The first time I saw Kristin Hayter perform as Lingua Ignota, the classically trained experimental musician was presenting her MFA thesis at Brown University. 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 vocals while behind her played black-and-white video footage of serial killer Aileen Wuornos, Pina Bausch choreography to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, and burning buildings. When she finished her set, at least three audience members were in tears.
“She’s that sort of magical talent that seems to come from nowhere,” says Steven Vallot of audiovisual electronics project Muslin, who recently completed a West Coast tour with Hayter and doom metal duo the Body. “It seems innate and effortless, yet it’s mixed with work and building a craft.”
The new ALL BITCHES DIE EP, Hayter’s second as Lingua Ignota (Latin for “unknown language”), builds on her first, LET THE EVIL OF HIS OWN LIPS COVER HIM, released on Bandcamp on Valentine’s Day. That debut, which included four songs from Hayter’s graduate thesis, dealt with violence against women, including her own experiences as a survivor of domestic violence and abuse; all proceeds went to the National Network to End Domestic Violence. When writing ALL BITCHES DIE, Hayter, now 31, was inspired by the book When Battered Women Kill by Angela Browne, a study of victim violence. “I was thinking about what it means to be a survivor and the different roles that you have to embody as a victim,” she explains. “ALL BITCHES DIE is about the dichotomy of victim-slash-monster, and using tropes commonly used in harsh noise and metal and subverting them.”
Growing up outside San Diego in 1986, Hayter was not entirely at home in a world in which the norm was hyper-thin, tan, and blonde. At school, the kids taunted her, threw things at her. But when Hayter was eight a teacher took note of her natural vibrato, the recognition leading Hayter to become a soloist and church cantor. She sang weekly at her local church, beginning classical voice training in the sixth grade, around the time she became obsessed with Kurt Cobain.
In high school, she got into grindcore, prog, math-rock, jazz, and noise, picking up influences from the likes of Ornette Coleman, Aaron Dilloway, and John Zorn as well as from San Diego bands the Locust and Cattle Decapitation. She went to shows and played in metal bands with her friends. At the same time, she was training for the conservatory and performing in small opera productions.
That training has had a substantial impact on her work. Hayter specializes in early music from the medieval, Renaissance, and baroque eras, which forms the basis for most of her songs. In performance, she flips the room upside down with punishing, beautiful vocals that oscillate between the venomous and aggressive and the heartbreakingly mournful — between abuser and victim. People have told her she reminds them of the avant-garde vocalist and composer Diamanda Galás. (“An incredible compliment,” Hayter says, “but I consider her a post-human deity/demon and I could never do what she does and I wouldn’t dare to try.”)
It was during her time at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where she earned her BFA on a painting scholarship, that Hayter, under the mentorship of Mark Booth, began commingling language, sound, and image. Her undergraduate thesis involved a deconstruction of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier into a series of procedural poems, which were then turned back into music and accompanied by visual material.
She continued the interdisciplinary approach at Brown, where she earned the MFA, in literary arts, in 2016 — and where, after ending an abusive five-year relationship, she started writing about violence against women. Her thesis work there, titled BURN EVERYTHING TRUST NO ONE KILL YOURSELF, included a thirteen-song cycle based on a 10,000-page manuscript composed largely of found material: misogynist lyrics, internet invective, and the like.
“I decided on 10,000 pages because that’s my body weight in standard paper and it’s an impossible book object,” Hayter says. “I wanted to create something vast, unreadable, and terrifying.” In addition to the text, she created an installation of the pages. “So there’s the… written object, the installation, the recorded musical object, and the performance, all of which examine and recontextualize the tropes of violence against women in music.”
Her work brings to mind Tolstoy’s concept of the infectiousness of art — that is, one can’t rightly go on with one’s day after listening to or watching Lingua Ignota perform. Artfully, expertly, Hayter forces us to confront a violence to which we’ve become otherwise inured; in so doing, she creates a visibility for those who have been encouraged to remain silent, who have been dismissed.
“I want to keep going. This is what I want to do,” she says. “I have survivors who approach me and say that the work touched them somehow, or that it spoke to them. And that’s who I’m making it for.”