Charlotte Seither - Composer



Shadow and Truth

Splitting in the compositional process


The third place


At the beginning of the work process on each of the pieces at hand the initial idea was “inner space” – not in an architectural or a three dimensional sense but rather in the sense that a tone has another dimension extending beyond the familiar parameters such as pitch and length. One might describe this space as a third place, as an emotional space which (in the sense of psychological valence) measures the depth of a tone. Nevertheless this “inner space” appears in itself to be multidimensional. For no singular tone is this ever the same, and each and every piece forms its own, no longer repeatable inner space. Thus that mantle, into which is composed before anything is written onto the empty white piece of paper, already exists. It must first be projected, drawn in and most energetically pulled out of darkness. Over and over again that space attempts to flee the grasp of being composed. It wants to remain concealed, to remain uncomposed rather than to be drawn into the brightness of daylight. One must court that space and call and lure it until it reveals itself and allows itself to be touched. Now it becomes comprehensible: Through the act of actual compositional writing into this space it gains form, receives a body and a name. The working out of a piece, the invention of its concrete musical texture never begins before a crossing though this space has to a certain degree been fulfilled. A first measure is not possible until this space has acquired a certain degree of concreteness, until through the process of writing it becomes clear how one can move through this space. Like a blind seeker one gropes one’s way through this darkness and tries to come to conclusions about the meager details which one can grasp; one tries to make inferences about the qualities of the space as a whole, about the objects within it, about its temperature, vibrations, its depth and transparency. Our logical thinking is only to a certain extent capable of connecting things together. Our prelinguistic system of perception, however, is much more complex and can produce projections which our reason would never be able to assemble. It produces a space whose inner logic is always accessible to itself without having to explain itself. It produces relationships whose haziness at the moment of their genesis show the greatest dependability – way beyond that of order and numbers. All in all this third place is subjected to a most idiosyncratic form of truth – one which does not legitimize itself, one which does not wish to rule, one which does not demand validity, one which does not boast. It is simply there. It is the truth of haziness, the truth of shadow.



Dissociation in the process


In the now following second step I maintain the exact opposite: Composition means, namely completely contradictorily, exposing shadows. We must know to what we are adhering in order to be able to freely laugh in the face of all relics which crop up and to bid them farewell. We must disassemble things in order to comprehend their autonomy. In this manner we also must split open the object of our composition and gaze into it, seeing it in its historical qualities so that they become free for a new process of creativity. First and foremost composition means destruction. We must create a tabula rasa on which old adherences are abandoned in order to establish a foundation for new coherences of perception. The more precisely I know where my back is, the clearer I see the direction in which I must go forward. Material, syntax and all of our forms of thought must be examined for authenticity so that we can later contextualize them anew. Splitting means: comprehension. Destruction for the purpose of understanding. That which we have divided presents itself to us in a new form of comprehension and leads us to perpetuating insight into action. Thus composing also means: to take action with the greatest possible awareness. It means: to be free of mere tautological usage of already existing patterns of expression which in their historical context have become exhausted. Composing means choosing a material, specifying it and separating it from other materials. In composing the specific, the exact is separated from the unspecific, from the generalized. We may not surrender to the coincidental just because we are too weak for action. The more precisely I set my statements apart from other statements the more authentic the product will become. We must apply the dissecting knife and mistrust each wholeness which could get in our way. We must place the incision before acceptance: Action instead of belief. With this modus operandi a multi-branched spiral of process is often set into motion which permeates sundry levels of the composition. That which has thus been newly achieved triggers – in the very moment of its genesis – the renewed search for splitting the next smallest element. In the experimental sorting out, the elements in the end have the opportunity to configure themselves into varying aggregates, to take on new dynamics, to evaporate, to transform or substitute themselves. Occasionally during the composition the individual process forms “invent themselves,” as it were, “without an author.” The new configuration which has thus evolved offers in turn a changed perspective. That which had been dissected into tiniest particles can now in the following act of composition be creatively assembled. The cleft, now made visible, might be regarded as a watermark which authenticates the dissociative process.



Productivity of Haziness


Particles having been split and in a comprehensive spiraling action having been dissected inwardly, the act of assembly, the traditional craft of componere, takes on a new significance. Not the reconstruction of the original unity, seamless and unscarred as possible, is wanted, but rather the productive haziness of objects from whose ambiguity wholeness and partialness reciprocally emerge. The thus altered elements can now selectively be assembled in a “hazy,” “crooked” or “incomplete” manner, so that the antithesis of particle and whole are not sacrificed but rather are made visible. The degree of haziness derived not only from the material but also from the modus operandi itself allows conclusions about the degree of dissociative permeation which now becomes a measuring rod of dialectic reflections. We must have destroyed the things sufficiently in order to comprehend them. We must however glue them together visibly and put their traces and scars into frames so that they appear to us as unity and particle in one.



Charlotte Seither (translation: Christina Ascher, New York)

(published in: Edition Zeitklang, CD Charlotte Seither, Essay on Shadow and Truth. Orchester- und Kammermusik, booklet, LC 00581, p. 10-12.)




Time and Perspective


[…] Upon hearing Charlotte Seither’s compositions […] our perception of time can become susceptible to change. If one would scrutinize sounding time through measurement, the methods of ascertainment could be seen to be juxtaposed – one in countable units and one as a mass of water or sand in flux. The act of perception compresses various layers of time into a “state of temporality”. It is on this temporal level that Charlotte Seither opens our field of vision into a tunnel-like construction that can direct our gaze either inward or outward. Once the compositional process has been set into motion, the rhythmic structures are made to contrast as sharply as possible. Yet, as the parameter of rhythm becomes transformed and minimized, the significance of temporal development tends to recede. The linear motion becomes trapped in a time warp – spatialized, but still contained. The experimental procedure ends in a vacuum of sound. At this point, all the musical impulses become subject to a distinct choreography of motion. As audible time expands, tension begins to accumulate and the velocity of the falling musical components becomes equalized, in spite of their conflicting directions. The compositional experiment anticipates our abandonment of a realistic perception of time. The parameters are redefined, and the listener confronts timelessness as a descent into the inaudible: the opening and closing of the temporal state helps to define the form of the composition. Closure, however, does not mean containment, out of which unity in turn develops, but rather relativization and transformation of time into an idiomatic cipher for the dissolution of tempo and rhythm.

Notes – Text – Content


As always, each notated piece of music is headed by a title, but Seither lends her titles their own semantic level within the overall texts. Rather than initiating the music, the title depicts, in restrained poetry, the underlying state of the piece it designates. After hearing the piece, the listener finds its contents reconfirmed in the title. As a rule, Seither’s titles emerge relatively late in the creative process. They supply a gentle accent, kindling associations that may later vanish as they come into conflict with other levels of communication. The point of these associations is not so much their content as the associative space that spreads out behind that content. The results are linguistic sound spaces of Italian, French, English or German, in which artificial words are heard, languages intermingle, and unidentified dimensions of meaning unfold. The term Kammersinfonie (“Chamber Symphony”), for example, initially suggests a music-historical context, only to be poetically reinterpreted with the addition of a static description, objet diaphane (“translucent object”). The description of the underlying idea of the piece is reduced to a linguistic cipher. Seither does not set pieces of literature to music. Rather than adapting the work of a poet or writer, her music “spits out the words again after using them to meet the needs of [my] composition. “The words deliberately remain unintelligible, thereby turning the level of language into an abstract dimension. The vocal sound is reduced to its acoustical component and functions on an equal footing with the music. Cognitive verbal space is shifted to another level of meaning, in favour of musical cognition. Along with verbal sonorities, Seither also makes use of the words found in performance instructions and expression marks. Normally, instructions to performers are designed to help them recreate the music in performance. In Seither’s pieces, however, the performers must first form an imaginative conception of the sound space. Only then do the verbal images converge spatially in surfaces and sound processes. Ultimately, the musical system reverts to the one-dimensionality of the performance’s instruction, but remains stabilized in its inverted temporal consistency.

Form as a Structural Process


In Seither’s music, temporal structure and textuality stand alongside other transformed parameters, such as timbre, dynamics and generic tradition, to constitute the essential components of the overriding form. As an entity, form cannot consist solely of additive, recurring or evolving sections, such as movements, recapitulations or developments: it must always exist in the totality of the piece. With the time redefined into a malleable substance, our perception of the formal elements and their states takes places introspectively. In a process of analytical reflection, Seither’s music brings about paradoxical climaxes in the unfolding and partitioning of form and motif. Elementary building blocks become audible, proclaiming a search for the music’s indivisible core. But the attention of the listener also becomes dialectically magnified beneath Seither’s microscope. The significant parts of her experimental communication, now bereft of tempo, volume and contents, are given an opportunity to expand, mutate, metamorphose and interchange. Ideally, the components of the composition draw on each other in the course of the piece. The need to end the musical process gives way to the opening of formal boundaries. To reach this goal, Seither, in a quiet revolution, deconstructs the music by sidestepping traditional rules of generic form, instrumentation and the treatment of words. But rather than being pulverized and obliterated, they are subjected to a process of fragmentation. Instead of destruction, we are presented with reinvention, omission of substitution as interfaces in a dualistic procedure: the musical substance must materialize in the very possibility of its disintegration. The requirements Seither places on the properties of her material are many and varied, and their exploitation is essential to her work. Only that which is capable of withstanding her idiomatic selection and scrutiny will achieve duration and musical coherence. As far as the compositional result is concerned, there are no direct ties to historical precedents or biographical constellations. Rigorous demands are placed on listeners and players alike in performance. Seither poses riddles to the auditory senses, riddles that are not decipherable through musical notation but must be solved primarily through the imagination. Rather than following instructions, she requires her performers to exert themselves in decoding the structures of the music. This may be followed by a virtual dialogue with the auditory faculty, which is confronted in turn by further riddles in the instrumentation (unusual instruments such as sub-contrabass recorder, accordion, noise makers and so forth). Seither dares to run great risks in the process of artistic communication. The clandestine structure of her music allows listeners to probe the shape of the work, all the same never to descry it as if concealed behind a veil. Conversely, the visible part of her compositions requires the auditory faculty, opening up the boundaries of perception. If a sense of music history forms part of the way we receive these works, the ever-present and authentic individuality of the composer remains paramount. We sense, between composition and performance, the ciphers of the Other alternating and interacting of the Self.


Laura Bettag, Translation by J. Bradford Robinson / rev. by Christina Ascher

(in: WERGO / Edition zeitgenössische Musik, Deutscher Musikrat, Solo CD Charlotte Seither, LC 6548 2, Booklet, p. 20-24).