“My mother often told me. You shouldn’t care if an action is right or wrong; you should totally care if you’re going to profit monetarily from it.
The helmeted bowlegged stiff-muscled soldiers ramble on just-born babies swaddled in scarlet violet shawls, babies roll out of the arms of women crouched under POP’s iron machine guns… of the driver’s studded heel crushes.
As he pulls hair out of the back of his head onto the sheet metal some stones
My mother is the most beautiful woman in the world.”
The above text is a passage from the late transgressive fiction writer Kathy Acker’s masterpiece Great Expectations. However, the center paragraph was actually lifted, or “pirated” as Acker’s preferred term for the practice, by Kathy herself from French author Pierre Guyotat’s masterpiece Eden, Eden, Eden. And of course the book’s title is lifted from the masterpiece of the same name by Charles Dickens, which Kathy also re-wrote the first passage of in the opening of her own book. This is always what has drawn me towards Kathy’s work: in her postmodern appropriation of her favorite texts, she framed her own artistic interests as being inseparable from her own literary and artistic identity. This was Acker’s gift to contemporary literature: she blurred the boundaries between reading and writing and showed how one informs the other. These appropriated texts weren’t just Acker’s influences, they were the texts that she used to explore her identity and her relationship to the culture around her. And what always particularly fascinated me about Acker’s work was that, despite often using texts lifted from third party sources, her work was undeniably personal. It was a primal expression of rage, anxiety, and desire that was derived from an intense practice of academic research. In Acker’s oeuvre, a rigorous academic-based approach belied a primal scream of personal expression.
“A significant element of Acker’s creative process was her personal library,” wrote Julian Brimmers for the Paris Review. “She was an avid and active reader. She frequently marked passages that she later pirated for her own novels. Most important, she used margins, blank pages, and empty spaces in front matter to formulate spontaneous ideas about her own art and (love) life—a glimpse into the writer’s mind at its most unfiltered.”
I am reminded of Acker’s incorporation of diligent reading and research into a raw and unfiltered expression while listening to the new album by Providence-based extreme experimental musician Lingua Ignota, aka Kristin Hayter. The new album, entitled Caligula, is audibly something more rarefied than so many of the extreme music albums released of late. It has me more convinced that Hayter is a profoundly unique and emotionally intense artist than her previous record, All Bitches Die, did. And, like Acker, Hayter immerses herself in art and history in an academic manner before using her knowledge as fuel for her deeply personalized artistic practice. Writing for the Village Voice, Jamie Lowe said: “the first time I saw Kristin Hayter perform as Lingua Ignota she was presenting her MFA thesis at Brown. At a white keyboard in a flowing white dress, surrounded by dozens of crumpled-up pieces of paper on the floor, she delivered striking operatic tones while behind her played black and white video footage of serial killer Aileen Wuornos, Pino Bausch choreography to Igor Stravinsky’s Rites of Spring and burning buildings. When she finished her set, at least three audience members were in tears.” There you have it. Hayter, like Acker, allows us to see her research as a way of emphasizing her interiority, her alterity, and her emotional state.
All Bitches Die was an intense listen in its combination of noise, black metal, experimental electronics, and classical/choral influences. That said, it feels more like the start of something then the culmination of an idea in comparison with Caligula. Caligula is a masterpiece, and already established itself amongst my favorite records of 2019. A survivor of harrowing abuse at the hands of a well-known but unnamed Providence noise musician, Hayter presents her sound and performances as rituals of excess catharsis. Power lies at the center of her work. “The music is about reclaiming power that has been stolen,” she said. The eviscerating intensity and somber beauty that was thoroughly impressive on All Bitches Die has been perfected on Caligula. This is one of the uniquest voices to come out of extreme music in a very long time.
There are several distinctions between Hayter and her extreme contemporaries that set her apart from the pack in terms of conceptual intrigue and aesthetic pleasure. For one, Hayter is a classically trained vocalist. Her voice oscillates between howling, shrieking exorcisms of rage and despair and mournful, staccato hymns of astonishing beauty. Second, whereas so many harsh noise and extreme metal artists present extremity for its own sake, no more than an infantile expression of adolescent rage, Hayter’s music comes from purpose.
Finally, the breadth of musical touchstones in her work is uniquely wide and audible in her sound: she’s expressed that her earliest musical loves were Kurt Cobain and Trent Reznor before her tastes came to encompass musics as diverse as the free jazz innovations of Ornette Coleman, the extreme grindcore of Cattle Decapitation, the experimental electronics of Aaron Dilloway, the harsh noise of Merzbow, the performative new wave stylings of Klaus Nomi, the experimental vocal stylings of Diamanda Galas, and the liturgical innovations of 12th Century of German philosopher, abbess, visionary, writer and composer Hildegard of Bingen.
That last artist mentioned, Bingen, gave Hayter her project’s name Lingua Ignota. Lingua Ignota was a language pioneered by Bingen and accepted by the Church as an important modification of liturgical hymns. This brings me to my last two points about Hayter’s art. For one, it explains the notable spiritual quality of the Lingua Ignota project. There is a beautiful connecting force in the sound; a cathartic rush of universal emotions that Hayter expels for her audience. Even if you aren’t a fan of gospel music, for instance, you most likely FEEL something when you listen to it. That is because it draws on the emotions that humans can’t go through life without feeling: grief, love, pain, sadness, hunger for answers. “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,” writes Aimee Armstrong for The Quietus. “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.”
Given her name, it’s safe to assert that Hayter is vastly more studied in her chosen medium’s history than the average musician making noise or extreme music. Like Acker, who immersed herself in theoretical academia espoused by professors ranging from the activist and writer Angela Davis and the artists and academics Eleanor and David Antin, Hayter comes from an extremely intellectual background. Hayter earned a BFA from SAIC before going on to receive her MFA in literary art from Brown. Acker was able to ground her artistic output in a high level research-based practice: she literally made reading a focal point of her writing. Similarly, the genesis of the Lingua Ignota project was forged in Hayer’s fascinating thesis project. Entitled Burn Everything, Trust No One, Kill Yourself, Hayter’s thesis was a 10,000 word manuscript composed of appropriated textual materials: lyrics, message board posts, and liner notes from various extreme music sub-genres in effect exploring the mythologizing of misogyny in extreme music culture. Also, Hayter included the court papers, audio recordings and police filings from her own experience as a victim of abusive violence. One gets the sense that Hayter, like Acker before her, uses rigorous research to chronicle a broad cultural understanding while using her own experiences to contextualize herself within that culture. The Lingua Ignota project then is a literal liberation from this cycle of abuse. Her personal experiences fuel her academic works, and her academics work fuel her creative expression.
But Hayter also outright rejects mainstream “self-help” guides to surviving abuse. “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 told Claire Donato in 2017. Her work is about reclaiming power, and once she rid herself of her abuser she infiltrated the Providence noise scene with Lingua Ignota. Her intense performative delivery and truly unique, genre-defying sound quickly earned her respect.
And now for Caligula, her new album released last Friday. Hayter seems to be even more embracing of her cerebral, studied nature on this album. It has parts every bit as intense as its predecessor, but her knowledge of classical music is also vastly more audible. On the album’s second track, “Do You Doubt me Traitor?,” for instance, Hayter combines some of her most lacerating lyrics (I don’t sleep I don’t eat I don’t sleep I let it consume me) with minimal, ominous keys. Her vocals build in orchestral beauty (reminiscent at times of Circuit des Yeux) and intensity as she pleads for a guide (Satan can you get beside me?) before degenerating into shrieking howls of disgust and liberation in equal measures. And the closing polyphonic moment is an homage to a medieval song Chanterai pour mon Corage, once again honing in on Hayter as an artist not averse to history or knowledge.
The album’s third track “Butcher of the World,” a truly thanatos meets eros collision of violence and beauty, samples Henry Purcell’s Funeral Music for Queen Mary. Not consequentially, the music was also used as the theme of Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of A Clockwork Orange. So, despite its lush elegiac strings, Hayter describes the music as a “cultural signifier for stylized gratuitous violence.” “May there be no kindness,” lulls Hayter towards the end of the music. Despite the beauty of her voice, she takes on the perspective of a masculine, phallo-centric dominance. “I am examining the ways in which my experiences with abuse have made me dark,” she said last week in an interview with Invisible Oranges.
On “If the Dogs Don’t Take You I Will,” Hayter explores suicide as a final option through the prism of a sonic exploration of Jim Jones’ use of audio to manipulate his cult right through the bitter end. On “Spite Alone Holds Me Aloft,” Hayter’s lyrics quote the album’s namesake, Emperor Caligula: “Let them hate me so long as they fear me.” This bring me to a final interesting point: Hayter often takes on the point of view of fear exploiting men with tenuous holds over their power. This could clearly be a direct indictment of her abuser, but she chooses to see through this viewpoint, almost as if trying to grasp at what this kind of domination feels like (“I am really interested in the “gaze of this music,” she says, “who is being looked at and who is doing the looking”).
This viewpoint, noted above as “phallo-centric,” is at odds with much contemporary feminist theory. Here, I detect more spiritual alliances between Acker and Hayter. Both artists, while decidedly feminist, were/are largely at odds with the feminist theory of their time periods. Acker’s hyper focus on S&M saw her the brunt of criticism from feminist academics of the late-1970s. Instead, Acker pioneered her own brand of feminist excess inspired by the excess and violence of male writers like Bataille, de Sade, and Artaud. This feminism, defined by Australian literature professor Margaret Henderson as “punk feminism,” was a sociopolitical weapon against the excesses of late capital: “a response to this meanness, the rerouting of principle on nonproductive expenditure by the late capital bourgeoise, as symbolized by the bourgeois realist novel with its carefully controlled narrative and sentences.” It was also directly at odds with the second wave, Gloria Steinem, anti-sex feminism of the 1970s. Hayter is likewise engaging in historically masculine aesthetics (black metal, noise, industrial) and using it to carve out a very interesting feminine space. She considers herself, along with artists like Philadelphia-based industrial hip hop producer and poet Moor Mother and non-binary noise producer Dreamcrusher, to be a part of a movement “More artists are appropriating male-dominated aesthetics to serve really authentic and important identities,” said Hayter in 2017. She rejects prevailing ideology that a feminist artist must make and celebrate so called “feminist aesthetics.”
Hayter and Acker exist on a continuum. They are artists of polarities: academic and primal, weak and powerful, masculine and feminine, sane and unhinged. And both artists dispel notions of academics being “chilly, removed and detached” as well as notions of extreme art being “dense, infantile, and macho.” With the release of her second album, Caligula, Lingua Ignota has become to contemporary extreme music what Kathy Acker was to 1980s transgressive literature.