His First Symphony is finally performed – but he himself suffers from tinnitus and hears ‘vacuum cleaners’

When Joey Roukens (40), a pharmacist’s son from Vlaardinger-Ambacht, was 10years old, he received a book as a gift. The great symphonies it was called,picked up by his mother at the local V&D. The diligent piano student leafedthrough it daily and came to the realization that one day he would also haveto make such a symphony. In fact, he should have started quickly. He was in ahurry.

‘I knew: when I grow up to become a composer, I will become a composer ofsymphonies’, Roukens says thirty years later. ‘Piano concertos or chambermusic interested me much less. I saw the symphony as a sacred medium, thehighest you could achieve. But then I read that Mozart already wrote his firstsymphony at the age of eight. Shit, I thought, I’m two years late! AndSchubert was 16 or so. I really had to hurry.’

As a 16-year-old high school student, he finally considered himself matureenough. Two years later came the completion, everything neatly orchestrated.The piece was also performed by musicians from the Netherlands PhilharmonicOrchestra in a series for young composers in Lantaren Window in Rotterdam.Only he got one urgent piece of advice: Joey, don’t name it Symphony No. 1.’The programmer thought that was quite pretentious. He was right, of course. Isee it as a childhood sin, it’s a naive mix of Igor Stravinsky, Morton Feldmanand Tan Dun. But when I found the sketches again, I was also surprised at howdetailed it all had already been.’

‘The first’

Now that ‘real’ full-length symphony that may bear the name ‘the First’ ishere. The Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra will premiere the piece – fortyminutes, four movements – on Friday in De Doelen. Only the circumstances forthe composer are less pleasant. It is very uncertain whether Roukens himselfcan be there. Since the beginning of August he has been “a prisoner in a headfull of noise,” he says.

‘I woke up and suddenly it was like having a vacuum cleaner against my ears. Icould no longer bear large groups of people and city noise; I couldn’t playthe piano anymore, I couldn’t go to a cafe. It is a loud ultrasonic beep, asound like a mosquito plug, but much louder and wider. The tone is too highand diffuse to determine what note it is. A low c, I could have lived withthat; then I would just have built all my pieces around that tone.’

During the interview of more than an hour, he gets up six times and moves backand forth. ‘That added to it. If I sit for ten minutes, I just have to get up.I get an uncomfortably warm feeling. The doctors don’t know what it is, itmust be psychosomatic. It’s a wiring flaw in the body that needs to be fixed.”

Dan, laughing: ‘Somehow it is a beautiful story: a composer with tinnitus whocannot sit. If I could go to the premiere, the audience sees me move from mychair all the time, they think: what kind of idiot is that? That’s why I’mglad I can tell this story, so everyone knows what’s wrong with me.’

Phantom sound

Tinnitus, a phantom noise as a symptom of physical or mental strain, can goaway, but there is no medical treatment to cure it. The multitude of possiblecauses makes targeted treatment to alleviate the symptoms more difficult. Allkinds of therapy are possible, but there is not yet one effective pill. Mostpeople learn to live with it, but for those who are constantly busy with theirears, that can be more difficult – including in the case of Roukens.

Unabashedly eclectic

Joey Roukens is one of the most played and beloved composers in theNetherlands. His work has been played by the Concertgebouw Orchestra and theNew York Philharmonic, among others. His style is unabashedly eclectic: likeno other he is able to combine pop influences, such as a compelling pulse, andreveling orchestral playing. His double piano concerto was a great success InUnison (2018) for Lucas and Arthur Jussen, which was recently released on CD.

The greatest panic is over. He’s a little better, but the tone still keeps himawake. ‘Fear amplifies everything. I live alone and have no girlfriend now whocan help me put things into perspective. It sounds very pathetic, but therehave been days when I thought: I don’t want to live like this. It was thatbad. I’m relieved that those thoughts are gone. But I’m still gloomy, myenergy level is minimal. I always liked whimsical music with lots of notes, myown music is like that too. If I set something up now, it’s calm piano, forexample Frederic Mompou.

‘I studied psychology. That’s what my parents wanted me to study somethingserious. You would think that as a psychologist you are trained to recognizepatterns and therefore you should be able to find the tools to pull yourselfout of the shit, but that is difficult. You know that it is better to acceptyour ailment than to fight against it, but how do you translate that intopractice? I now do those mindfulness-like exercises: focusing very much onsimple household tasks. Washing the dishes and then being very conscious aboutit, that helps not to get lost in my stream of thoughts.’

Vacuum cleaner sound

How did he get the beep? ‘That is also puzzling. It was already there in thesummer of 2021, but the tone didn’t bother me. I knew the horror stories andconsidered myself lucky that I didn’t have it to that extent. In July of thisyear, my uncle took me to a Joe Jackson concert and it struck me how loud itall came in. I felt like I was being pulled a lot. For the first time, I wasin danger of missing a deadline, even though it was a relatively simple, shortpiece for a small ensemble. I became a zombie with all kinds of complaints.And then suddenly there was that vacuum cleaner.

‘In the late summer I was on holiday on the Greek island of Kefalonia. Thatdid me good. In my sleepless nights, the sounds that would have disturbed mein the past now gave me comfort and peace. The crickets and crowing roosterdistracted me from that squeak. I then decided that I would not let my lifetake over. That abyss won’t come back.’


Fortunately, the score had already been handed in when De Piep presenteditself. That also applied to that other big piece of his that will premierethis fall, again in such a loaded genre. At the invitation of the NovemberMusic festival in Den Bosch, he wrote a requiem, the Mass for the Dead. Thatpiece will be performed by the Nederlands Kamerkoor and Amsterdam Sinfonietta.

‘I also always wanted to make a requiem. I just really like that form and findit interesting that when composers make music that should offer comfort, theyalways go back to the old, archaic. It is as if the text invites you to do so.There is often a lot of counterpoint, also in my piece. I wanted to embracethat tradition and pay some sort of tribute to it.’

But anyone who composes a requiem in 2022 will be left with a Latin and Greektext that for many no longer rhymes with the experience of faith. ‘I filteredthe text. There’s a lot of ridiculous in that. I’ve taken all the godly out ofit. There is no Judgment Day with remembrance. If you let all that in, itbecomes a kind of theatre, that’s not my approach. I sincerely want it to beof comfort. I’ve also put in some comforting English poems by Robert LouisStevenson and Mark Twain.


‘The challenge is to bring the requiem to this time. I’m an atheist, but youcan’t escape that Christian connection, so I wondered what to do with a wordlike “Domine.” Was that supposed to refer to God? I came to the conclusionthat I could also interpret it symbolically, as a container concept ofeverything you can rely on.’

But first the symphony. He also immediately came up with a nickname andsubtitle: the ‘kaleidoskopische’. All his influences, from swollen lateromanticism, timbre explosions to post-minimal with firm rhythm, can be foundin it. The symphony ends as it began: with a single thin, high note.

The amount can then be determined. Duck.