An interview with Joey Roukens ahead of the World Premiere of his Percussion Concerto in Rotterdam May 2011

CC Congratulations! You just wrote a percussion concerto. Did you always know you had one in you, or has this project taken you by surprise?

JR Thanks! I have always been very fond of using a lot of percussion in my orchestral and ensemble writing and during my student days I had already written various pieces for percussion soloist and ensemble for a percussion student’s final exam (in fact, the fiendishly difficult cadenza in your concerto originated in one of those early pieces, but for you I made the music much more difficult, with many more notes…). So at least I knew I had a certain affinity for the medium of the percussion concerto and I didn’t hesitate a moment when I was asked to write a percussion concerto. The biggest surprise, however, came when I heard that the soloist in question would be Colin Currie… I was really thrilled about that!

CC This is the first in a series of ‘Rotterdam Concertos’ commissioned by the De Doelen Hall. Having learnt the solo part and studied the score I would also say it acknowledges certain compositional traits recognisible in The Netherlands. Is this an especially ‘dutch’ work of art would you say?

JR It is, by definition, a “Dutch” work, because I am a Dutch composer, I have lived in the Netherlands all my life and a composer’s music will naturally reflect the place and time in which he or she lives. If you ask me, “is it a typically Dutch work?”, I would say: no, not particularly. True, the piece shows various characteristics that may be regarded as typically Dutch – clarity of expression, clear lines, propulsive rhythms, Andriessen-like unisonos, minimalist elements, a Stravinskian bite – but the piece also shows many “un-Dutch” elements: one might hear undertones of French music in the first movement (which I wrote in a period when I listened a lot to French composers) and of course very un-Dutch are the expressive, pathos-laden romantic moments in the second and fourth movements which I feel are clearly indebted to Mahler and Sibelius. Unlike most Dutch composers, I am not averse to big emotional gestures and my great love for late-romanticism shines through in my music quite overtly, to an extent that many colleagues would regard as sentimental or cheap. What is also very un-Dutch about the piece is its eclecticism and heterogeneity: the piece is saturated with the most diverse influences (a natural consequence of living in a time in which all those diverse influences are part of the musical air we breathe) and I tend to pack a lot of different ideas into one piece. Dutch composers generally prefer more homogeneity, more stylistic purity, more economy of material (e.g., one idea stretched out over a whole piece) – maybe that all harkens back to our Calvinist tradition or maybe it’s a remnant of modernist thinking.

CC Two of the movements suggest the style of ‘pop ballad’ perhaps, with the titles ‘I remember this place’ and ‘It’s over, my friend’ pointing us further in that direction. Do you have anything more to say about these movements? Are they personal in some way?

JR Indeed, these two momevements have strong ties to certain types of pop music that I like (for instance, the ambient works of Brian Eno and Aphex Twin or the atmospheric ballads of Radiohead). That’s also why I chose titles sounding like pop song titles. I think for composers of my generation, it should be a more natural thing to use pop elements, since pop music is an inescapable part of our musical DNA and the ever-widening disconuity between so-called serious music and popular music is a worrisome and unhealthy situation, threatening the future of contemporary classical music or even classical music in general.

In the second movement ‘I remember this place’ I wanted to suggest the feeling of experiencing something familiar, but at the same time there’s something darkly strange and misty about it. For instance, the vibraphone plays these continuous streams of repeated minor triads, making the music almost sound like some sort of loungey ambient kind of pop music (I’m sure old-fashioned modernists will find these harmonies too kitschy or even new-agey, but these are harmonies I like and felt I needed to write), but at the same time lots of things happen harmonically and texturally, which all add a certain strangeness to those “familiar” harmonies of minor triads. So, although the music may refer to ambient pop, at the same time it’s clearly something different, something more complex. And that’s something you’ll find a lot in my music: you’ll hear many references to all kinds of music, but whenever I refer to a specific kind or style of music, it never comes out exactly like that kind of music, but always in a transformed way, like a distorted memory – my distorted memory – of that music. In the fourth movement ‘It’s over, my friend’ one will hear the same triad-based harmonies and pop overtones as in the second movement; here moments of sadness and melancholy (because something good is over?) are alternated with moments of hope and optimism (because something bad is over?). Whether the titles refer to something personal is not important: the titles just tell something about the music’s emotional tone, but I don’t want listeners to be too much guided by them.

CC You have written extensively for the un-pitched percussion in addition to excellent usage of the marimba, vibes and xylophone. Many composers shy away from these instruments of indefinite pitch – how did you embark on writing for them?

JR For me, there’s not that much difference between composing for unpitched percussion and composing for pitched instruments, except that in the case of the latter the composer is mainly concerned about the “right” pitches (making up the melodic and harmonic content) and in the case of the former he is mainly concerned about the “right” rhythms and colors. It’s just a matter of switching to a slightly different mode of compositional thinking but the aim is the same: you just want to write notes that sound good. Many composers are probably more “pitch-focused” than “rhythm-focused” which may be the reason why they might shy away from writing for unpitched percussion. The third movement features almost exclusively unpitched percussion and is therefore perhaps the most rhythmically-oriented movement of the concerto. In this movement I chose to keep the melodic and thematic material (of the ensemble) almost primitively simple so that the focus is really on the constantly changing rhythmic grooves, in which one might at times hear undertones of minimalist or even African music. By using a very large set-up of unpitched percussion instruments I tried to exploit many different combinations of color and texture within your solo part, in order to keep the unpitched percussion writing interesting and varied.

CC For me this concerto balances well between playful virtuosity and expressive intensity. What do you hope the audience take away from this premiere?

JR Well, you just gave an excellent description of what I am trying to achieve with this piece. When I started working on the piece, I knew I did not want to write another percussion concerto that would only showcase the wild and virtuosic side of the percussionist. Many percussion concertos I’ve heard tend to be like that – they’re fantastic virtuoso showpieces,

great fun to play and hear, but emotionally they often strike me as a bit bland and shallow. So I hope I have written a piece that will show listeners that percussion, especially in the capable hands of a musician of your caliber, can do more than just the usual virtuoso firework, that it can express a very broad spectrum of moods and emotions, ranging from the wildly virtuosic to the intimately lyrical to the intensely expressive.

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