We Interviewed Joris Voorn's Family About the Importance of a Musical Upbringing

In the quaint country house where the techno giant grew up, music education was mandatory.

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Oct 6 2016, 1:54am

Rebecca Camphens

All photos by Rebecca Camphens.

"If you visited our house thirty years ago," assures Joris Voorn, "you'd hear people struggling with sheet music from every bedroom." We're sitting in a circle in the living room of a big, old house in the Dutch countryside. In the corner stands a stately piano; near my feet lies a children's music toy. Next to me sits Voorn's 83 year-old father Joop, his sister Hadewijch, his mother Marijke, and brother Jesse. Joris himself, aged 39, sits on the couch with his youngest child on his lap. Yes, almost the entire Voorn family is in attendance.

There's a good reason for this little get-together in the house where one of Holland's most prominent techno DJ grew up: It's the Friday before Voorn will play in the Royal Concert Hall in Amsterdam. The rest of the family also has a history with the iconic venue. Hadewijch sang there in many operas, and Jesse played a DJ gig there once. But it all started with the head of the family, modern classical composer Joop Voorn, who wrote a piece for the hundred-year anniversary of VU University, which was performed in the concert hall. It was one of the highlights of his career.

The scene inside the house is exactly like you'd expect when a family comes together in such a special place. The kids return to their old roles, and the parents keep pointing out that important events went slightly different than their kids remember.

I start my conversation with the family by stating the obvious. "You're shaped by the way you're raised by your parents," I say, "and the fact that you, Joop, are a distinguished composer has probably meant a lot for your musical upbringing, right, Joris?" Joris laughs. "Of course! he replies. "Do you see that turntable behind you? It's probably forty years old, but it was almost never used. I remember how my dad played the piano virtually every morning, with the sunlight falling through that window. And we were all forced..." Jesse and Hadewijch begin to chuckle. "...to learn how to play an instrument."

"They also played sports!" Joops yells.

"Not me," says Joris.

"Yes you did, you played ice hockey!" argues his mother.

"Nope," Joris protests. "Anyway, we had to practice for an hour every day. We did that with mixed feelings."

From 5 PM to 6 PM was the daily study hour, I learn. All the kids had to play piano, cello or saxophone. Joris played violin from when he was 7 years old until he was 16.

"When you were practicing the violin while dad was in the kitchen, and you played a wrong note? Yeah, you'd hear about it," reflects Hadewijch.

"Of course, you hear the mistakes," admits Joop. And if they're exceptionally bad mistakes, you have to do something about it."

Joris has a wry smile on his face. "Yes, yes, OK..."

That's all good and well, but the music that father Voorn made was also labeled as noise by many people during its time. For a while he worked on twelve tone serialism, a method of musical composition initially shunned by most, before it was later widely accepted in the 20th century. "Later I went back to composing 'normally,' but it was probably still atonal," says Joop.

"We were often dragged along to openings and premieres," Joris reminisces. "You really had to sit those ones out."

"There's some really funny pictures of Joris and Jesse standing outside of the concert hall," says father Joop. "They were trying to distance themselves. Joris looked like a beggar that didn't want to come in."

Joris laughs. "Yeah, I was a skater at the time and I always brought my skateboard," he says. "As you can see, the countryside isn't really a good place for skating. I always hoped I could find some concrete before or after a premiere. Only when I was in my twenties I started to appreciate and understand my dad's music. I can remember a premiere in the cathedral in Den Bosch. It was an organ concert and it resonated with me tremendously. I thought back to my whole musical upbringing, where I came from, and all the musical moments we had together.

"There was a period when I studied sheet music and listened to CDs to hear how his compositions were put together," says Jesse. "You know everything about your dad, but it was very interesting to look at it this way." I say that I can imagine getting to know their father better through his music.

"I get what you mean, and you hear similarities," says Jesse. "My father is very calculating and pragmatic, his music's the same. Sometimes it's almost mathematical, deliberate, with the occasional joke. That's what I find the most beautiful. You have these great finds, like a joke that really gets your attention."

Joop smiles. "You might be right."

The first time Joris' parents went to one of his shows was in 2003, he remembers. "I did a live set with Jeff Mills. Back then I played a lot harder than now, and my mom and dad were startled in the back of the club," he says. "Hadewijch, you were probably there as well to hold their hands? And the first time I showed my music to my parents... I think I left my first album on the kitchen table for them to listen to."

"Joop didn't like it at all," says Marijke.

"I was a bit scared of the criticism," Joris admits. "In modern classical music there's a lot of composers that work with repetition in extreme forms, like Arvo Pärt and Philip Glass for instance. But that's more organic, maybe also more musical than the mechanical repetition of a drum computer. I think they never quite understood it."

"No, well, I mean, it's not music to listen to," says his father Joop. "I've said in the past: There should be more things happening, a little more variation, a little more growth. But you do that in a different way. Of course a lot of people dance to it, but that's not how we approach music. We just listen."

Still, they were there, like proud parents, when Joris played in the Concert Hall last year. "We were quite the attraction," Marijke says laughing. "People sat next to us, started to pet us."

"They could see we weren't part of the target audience, so a lot of people asked us how we ended up there," says Joop.

I ask Joop if he enjoyed his son's set. He's silent for a moment. "I'm not sure. It's hard for me to say," he says finally. "What surprised me the most, was that he played Barber's 'Adagio for Strings.'"

"Yes, that's a beautiful piece," says Joris. "I used to take the vinyl out of my parents collection and play it at gigs. But Ferry Corsten, Tiësto and more DJs have tried to remix it or recreate it. I thought it was a good piece to play as it is. Sometimes you can create a moment that people don't expect, and that can have a huge impact if you take a piece that everyone knows."

Joop has also collaborated with Joris, they say. "MoMo" wasn't written by father and son behind the piano, but came to fruition via e-mail. Joop smiles: "You just send the MIDI-files. That's the way to compose these days, right?"

This whole time, Joris' youngest child is climbing off and on his father's legs. Does Joris want to pass the love for music he inherited from his father on to his kids? "It might sound strange, but I'm not really concerned with that," he says. "I was always addicted to music. The first thing I did when I woke up was put on a CD. But eh, since I'm making music myself, and traveling a lot, I don't listen to a lot of music at home." "It's a shame, because I often hear from DJ colleagues, 'My dad used to play soul music from the seventies, or disco, or this or that.'" he says. "I'm not giving my kids a good example. But well, tomorrow we have an appointment with a potential violin teacher for my oldest son. He's four and a half now, and it would be amazing if he learned to play an instrument. I took him along to Awakenings, and held him in my arms while I was playing to 6,000 people. He loved it. I'll take him along to festivals more often, but they'll probably rebel against it and start to think it's boring. That's what it's like, right? You try to pass on as much knowledge as you can, and you can only hope they turn out alright."