Right to Risk

Interview with the Dutch composer and artist Dick Raaymakers, for the publication "The Art of the Accident," 1998.

Right to Risk

The Art of the Accident, 1998

ACCIDENT AND RISK

Dick Raaymakers: I have a lot of problems with the word "mishap". To me, it is a typical nineteenth century concept. A concept that marks the advent of social insurance, the awareness that something may happen to you and that you can insure yourself against it. Before that, things were different. If you were a carpenter working for a boss and you hit your thumb after having worked non-stop for twelve hours, your boss would just regard this as an accident in the line of duty. The same was true for child mortality. Children were born and frequently died. Of course they said "Oh, that poor child," but there would be another one. I am exaggerating, but you know what I mean. It is about the prefix "mis" in mishap. To me, "mis" does not exist. I have no affinity with it, unless I start thinking about it in a certain archaic way.

In his initial comments, Raaijmakers is referring to the Dutch word for "accident," "ongeval." "Val" is the same as "fall," "geval" is a case, fact or event, and the prefix "on" turns it into its opposite, like the prefix "mis." The translation as "mishap" is therefore closer to what Raaijmakers has in mind, connoting the "factual" and the "fall" implied in "ongeval."

One of my favorite themes is the decoupling of labor and the product of labor, in which the responsibility for this product is lost. And also the way risk is reduced to a minimum because of this decoupling. Workers hardly, if at all, run any risk during their work nowadays. That has all been banned. My ambition is to emancipate the concept of "risk." For centuries, society has cherished the possession of rights and elevated it to the status of humankind's highest good. We think that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is our ultimate achievement on this earth. I, on the other hand, have the crazy idea that it has turned into one of society's all time lows. In the name of rights, humankind has to this day been caused enormous misery. Just compare this to the ideas of modern artists, these fantastic trend-setters of real life. From Beethoven onwards, they have certainly not bothered with rights, on the contrary, they have always been interested in going beyond rights; they have been busy giving shape to risk. Take John Cage, for instance. Cage and kindred avant-gardists are not interested in trivialities like having or acquiring rights but in making choices that involve risks. These risks have nothing to do with affectation, but are at the heart of the performance, the music. Cage teaches you to share music with others instead of making it your own personal property. In art, these aspects have been dealt with a long time ago and the risk principle has slowly but surely taken the place of rights. Every performing artist runs risks, that's what makes it art.

I have sometimes thought of setting up a political party and if I did it would have to be called Right to Risk. That's because I see concepts like accident and mishap as typical nineteenth century concepts. They are based on obsolete hierarchical ideas. In this respect, it may be interesting to realize that in the time of Goethe, being unhappy was something you cherished with all your heart. The same holds true for Beethoven: for him an unhappy love life was a precondition for the creation of magnificent works of art. These people did not insure themselves against feeling unhappy. On the contrary, I would say, they started feeling truly unhappy when they were not feeling unhappy! But anyway, in our society this is alien to our way of thinking. At the top of our legal system sits a judge with a dirty, dusty wig on his head. The hermetically sealed terminology used by these hired buffoons is disgusting in itself. Moreover, all their claims fundamentally conflict with all the higher spiritual ideas developed in art over the years. Judges and artists are the very opposite of each other. With their limited, stupid ideas about the meaning of life, judges can only dream of living according to the risk principle. After all, risk is of infinitely more value than these stupid, foolish rights. Abolish human rights! I would like to argue. People have no rights. They run risks. That is what we should devote ourselves to. Affecting people's existence that is full of risk is one of the biggest crimes, but today people do not see it that way. Risk means absolutely nothing in our society. It is something to insure yourself against. Once the risk principle has become of paramount importance in the future, the court system and all its lawyers will disappear, or will at least have to be redefined. Anyway, I will not live to see the day.

Another aspect of risk is making, or what is even worse, avoiding mistakes. In the past, you always had to follow the rules of composing exactly, otherwise it was wrong. It was really a puzzle back then. You only have to think about the classical subject counterpoint. But nowadays, with various forms of improvisation, it is impossible to make any mistakes in that respect. People who make mistakes are reprimanded. This still has to do with angry conductors. But in real contemporary music – music that is really played – the meaning of making mistakes has slowly diminished in value. It does not really fit in with our society anymore. If you want to survive in our society, you have to learn to choose. You have to learn to choose the way you move, what modern tools to use, what your material looks like, which services you want to make use of, etc. To make a long story short: we are ready to say goodbye to an old and hackneyed set of concepts of falling, accidents, mistakes and running risks. That was why I was so surprised that you came up with the term "accident" at V2. I find "instability," a concept you introduced a few years ago, a much more beautiful and exciting concept because it is more fragile and much more artistic. No artist will take out an instability insurance. This will already be completely incorporated into his work, provided it is any good. Ordinary people, on the other hand, want stable media at all costs, television sets that function without interference day in day out, telephone connections established immediately, trains, planes and cars that run on time, etc. No, I?m afraid instability appeals more to me than the concept of accident. But I may be wrong.

 

RIGHT

DR: To return to my ideas on rights versus risk, I would like to shed more light on the matter by taking the world of sport as an example. I am thinking in particular of competitive sport in which there are two competing parties. What would football be without risk? This concept has become the focal point in sport long time ago. Imagine a top club insuring itself against failed attempts to score a goal! Sure, they can take out insurance if their club is performing badly commercially. Or if a player accepts a bribe: that's one of the biggest sins imaginable. Maybe they can insure themselves against risks like that, but definitely not against losing a game or missing a goal. That is all part of the game.
In this context, it is interesting to see how all kinds of rules and rights are introduced in competitive sport for the sole purpose of creating an optimum amount of risk. Before the game starts, a lot of super-straight white lines are drawn on the playing field. Then they throw a ball between these lines and the match can start. The ball is meant to stay inside these lines, or, alternatively, go outside them. And the trouble starts when the ball lands exactly on the line instead of in front of it or behind it, like in tennis where the angry player calls in the umpire to convince him that the ball was not "out" but "in." Inside this system of lines, which is really based on the classical legal system, everything is literally straight. There are no curves or bends but everything is super-straight. Why is this? To enable the two competing parties to run enormous risks and break the rules of this system of straight rules and lines. Precisely because of these risks, hundreds, thousands of spectators or more watch this basically stupid movement of these equally stupid balls. Not because of these straight lines or this round ball, no, because of the crossing, the literal going over these lines by the ball. In order to further outline and give shape to the risk of the players, they invented linesmen and referees who have to "judge" the game. Note the terminology: judge! In the world of sport they leave nothing to chance; they can teach the playful society a lesson or two!

Joke Brouwer: You say that everything is straight in competitive sport, which allows various forms of risk to occur. Today, there is a group of architects who design buildings in the computer. Nothing is straight anymore because it is not absolutely necessary when working with a computer. So you get curves and slopes in buildings. Nothing is self-evident anymore. I think that the V2_Lab is a good example of this; a work situation with a completely unstable floor where the gradient shifts continuously between zero and ninety degrees! Walking and falling become one. What happens to risk under these conditions?

DR: The world is of course not straight at all: everything bulges and drops and everything shifts. We want that back: back to nature. You would like it to be possible to kinetically incorporate all these fluid architectonic variables in certain buildings without too much trouble. You can definitely feel this in the Water-Pavilion on the Dutch coast. Entering such a room is a very strange experience, acoustically as well. But do not forget that, in terms of entertainment, such rooms come very close to certain fairground attractions, where you also have things that shake and unbalance you so that you no longer know what is up or down or left or right. These attractions are of course at a different level, but the main thing is that you pay your money at the box office to be in a room for a while where everything is fluid, or rather, elastic. In this case we are no longer talking about an altered society but a make-believe one; a society resembling a fairground attraction, in which the encounter with all sorts of horrible things is staged, so to speak; it also sort of compensates for the real society which is very dull and where no risks are run. This is precisely why people like to go on holiday and camp in flimsy tents and rickety caravans. They want very much to run risks in the unreliable countryside. They leave the safety of their homes and exchange it for a definitely unstable environment. Not because they are forced to do so, as in the case of an evacuation, but voluntarily. Looking at it this way, exposing yourself to risk in this way is kind of perverse.

It is remarkable that art has always been at the forefront in things such as risk. You can experiment with it in various art forms. Art has the ability to question itself. Art as criticism, that is the power of art. Society can learn a lot from art. Someone like John Cage, for instance, will never ever claim: ?Look how much risk I put in my piece!? Or ?I am dying to make a piece with a lot of risk in it." His genius is that he has been able to completely reshape the issue of making choices, in which the variability of all kinds of musical variables is enormously important, without making it obscure. Liberating imperatively closed forms is basically the same as freeing people. This has an enormous emancipatory power. Our terminology is still inadequate to express this in everyday words. I know that in our culture, especially on the Internet, whole new sets of concept are developing, which slowly but surely will replace the existing ones. The term "surfing" is an excellent example. Surfing on the electronic waves, its movement, is a beautifully poetic and ironic approach to the way in which you should move through networks. It will certainly continue; a terminology that is so beautiful and individual that it will no longer apply to boring everyday life but to a new electronic reality.

 

THE WORLD AS AN ACCIDENT

Bart Lootsma: The text about your work by Willem Jan Otten in the program of the Soundman in the Frascati Theatre (Amsterdam) contains a passage from what I assume is your own text about "Falling as Music." In this text, you quote Wittgenstein's famous first sentence from the Tractatus: 'die Welt ist alles, was der Fall ist." In the translation by the Dutch writer W.F. Hermans this sentence is: "The world is everything which is the case." You rightly remark that the German word "Fall" can be interpreted differently, namely as "fall," which would result in the following translation: "The world is everything as it has fallen." In another passage, you say that falling has everything to do with accident and that all accidents can be traced back to vertical falls or horizontal collisions, in other words to pure accidents. In that case the ultimate accident would be the Fall of Human described in the Bible. Do you think the world itself is an accident?

DR: Well, I'm not sure if I would interpret it that way. We should certainly not forget that this whole terminology, also Wittgenstein's, is grafted onto nineteenth century mechanical ideas. Wittgenstein, Mach and Einstein are important scientists and philosophers who marked a pivoting point between the nineteenth and twentieth century. In spite of their innovative work and the introduction of completely new ideas about the relationship between nature, science and society, concepts like accident and mishap still have heavy archaic overtones which facilitate a mental leap to a classical concept like "The Fall of Human."

Anyway, during the last few decades I have intensely focused on falling in the metaphorical sense. Normally speaking, falling is a very primary concept. For falling is something that just happens physically. I was especially interested in reducing human behavior to its most elementary form, to something which cannot possibly be taken back any further. The idea of falling directly resulted from a way of linear thinking that I was entertaining at the time to get a clear picture of the use of electricity in music. When I myself started experimenting with electronic music in the fifties and sixties, I did not do so in the first place as a composer, although that played a role too, but rather as an analyst. I was especially interested in the methodical or, if you wish, phenomenological side of making electric music. I was interested in finding the basic principle behind the fact that you could make music with the use of electricity by just turning a few knobs. At the time, I was already an educator in heart and soul, I wanted to know how everything worked; not from a technical point of view but socially and interactively. What happens in the head of a composer when he wants a certain tone to be followed by another tone by electronic means. I wanted to put my finger on the fundamental difference between a violin tone and a generator tone. Not the obscure difference between the two, for we all know this, but the essential difference.

To give an example, I experience a violin tone as a tone that you have to carry forwards, so to speak, a tone whose creation is a continuous process. With a generator tone, it is exactly the other way around. You switch it on by pressing or turning a knob and you get a linear tone that continues until you switch it "off." This tone can do without you, whereas a violin tone cannot, not even for a fraction of a second. The energy, the volume of this generator tone comes straight from the mains, it is not yours. The violin tone is in fact yours. Music experts will say: that is his tone, beautiful! Well, the continuous generator tone is absolutely related to the fall in this respect. Falling is also a continuous process, until the moment you hit the floor, where the fall reaches its climax. When you fall, it is not your own doing either, external factors are at play, unless you start doing stunts when you are dangling safely from a parachute after having jumped from a plane. But that is more a confirmation than a negation of what I am arguing.

That is why I have chosen the fall as a beautiful metaphor, a beautiful model as well, for something that you first have to prepare and then try to bring to a climax. You just turn a knob and the energy flows from that which is falling. You get this energy for free while looking on with your hands in your pockets. That is why the fall corresponds to the most rudimentary aspect of music. There is nothing more elementary in music than the sound of a fall. At the academy of music, you can learn how to play the violin, to strum a guitar or hammer away at a piano and percussion instruments, and blow copper and wooden cylinders, but they do not teach you anything about falling. I am very fond of such simple paradoxical theories and want to find out the exact reason for this. The answer is that the fall takes place after the essential part of the music is already over, and this essential part is making music, together with others. A fall sometimes produces an enormously interesting sound, but such a sound will never ever be written down in any concert score. That is why the fall is such an excellent model for me, especially because I make electronic music. You have no part in the creation of electronic sounds. These sounds come into being when you push a button, to put it bluntly.

 

BREAKING DOWN

BL: Equipment breaking down is also a very important theme in your thinking as well as in your work. You once gave an interview to Elmer Schönberger and his tape recorder broke down. Elmer had to laugh and snigger about this, to which you reacted by asking yourself aloud: "Why this laughter?" And you immediately gave the answer yourself: "Technology can be equated with improperly acquired energy and result. (...) Have you ever seen a farmer laughing after he had worked his fingers to the bone in the fields? This farmer looks serious." This breaking down of things and this improperly acquired energy is something that is indeed very important to you.

DR: It sure is. I am interested in the typical aspects of a machine, and especially the division of labor resulting from the advent of the machine in our society. Nowadays, you do not have to swing a hammer yourself but just push a button here and unleash a tremendous hammering somewhere else. Over the last century, the distance between you and your place of work has increased enormously, which is a typical result of machines. When I am investigating this dichotomy within the world of modern art and question this using artistic means, I am liable to become pedantic. Like: "machines should be banned!, I prefer the honest paintbrush", or something to that effect. I am purely interested in the relationship between reality, my ideas about reality and the way these ideas can be molded into artistic forms as effectively as possible. The way I go about it, you soon arrive at reductions of this reality into all kinds of archaic forms.

For instance, in a performance I let a cyclist take half an hour to get off his bike, or let him fall off his bike at this tempo; all impossible movements that require the utmost of the performer. Magnificent to watch, these primal images.

People like Bell and Edison were two pioneers in the field of disconnecting sound and people. Sound transmission and sound recording are the two important concepts that mark the beginning of our new society. So you could say that their inventions – the telephone and the gramophone – are the fruits of doing a deal with the devil in which the human voice – our soul – is sacrificed in exchange for an unbridled multiplication of our voice, both in distance and time. The sound quality of our voice was absolutely terrible on this first gramophone and telephone, but it saved an enormous amount of time and distance. As a result, the separation between what you say and the fact that you say something became a fact. The true meaning of really possessing your own voice without it being taken from you by others manifests itself in wartime, when people are put under pressure to tell things they absolutely want to keep secret. These people are put under pressure to confess things they want to keep to themselves. Under such circumstances, you behavior what is going on, that you are selling something – your voice, your secrets, your most intimate thoughts – when you finally give in. There are also people who, if necessary, allow themselves to be tortured to death but do not give away anything which could betray others. In such cases, this silence often takes on very heroic forms.

My voice is my conscience, and what is in my head is mine. But the moment others start exploiting and selling my voice with the help of all kinds of technical equipment, this voice is no longer mine. I have literally sold it. All this has to do with the "soul." I cannot give away my soul just like that either. Under pressure, I cannot just betray my friends on the pretext of "oh, it's just my voice, it doesn?t mean that much." Of course this is different in everyday life: I am talking and you are recording my voice, and in a moment you will be taking my voice away in your bag. That is all part of the daily routine; putting a device in front of me and using it to steal my voice. Only, we do not call it stealing but recording and reproducing.

 

THE OUTSIDER

BL: Your work is very analytical. A large part of it is based on taking things apart. In an interview with the Volkskrant, you once said that your work is tragic and cold by definition and in the same article you said that it is important to be at the edge of things, almost outside of them. If we think about how technology has developed over the last few years, is it still possible to stay on the sidelines? It gets more and more difficult to distinguish between technology and nature. For instance, the millennium problem is largely caused by the fact that we no longer know exactly how certain computer programs were made, not even if we meticulously analyze them. Even to the inventors of these programs, protecting the base codes of computer analyze is of such crucial importance that they are obliged to forget them. It is like the builders of the pyramids, their knowledge has also been forgotten or at any rate lost. It has completely disappeared. We ourselves have become like cyborgs – surrounded by technology, integrated with technology, technology that influences our genes. How can we not take part? Can we stay on the sidelines? Can we continue to be so analytical?

DR: That's a very good observation, I think. Let us not forget that I have been in the privileged position to witness a totally unexpected integration of two established disciplines, music and technology, from the beginning. And that I have been able to follow this development literally from the sidelines. At the time, this integration was quite simply called electronic music. When it came about, it was more a kind of congealing, an odd way of reciprocal use than a really tightly-knit integration. Music had been using technology for reproduction purposes for several decades, and up to this day there is even something like a music industry, but at a creative level this integration did not come about until after the Second World War.

Why do I call my position at the time privileged? Because I was in a position to witness what was happening when the peace of the traditional music world was rudely shattered by a kind of electronic meteorite which radically penetrated music. Technology penetrated music and caused a shock wave. It also caused a shock wave of expectations and utopian dreams which people would not be able to express in words for some time to come. But also a shock wave of dismay and disapproval: "Music cannot be mechanized just like that!" "We will not be plugged into the mains!", said the composer and director of the academy of music Kees van Baaren at the time. He also said to me: "As long as I live, I will prevent this from happening; that a violinist is plugged into the mains." So it was sort of a terrifying idea to him. This shock wave was very interesting and I have tried to capture it in a publication entitled De kleine mechanica van de open vorm (Mechanics of the open form). It is about what happens when music and technology come in contact with each other. Anyway, we have come an unbelievably long way since then.

To put it bluntly, my time is now over. I have run out of models for my repertoire. If you labor it the way you do: no, you cannot stay on the sidelines. You can feel that you want to have nothing to with it, but it is no longer possible to consciously stay on the sidelines. As you just said, sidelines no longer exist. The new world is or is becoming electronic, look at the Internet, and there are no more sidelines, only sideroads. But that is something else. Nor is it possible to be against such a development any longer, to be against this new world. It is no longer possible to adopt a stance of "I'm against it." If you apply this to my own work, I am not against anything.

Somewhere, slowly but surely, a whole new set of concepts geared to these new problems is developing. Look at what you are working on and what some politicians, the best ones at any rate, are trying to do; developing new concepts about society. It is no longer possible to help the Third World using the language of missionaries either. Nevertheless, you still see slogans like "without your help we are lost." That sort of stale attitude will have to go. That image of a road on which aid workers are painstakingly struggling along. And all the time we are helping them and pushing these aid workers along. There are no more roads, there are only networks. The concept of an "electronic highway" is stale as well and will also disappear in the long run. That is the way it will be and nothing can change that.

© 1998 Dick Raaijmakers / V2_

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