Martin Grubinger was still a young man, although already a well-known percussionist, when he attended a performance of my Chansons with H. K. Gruber and three musicians from the “die reihe” ensemble. He very much liked my differentiated treatment of the percussion; Gruber introduced us and Grubinger asked me if I would write a concerto for him. It took a little time before my musical imagination took hold of that, but then I composed the piece in one go in 2007/2008.
While I was writing it I had not yet heard Grubinger play, and I never tried to contact him while I was working; I did not want to be influenced in any way – yet today I read that I had written the piece as if tailor-made for him and – although he described it as the most difficult thing he had ever played – he made it his own so brilliantly that the description seemed to fit.
Each of the piece’s three movements has its own array of solo instruments, the percussionist changing positions in every one until, at the end, he returns to his initial one. (Contrary to custom, exact pitches are given for all the percussion instruments – even the tom-toms, temple blocks, wood blocks and cowbells).
The first and third sections of the first movement and the end of the piece are marked by eruptive blocks of sound, the drums dominating. The orchestral texture consists of three layers of short pitches of sophisticated rhythmical organisation, based on a magic square in which different sequences of figures total 34. Continuous motion is provided by the soloist and a single horns and tuba line only. The overall effect is of an insistent, drilling character.
The second movement is more lyrical, dominated by resonating instruments –vibraphone, bells, gongs, crotales and bowls. Together, they create an impression of a calm, sonic carpet. Polymetric organisation provides motion within that area; various instruments repeat pitches separated equally but varying in length in the individual voices, yielding differing simultaneous adjacent speeds. I was originally stimulated by observing the slow movements of heavenly bodies and ways of catching up and overtaking which play a part in many areas of life.
I am especially fond of one very calm passage where extremely short events in the percussion break through very quiet string and wind chords. Experiences in the stillness of the nocturnal forest – a snap of a twig, a rustling in the leaves, a tired, faint birdcall – may well have played a role in my imagination.
The third movement has a scherzo-like character, the high, clear sounds of the xylophone, wood blocks and log drums dominating the motion in a frenzied tempo. The classic sound of a solo instrument is often omitted in recent concert literature – but I love the interaction of a solo instruments and its compatriots in the orchestra in my instrumental concerti; in this movement, there even develops a distinct, transient interchange between the solo xylophone and the xylophone player in the orchestra, this “counter-soloist” imitating or continuing the soloist’s phrases.
The final section of the last movement returns – not verbatim, of course – to the eruptive drum events of the first movement, before it closes by repeating the beginning in mirrored form, i.e. cancrizans.