What is your favorite piece for percussion ensembles

Martin Grubinger, the universal drummer

Austrian multi-percussionist Martin Grubinger plays everything from chamber music and contemporary classical music to salsa and rock. He has performed with orchestras around the world - the Berliner Philharmoniker, BBC Philharmonic, New York Philharmonic, to name a few - but it was also the intermission at the finale of the Eurovision Song Contest. Composers like HK Gruber, Olga Neuwirth and Peter Eötvös have written concerts for him and his ensemble, which he founded together with his drummer father. He is also a professor of percussion instruments and runs a music magazine on German television.

His infectious positive energy is immediately noticeable when we talk on the phone, his friendly and upbeat demeanor brightens a rather gray afternoon in London.

“I was born with a drum kit,” he tells me. “We always had instruments at home and my father is a real enthusiast. I remember his students coming to our house and I always tried to listen to the lessons. I've always been fascinated by how cool these guys were when they played the drums and I just wanted to do the same. I've played the recorder, double bass and piano, but drums have always been a part of my life. "

A quick look at YouTube shows that Grubinger can make music with anything from a carillon to a garden fence, but with a personal collection of hundreds of instruments - everyone is treated like family at home - it's hard to pinpoint favorites. “It depends on which piece I'm preparing for my next concert, or sometimes on my mood. I might wake up in the morning and want to play the snare drum, the marimba or the vibraphone, but in the end it's the variety of possibilities [I like], not just the variety of instruments, but the variety of styles. My main focus is on contemporary classical music, but also on African drumming, Afro-Cuban music, taiko drums, salsa, samba, tango, funk, rock, pop, jazz, fusion ... there are so many and the drums always play one central role. I love to improvise, develop new instruments ... There are always new goals to be achieved with drums. "

An example of his diversity can be seen in the score, which Grubinger often describes as “the perfect piece”. "Pléïades by Iannis Xenakis is a percussion symphony, ”he explains. "It takes 60 minutes, has four sentences, and in the second he prescribes what is known as a sixx." The composer explains what it is, what materials to use, but the instructions intentionally leave room for interpretation.

“It was so fascinating for us to develop it,” says Grubinger. “Xenakis gives the soloists the opportunity to make their own instrument. So if you watch different videos of the piece, you can tell that everyone is using a different instrument. This is just one example, but there are so many options and that is what makes the drums so special. "

As with athletes, the fitness level of a drummer requires rigorous training due to the often strenuous nature of the performance. “During a concert in Frankfurt two weeks ago, we did a test to see what the physical stress of a drummer on stage is. We were quite surprised because the maximum heart rate was 198, the average heart rate was 165, and these statistics can be compared to those of soccer players. When I'm at home, I try to exercise every day. We have a lot of snow in Austria at the moment, so I go skiing a lot. "


At least Grubinger is not alone in his musical marathons. He plays with the Ensemble Percussive Planet alongside his father, friends and students.

“We had the idea for the ensemble 15 years ago, my father and I were just in the car to Switzerland. We thought it would be cool if we found an ensemble that showed the audience the diversity of the drumming world, not just the instruments, but the players and of course the repertoire. We have invited drummers from all over the world, from Venezuela, Burkina Faso, Brazil, Chile, Morocco, Turkey, to start different projects with us. We wanted to play contemporary music, but we included anything in our program that we thought would be fun, even with brass, doing big band pieces. It's really fun to play with this ensemble because we've been friends with many of them for over two decades and share the same fascination for music. We have put together new programs that combine music by Bach, John Williams, Stravinsky, but also rock, funk and pop to show the audience that music has no limits and that the drums in particular are a global instrument made by such influenced by many traditions and cultures. "

One of the soloists performing with Percussive Planet is acclaimed pianist Yuja Wang. “I met Yuja in 2012 at the Beethovenfest in Bonn. She came backstage after the concert and said: “Martin, we have to work together. That would be so much fun. " So we made different arrangements for this combination, for piano and drums. Yuja's dad is a drummer, so she really cares. It's great to be on stage with her because she plays almost like a drummer herself, and that makes things a lot easier for us. She's a great person, so creative, and so funny in rehearsals. I'm looking forward to our next concerts. "

As the opening concert of the 2018/19 season in the Wiener Konzerthaus, Grubinger - a winner of the Bernstein Award of the Schleswig-Holstein Music Festival - presented a multi-percussion program entitled The Bernstein Experience, which includes a 25-minute portion that calls for the participation of the entire 2,500-strong audience. “We all know that Bernstein was a fantastic conductor and composer, but he was also a fantastic educator. If you watch the videos in which he explains music to children with the New York Philharmonic, you can see his passion for it and how fascinated the audience is with him. It is great. He was a fantastic person too, with a great desire to make a better society. He always said, "I'm liberal and I'm proud of it" and especially at a time like this, with so many right-wing parties coming to power, it's so important to look up to someone like Bernstein who really believed in it that he can make a difference as a person and through his music. I'm pretty sure he would write a drum concert if he were still alive today. "

Part of his busy schedule is the music magazine Click clack, which Grubinger runs together with Sol Gabetta on German television. “I love it”, grins Grubinger. “It gives us the opportunity to present different styles of music as well as cultural traditions and many young artists. I meet musicians, composers and conductors who inspire and motivate me. After ten years we have many supporters, many of whom are seeing the program online all over the world. No matter where I go, people ask me about it. Fortunately, the crew follows us everywhere, for example we're in Gothenburg this month and we're going to record the show there. "

Grubinger's concert with the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Santtu-Matias Rouvali, can be watched LIVE on February 15th on Bachtrack.

"We will Siedi, play the drum concert by Finnish composer Kalevi Aho. It's one of my favorite pieces. Just a few days ago, Kalevi told me that it was the second most popular concert by a Finnish composer, after Sibelius' Violin Concerto, which is great. It's a fantastic piece, with some nice instruments: the djembe from Africa, the darbuka from the Arab countries, a drum kit from the North American and European tradition, the marimba from Central America, the vibraphone, which has a long tradition in North America, wooden blocks and Tomtoms from Asia. It's a journey, from the left side of the stage to the right and back. The piece is a good combination of contemporary music with strong emotions and that's what I like about this piece. "


Grubinger is professor for percussion instruments at the Zurich University of the Arts and at the Mozarteum University in Salzburg.

“We have the pre-college system in Austria, which allows young people between the ages of 12 and 18 to take classes at our university. It's fascinating how fast they are and it's fun to work with young people, to see how fast they progress. On the other hand, we only have two girls in our drum class, and my biggest wish for the next 10 to 20 years is to see more women play the drums and study. It is still a "boys instrument". Even in my own ensemble we sometimes have 35 musicians on stage and there is a maximum of one or two women, which is a bit sad. There should be more. "

And although he clearly enjoys his job, hard work is the basis of Grubinger's success.

“My advice to aspiring drummers is to be creative, try to be motivated, and work hard because to be honest - and I tell my students this - of course it's talent sometimes, but the most important thing is discipline. Standing in the rehearsal room at two in the morning and practicing for another hour isn't always fun, but it makes a difference.Be open, travel, listen to other styles of music and other musicians, try to connect with contemporary composers, but at the same time be focused and - this is what I really learned from my father - try to love and enjoy the music what you do."

Grubinger has quite a few projects in the pipeline for 2019. A new piece by Icelandic composer Daníel Bjarnason will be completed later this year, and a new percussion concerto by Turkish pianist and composer Fazıl Say will premiere with the Dresden Philharmonic in March. After playing all over the world, there is only one continent left to conquer.

“I've never played in Africa, which is really sad because I think this continent is so important for drummers. I've traveled to Africa to learn more about the musical tradition, to discover new drummers and new percussion instruments, but I've never performed there as a musician, it's a dream for the future. "


Find Martin Grubinger's future concerts here.

Translated into German by Elisabeth Schwarz.