There are nights when Martin Grubinger collapses from exhaustion behind two soundproofed doors in his rehearsal room. Sleep gets the better of him after he spends anything up to 14 hours at his percussion instruments. “I’ve been known to drop off at my marimba,” he says, “and one time I just lay down on the floor next to my drum kit. You play until you are completely exhausted. Eventually your upper body just keels forward. And then you wake up again a few hours later.”
Grubinger, 30, is sitting in the small kitchen on the ground floor of his house in the small town of Neukirchen an der Vockla in Austria. The walls are painted white and there’s the smell of coffee. Grubinger comes across as remarkably fit for someone who spends the night in a music rehearsal room.
Martin Grubinger is the world’s most radical percussionist. He can play several percussion instruments at virtuoso level. He is one of the best in the world at interpreting the marimba, the XXL version of the xylophone. The New York Times called him a “master of the high-speed chase” for his ability to make 40 beats a second on the head of a snare drum. Grubinger is the only kind of musician who plays marathon percussion concerts with classical orchestras that last for hours. His heart pounds away at a rate of up to 195 beats per minute and his weight can drop by up to 4 pounds during a show. Last year, he performed 68 concerts on three continents. His playing has left its mark on a whole section of instruments. Before Grubinger came along, percussionists played in the back row of the orchestra. Now composers are writing pieces just for him. Some of them are so complicated that only he can play them. “What appeals to me is taking things to the limit,” he explains. “I want to know what I can get out of my body and the instrument. As the soloist, you’re playing with 70 musicians in the orchestra. You have to get every single note just right over a period of several hours. You need to be as fit as an endurance athlete, otherwise there’ll be too much acid in your muscles and you won’t have the strength for minutes of frantic activity at a time.”
“But at the same time, you also have to be able to play with feeling, to convey phrasing and volume. You’ve got to be able to do it all, from playing the cymbals almost inaudibly to going mad on the pipe snare – 140 decibels is as loud as a jet fighter taking off.” Grubinger grew up in the Austrian town of Thalgau, near Salzburg, the son of a professor of percussion. As a boy, he heard his father’s pupils practicing in the family home. He says that he learned music in the way other children learn to speak. At the age of 12, he passed the entrance exam for a private university of music in Linz.
That meant regular school lessons in the mornings and undergraduate courses in the afternoons. He left school as soon as he could, at 15, without graduating and with his record showing that he had missed 680 hours’ of lessons. He then spent most of the next six years either in the university’s rehearsal rooms or his bed, so that by the age of 21, he was a virtuoso percussionist, playing internationally in competitions and with orchestras. But this wasn’t enough, so he devised a challenge for himself: play six concerts in a single evening, including three premieres, at the Golden Hall of Viennese Music Association, the most famous concert hall in the world. In all, that would be four-and-a half hours of extremely complex music – 600,000 notes in a single evening, no sheet music. Grubinger would learn the concert by heart. “I’d like to give the drums a new identity,” he said.“You’ll kill yourself,” said one of his former professors.
At 6 p.m. on Nov. 17, 2006, Grubinger took to the stage of the Golden Hall and positioned himself in the middle of a semi-circle made up of 200 percussion instruments: conga drums, bongos, kettledrums, cymbals. Accompanying him was the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra. He began drumming. The veins in his neck began to bulge and sweat dripped from his face onto the heads of the drums. During the breaks, he dipped his hands in ice-cold water.
Afterwards, he was unable to remember large parts of the evening – “I’d got into the flow. I was watching myself drumming. My hands knew by themselves where they had to go” – but he had pulled off this tour de force. His hands were shaking as he took his bow. One review compared his performance to climbing Mount Everest without extra oxygen. The percussion marathon had made Martin Grubinger famous.
It’s dusk in Austria and Grubinger is looking out of a window at coniferous trees and gentle hills in the rock-star house he had built last year. The living area on the first floor is made up of three glass cubes. On the ground floor, the rehearsal room measures 2,150 sq ft. Lead doors keep the music in check and the windows are triple-glazed. Visiting musicians can practice here around the clock. Grubinger had a bedroom built for them. A delivery ramp leads straight to the rehearsal room. “I need that to survive,” he explains. He takes six tons of equipment with him when he’s on the road with an orchestra. “You’d go mad if you had to drag stuff up to the first floor.” With a packed 2014 concert schedule, Grubinger has to practice, so at about 9 p.m., he heads for his rehearsal room. There’s just one point to clear up: how do you learn 600,000 notes by heart?
“You break the concert down into movements. You break the movements down into units of four bars each. You then practice those four bars, for weeks if necessary, at the lowest level you can set on the metronome: 35bpm. You practice those four bars until they become second nature. Then you practice the next four. Learning marathon concerts by heart is the same as learning choreography.”
Grubinger doesn’t use music stands.“I don’t like them. They get between me and the audience. Music stands block off my power.”
If you want to understand what Grubinger means by his power, type the words “planet rudiment” into YouTube and click on the top result. Rudiments are technical exercises as practised by percussion pupils during lessons. Planet Rudiment is a piece Grubinger wrote that ramps the technique up to the extreme. At his concerts, he usually saves it for last. In the video, Grubinger stands in front of a black pipe snare. He takes a deep breath and then starts to rap his drumsticks on the taut drumhead. The tempo rises until his sticks disappear in a blur.
He twirls the sticks in his hands time and again; he does tricks so quickly that your eye can barely keep up. In the middle of this frantic activity, Grubinger kneels down by the drum, rolls the left drumstick out of his hand and onto his left forearm and drums that against the drumhead using the right drumstick. Grubinger stands up again, never missing a beat. He builds to his finale, pectoral muscles twitching, face contorted into a grimace. He is now drumming for all he’s worth and it sounds like machine gun fire. He ends the piece with a single, resounding thwack on the drum’s metal edge, then gasps for air.
In four minutes, everything you need to know about him and his 10-year concert career: speed, precision and virtuosity, all pepped up with a hint of crazy.