posts, and liner notes from subgenres of extreme music that mythologize misogyny” with “court papers, audio recordings, and police filings from my own experiences of violence,” as she explained to Claire Donato at Vice. The structure of the paper was determined not by the usual, formalised logic of an academic thesis but with the use of Markov chains, a stochastic process once employed by computer music pioneer Lejaren Hiller to compose his Illiac Suite and by information theorist Claude Shannon in his wartime cryptography work at Bell Labs.

The following year Hayter began performing her own music, drawing on the skein of connections she had made in her thesis. Unsure how to describe her sound or even what genre to fit it into, she called herself LINGUA IGNOTA (the block caps, apparently, are compulsory) after Hildegard of Bingen’s mystical language. With no band to back her up and just a laptop to accompany her on stage, her performances, immediately then and still now, were dominated by the awesome, terrifying power of Hayter’s voice.

“What singles out the voice against the vast ocean of sounds and noises,” writes the Slovenian psychoanalyst Mladen Dolar in his 2006 book A Voice and Nothing More, “is its inner relationship with meaning.” For Dolar, the voice points towards meaning, is intricately and inextricably connected with it – and yet, at the same time, as he says, “it also proves to be strangely recalcitrant to it . . . when we listen to someone speak, we may at first be very much aware of his or her voice and its particular qualities, its colour and accent, but soon we accommodate to it and concentrate only on the meaning that is conveyed.” For Dolar, paradoxically, there is then an opposition between the voice as materiality and the ideality of meaning. A provisional definition of the voice, for Dolar is that “it is what does not contribute to making sense. . . the voice is precisely that which cannot be said.”

There has always been something uncanny about the voice that sings – especially when that voice seems so forcefully to project the body from whence it emerges, as in both classical operatic singing and the guttural growl of metal. But this opposition, highlighted by Dolar over a decade ago, feels particularly apposite for the music of LINGUA IGNOTA – and perhaps most especially for the suite of eleven songs contained on CALIGULA. The unsayable, the unspeakable, the traumatic repressed has become, over the last two years, and perhaps more than any other contemporary artist, the theme and keynote of Kristin Hayter’s music.

CALIGULA is an urgent and ferocious record, almost unbearable to listen to for its raw physicality. Each track is a multiply determined catalogue of violence against women to rival the gynocidal thesis notes of Charlotte Gainsbourg’s character in Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist.

Take third track ‘BUTCHER OF THE WORLD’ and its use of Henry Purcell’s Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary, a work first composed in 1695 for the obsequies of a strong-willed woman persistently kept down by her husband, and later used (in an electronic arrangement by Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind) as the opening theme to A Clockwork Orange, a film which became notorious for its depictions of sexual violence and alleged copycat crimes (including an act of rape in which the attackers sang the Gene Kelly song ‘Singin’ In The Rain’ to their victim).

From start to finish, this album feels like an exposed wound, freshly – you might almost say studiously – picked and mastered to tape. It is an album of baroque intensity and gothic flamboyance played out like one long cathartic scream. Like an onion, it offers up layer after layer to slowly unpeel, each one a potential incitement to the very bitterest tears.

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