According to Grimm’sches (etymological) dictionary the German „verstehen“ (to understand) derives from the teutonic „forstandan“ which roughly means „to stand forth“. The term was, so Grimm says, coined to denote the brave behavior of the defendant in a medieval trial where he had to face accusations. Such a trial, I guess, one has to imagine not as the highly ritualized and lengthy procedure of today’s jurisdiction, but rather as a crowd encircling and drawing in on the defendant where accusations would actually not only fly in verbal terms (some relic of this formation might still be found in the court-room where usually the suspect is in the void between judges and audience.)  To defend ones cause had quite a lot to do with the sheer strength and endurance to remain upright. The prefix  „for“ or „ver“ (in ver-stehen) in this sense therefore connotes the passing of time rather than - as our understanding of understanding might go - a performative action. To understand, in this sense, means to keep a difference (or different opinion) alive along with the body hosting it. In the times following where suspects were increasingly allowed to defend themselves with words - „verstehen“ therefore gained the meaning of „to know how to phrase ones cause“ or „to master ones knowledge“ from which it again shifted to today’s use, which now completely separated from the jurisdictional context, somehow connotes the ability to affirm the formerly unknown.

Conspicuous in regard to an „understanding of music“ (the blueprint on which my writing takes place) is the move from an utterly (and desperately) self-centered towards a seemingly altruistic action and its translation into words: the shift from the time based prefix „ver“ to a somehow spatialized „ver“... „verstehen“ or  „to understand“ as a means to orient oneself in the vast fields of knowledge, opinion and emotion. Scaffold to this „spatial“ interpretation of understanding is, of course, text, functioning as the prototypical means to measure distances, scan extensions, create patterns in order to ensure the readability of the world.

In such a graphical, written world it seems sensible to conceive music as just another medium to be measured and scanned and finally transposed into certain forms of readability - which seems the more sensible as today understanding is less about the decoding of directed messages or „content“ instead increasingly depending on the possibilities of large scale comparison, evaluation and differentiation (as clearly conceivable with „programmed“ music which requires not only knowledge of different languages, but also makes „composition“ a trial and error comparison-process within textural layers.) The main risk we run into, when exclusively subscribing to this methodology also for music (and, by the way, for any kind of communicative action...) is, that sound and its social implications will actually become just an appendix to structures, replaceable and interchangeable. I wouldn’t disregard the possibilities emerging with this „textured“ approach (which for example consist in creating surprise and maybe innovation in systematized gamelike settings or in the real time processing and transformation of sonic structures) - nevertheless I’d propose to alternatively introduce measures (or methods) to re-vive the „dissident“ body: where „understanding“ as opposed to „writing“ could again affiliate with the primary notion of „ver-stehen“: to let the time pass (while the anxiety that accompanies such a passage becomes part of its momentum). Or even more so: to create or introduce situations that can’t be captured by a preconceived layout or scheme. In order to draw closer to such introductions, the position from which music interacts with its environment must be re-considered. Usually music confronts the listener with a more or less complex set or conglomerate of pre-conditioned sonic textures - indifferent of the number, position and/or state, i.e. complexity of the audience present. In other words: music is (supposed to be) information to the listeners, whereas the listeners are of no information to the music. When regarding these 2 poles of the game not as opposites but as potentially interacting systems „music“, i.e. the technical means which produce the sonic event could become interfaces that channel or distribute exchange. Composition in this respect would therefore be not just a program-design of interfaces with a (real-time) transformable sonic output but at the same time a research in the conditions of the social system that is interacting at the given time and situation. In other words: listeners would become actors and interactors and music an instrument to propose evolving patterns (notations?) for a collaborative understanding.


Oct. 10th, 2000