Fire, Prayer & Curses: Lingua Ignota Interviewed

The power electronics composer and classically trained singer talks to Aimee Armstrong about immolation, self-weaponisation and the divine inspiration of Hildegard von Bingen.

The ‘lingua ignota’ – Latin for ‘unconstructed language’ or ‘unknown language’ – was created in the 12th century by the German philosopher, abbess, visionary, writer and composer Hildegard of Bingen. A modification of the Latin alphabet, it is no longer clear whether it was a secret language or an attempt at an ideal, universal tongue. Lingua Ignota also happens to be the pseudonym of Rhode Island-based musician Kristin Hayter and, despite the centuries dividing them, distinct parallels can be drawn between Hayter and Hildegard.

A profound sense of divinity lies at the core of Hayter’s work, but despite its choral moments and devout classical influences, her music can also be classed as noise. She combines diametrically opposed genres to sonically illustrate the reclamation of female power: rage fuels a furnace of righteousness, where the typical victim becomes the victor.

Hayter is a survivor of domestic abuse, and Hayter’s music serves as to support those in similar situations. She donates all proceeds of Let The Evil Of His Own Lips Cover Him to National Network To End Domestic Violence. But its benefit goes beyond that: this record reaps power by reclaiming harsh noise, aggression, ferocity – musical ideas that are often lazily written off as masculine.

You’re named after Hildegard of Bingen’s own language – is she an influence on your music?

Lingua Ignota: With Hildegard, I think of divine immolation. She wrote of “sparks of God” and “living light”, and in illustrations she’s depicted with flames surrounding her or rising from her head. God spoke to her through fire. I feel like I also speak through fire but God is not with me. My master’s thesis was called BURN EVERYTHING TRUST NO ONE KILL YOURSELF and its initial premise was survivors of violence reclaiming their bodies through self-immolation, this idea that violence begets violence, and that resistance and empowerment meant weaponising the self with fire – that nothing else was possible.

Lingua Ignota translates to ‘unconstructed language’ and Hildegard was given it by God; ecstatic language. I’m trying to construct something that speaks the unspeakable, and so I use this sort of amalgam of musical devices to make my own sonic language which is meant to also be ecstatic or outside the self. There is always the urge to escape the body, to immolate.

How about the liturgical elements in your music – is religion important in your work?

LI: In line with divine immolation and self-weaponisation and the abandonment of the corporeal self, I’m also really interested in holy wrath, the idea that God, specifically this Christian God who may or may not exist, is so boundless and can bestow such blessings or such misery, and that only God can judge, and that God does judge. A lot of my songs can be read as prayers or curses, calling on the mercy or mercilessness of God. I play a lot with concepts of biblical good and evil, strange conflations of the two, sometimes embodying both. Often my lyrics are directly informed by biblical verse, ‘That He May Not Rise Again’ is a pretty close paraphrasing of Psalm 140 from the King James Bible.

Do you think within your music, particularly the more aggressive parts, you’re taken from a position where you’re be very vulnerable to being very powerful?

LI: Absolutely. The music is about reclaiming power that has been stolen. This is also where using tropes from male-dominated forms comes in – there’s so much language in, for instance, hardcore, that’s like ‘death before dishonour’ or ‘blood for blood’, and I use a lot of that anthemic, aggressive phrasing and spit back language that has been used against me.

Why did you choose to combine two styles which are perhaps polar opposite?

LI: I’m trying to reformulate what ‘dark music’ or ‘extreme music’ means to me, and to make sure that all formal, structural and aesthetic decisions inform and augment the content. We often think of loud as aggressive and soft as tranquil, but I try to subvert those expectations. For instance, tracks like ‘The Chosen One’ and ‘Holy is the Name (of My Ruthless Axe)’ are both very quiet and repetitive sonically but very brutal lyrically, and in their bareness and focus they can be very uncomfortable to listen to in a way that may not have been effective if they were part of a heavy soundscape. Next to silence, the content becomes inescapable.

I use a lot of devices from noise, metal, grind, hardcore industrial, but also from classical music or specific vernacular folk forms. I think that sharp juxtapositions can be very destabilising, and that’s an effect I’m often striving for. You’re hearing things that are vaguely familiar but that are twisted into discord. Something that is somehow both beautiful and grotesque is maybe more powerful than either of those two things alone. I think this is part of why people, including myself, have such difficulty describing my music, or classifying it within a genre. It’s not neoclassical, it’s not metal, it’s not noise. The genres are tools I can combine to forcefully convey difficult material.

How is it for you being a woman within a sub-genre which has in the past been known for being quite notoriously misogynistic?

LI: It’s weird, and I’m often misunderstood. But I’m lucky. I’m able to surround myself with good people in these scenes, and I’m also lucky to have the opportunity to play shows where I might be the only woman performing and get to overturn people’s expectations, and that a lot of people have been open and receptive to what I do. Some people aren’t, and that’s okay.

Do you feel like that those connotations are eroding from industrial and power electronics?

LI: There is some erosion happening in that marginalised people are carving out space for themselves in these genres even if it is not freely given to them. Just a couple of examples – an artist like Moor Mother completely taking over using elements of industrial and power electronics to make protest music, and the Providence-based, one-woman project Visibilities using DIY lo-fi punk/noise aesthetics to make really complex work that addresses pain and gender. More artists are appropriating male-dominated aesthetics to serve really authentic and important identities. And queer people, women, trans people, people of colour – these people generally all have a much richer sense of community; they are more likely to support and bolster each other.

I understand you’re classically trained, and obviously there’s some conservative attitudes towards transgressive music within that field. How was it being someone who was a fan of leftfield artists like Aaron Dilloway and Ornette Coleman?

LI: Classical voice is indeed conservative and quite hierarchical, and that’s a space where your worth as a vocalist can be fairly strictly quantified. I think if any of my past teachers heard how I vocalize these days they would shit a brick, although honestly I was a pretty difficult student so they may not be entirely surprised. I wanted to sing weird stuff in darker timbres. I had to teach myself to read Cyrillic and practice Russian diction on my own because I wanted to sing the art songs of Modest Mussorgsky, or works by Handel not written for the female voice, or music so early or unusual I couldn’t find any notation for it. These types of choices aren’t popular in the classical world, but there are similarities with contemporary experimental music or the 20th century avant-garde; the parallel movement and droning organum of some medieval work is pretty similar to some forms of metal, and baroque music usually allows for a lot of improvisation and free movement through a phrase.

Who are some other artists who you’d say have had a big impact on All Bitches Die and Let The Evil Of His Own Lips Cover Him?

LI: I try to keep the identity of each project distinct, so my inspirations come from fairly unusual sources, and not necessarily from contemporary artists or my peers. I am greatly influenced by the kindness and generosity and the work ethics of the artists I’m lucky enough to call my friends, but I work really hard to make sure I’m doing my own thing.

Unusual sources might mean film, fashion, canonical classical music, literature. Let The Evil…, for instance, is part of a larger song cycle which is heavily research-based and procedural and is indebted to Igor Stravinsky, Aileen Wuornos and pornogrind.

The cover art for All Bitches Die is a self-portrait that was inspired by French couturier Julien Fournié, who did a collection in 2010 dedicated to female martyrs. He sent his models down the runway with singed, charred faces and hands. I did a version of this that’s a little grosser, a little sloppier, a little closer to corpse paint, and the tears and snot are real.

All Bitches Die is essentially a cycle of murder ballads loosely based on a book about survivor violence by Angela Browne called When Battered Women Kill. There is also a lot of inspiration taken from Pier Paolo Pasolini’s film Medea. I sample the soundtrack of this film in the track ‘Woe to All’ and images from the film appear in my projected live visuals. Maria Callas in the title role embodies this sort of perfect apotheosis of the weaponised, immolating self I mentioned above; she burns her own house down, killing herself and her children, screaming this phrase into the flames: “Niente e piu possible, ormai!” — nothing is possible anymore.

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