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

Composer Joey Roukens.Statue Judith Jockel

When Joey Roukens (40), a pharmacist’s son from Vlaardinger-Ambacht, was 10 years 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 leafed through it daily and came to the realization that one day he would also have to make such a symphony. In fact, he should have started quickly. He was in a hurry.

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

As a 16-year-old high school student, he finally considered himself mature enough. Two years later came the completion, everything neatly orchestrated. The piece was also performed by musicians from the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra 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. I see it as a childhood sin, it’s a naive mix of Igor Stravinsky, Morton Feldman and Tan Dun. But when I found the sketches again, I was also surprised at how detailed it all had already been.’

‘The first’

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

‘I woke up and suddenly it was like having a vacuum cleaner against my ears. I could no longer bear large groups of people and city noise; I couldn’t play the piano anymore, I couldn’t go to a cafe. It is a loud ultrasonic beep, a sound like a mosquito plug, but much louder and wider. The tone is too high and diffuse to determine what note it is. A low c, I could have lived with that; 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 back and 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, it must 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 who cannot sit. If I could go to the premiere, the audience sees me move from my chair all the time, they think: what kind of idiot is that? That’s why I’m glad 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 go away, but there is no medical treatment to cure it. The multitude of possible causes makes targeted treatment to alleviate the symptoms more difficult. All kinds of therapy are possible, but there is not yet one effective pill. Most people learn to live with it, but for those who are constantly busy with their ears, 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 the Netherlands. His work has been played by the Concertgebouw Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic, among others. His style is unabashedly eclectic: like no other he is able to combine pop influences, such as a compelling pulse, and reveling orchestral playing. His double piano concerto was a great success In Unison (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 him awake. ‘Fear amplifies everything. I live alone and have no girlfriend now who can help me put things into perspective. It sounds very pathetic, but there have been days when I thought: I don’t want to live like this. It was that bad. I’m relieved that those thoughts are gone. But I’m still gloomy, my energy level is minimal. I always liked whimsical music with lots of notes, my own music is like that too. If I set something up now, it’s calm piano, for example Frederic Mompou.

‘I studied psychology. That’s what my parents wanted me to study something serious. You would think that as a psychologist you are trained to recognize patterns and therefore you should be able to find the tools to pull yourself out of the shit, but that is difficult. You know that it is better to accept your ailment than to fight against it, but how do you translate that into practice? I now do those mindfulness-like exercises: focusing very much on simple household tasks. Washing the dishes and then being very conscious about it, 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 the summer of 2021, but the tone didn’t bother me. I knew the horror stories and considered myself lucky that I didn’t have it to that extent. In July of this year, my uncle took me to a Joe Jackson concert and it struck me how loud it all came in. I felt like I was being pulled a lot. For the first time, I was in danger of missing a deadline, even though it was a relatively simple, short piece 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. That did me good. In my sleepless nights, the sounds that would have disturbed me in the past now gave me comfort and peace. The crickets and crowing rooster distracted me from that squeak. I then decided that I would not let my life take over. That abyss won’t come back.’


Fortunately, the score had already been handed in when De Piep presented itself. That also applied to that other big piece of his that will premiere this fall, again in such a loaded genre. At the invitation of the November Music festival in Den Bosch, he wrote a requiem, the Mass for the Dead. That piece 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 find it interesting that when composers make music that should offer comfort, they always 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 embrace that tradition and pay some sort of tribute to it.’

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


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

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

The amount can then be determined. Duck.

Joey Roukens’ First Symphony is played by the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra on 14/10 in De Doelen, Rotterdam, and on 15/10 in TivoliVredenburg, Utrecht. To be Requiem will sound on 3/11 in the Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ in Amsterdam and on 4/11 in the Jheronimus Bosch Art Center, Den Bosch.

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