The Percussive Planet Ensemble was founded seven years ago, when the then 22-year-old Martin Grubinger first performed his Percussive Planet (twelve percussion pieces from around the world) at the Beethoven Festival in Bonn. Here the concept is somewhat different: music from the West (Gérard Grisey and Friedrich Cerha) and the East (Maki Ishii and Keiko Abe), both terrestrial and celestial (Grisey’s Le noir de l’étoile).

The concert is divided into three parts: the first and the last one set the musicians in six different points, star-shaped, with the audience in the middle. Grisey’s Le noir de l’étoile and Cerha’s Étoile have in common the star of the title, and the six percussionists, even if they do not use the same instruments.

Gérard Grisey is associated with the École spectrale (whose other associated composers include Michaël Lévinas, Tristan Murail and Hugues Dufourt), but Le noir de l’étoile is basically built upon rhythm and not spectral musical techniques. The astronomer Joseph Silk introduced the composer to the pulsar: rotating neutron stars, highly magnetized, that generate recurring pulsations. These rhythms become audible on earth when converted in fixed-frequency radio signal. Le noir de l’étoile was written in 1989–90 for six percussionists and tape. The compositional core is the sound of the pulsar Vela (in Salzburg it was pre-recorded). The piece starts with pulses in canon, that gradually spread from one performer to another: the main concept is circularity and interaction. In this first section the ensemble prepares for the star’s arrival. The atmosphere is suggestive and Grubinger works like a shaman. Suddenly the star arrives. It is reminiscent of a running horse. Now the musicians interact with the pulsar, mainly on drums. The star infects the performers with its beats. Then comes a second pulsar, similar to a regular heartbeat. Something transcendental is happening. The musicians’ full mental and physical involvement is like in a trance; it is as if they are out of their bodies. They send us on an interstellar journey. At the end we are plunged in the darkness, contemplating the stars projected on the Felsenreitschule’s rock walls, hearing Vela’s voice.

The second part of the concert connects two strands at Salzburg Festival: Salzburg Contemporary and Ouverture spirituelle, the latter of which has a focus on Japanese music. Maki Ishii’s Thirteen Drums (1985) is written for a soloist playing thirteen skin drums of different sizes. It requires a virtuoso: quick with hands, feet, mallet and sticks, with perfect command of technique. Martin Grubinger plays it without facing the audience. This feature, together with the mix of Western and Japanese music, may recall a ceremony or the sounds of Noh theatre.

A collective rite is the best way to describe Keiko Abe’s The Wave (2000), which celebrates 400 years of cultural and economical exchange between Japan and the Netherlands. Musical rhythms from Japanese tradition give a feeling of mystery. A hazardous journey is going to be undertaken at sea; waves of sounds are navigated by four percussionists with captain Grubinger at the marimba. Pure musical energy. The performers are asked to clap hands, stamp the ground, especially in the last section. They also shout loudly, as Taiko drummers do. Again, the musicians are playing in a circle, with a great sense of comradeship.

In the third part of the evening a work newly commissioned to the Austrian composer Friedrich Cerha was premièred by its dedicatees. Grubinger has been the soloist for Cerha’s Percussion Concerto since 2009. Now Cerha has composed a piece entirely for percussion instruments. Thinking about the Percussive Planet Ensemble and the audience placed in the centre of a big space, Cerha composed a piece whose score grows and grows in instruments. At the end of the compositional process, a huge set of percussion is at each performer’s disposal: marimba, vibraphone, xylophones, glockenspiel, cowbells and more. They will also use a gun, a siren and several bird calls. Both the rhythm and the melody play a part; indeed, each percussion set include a melodic mallet instruments. As a tribute to his Greek colleague, Cerha also uses the so-called “sixxen” – a metallophone tuned microtonally – constructed by Iannis Xenakis for his piece Pleïades (which Grubinger and his group have performed in Salzburg).

Cerha’s Étoile begins with a dramatic fortissimo, followed by a rhythmic element that will recur. Cerha works alternatively on subtle sound shades and little gestures as well as blasts of sound. Polarization is the word that best describes Étoile. It is extreme. Fortissimo and pianissimo may coexist in the same bar, putting the listener to the test. The performers’ complex task is perceivable both within each part, dominated by numerous instruments, and also overall. (The score doesn’t allow a conductor.) This difficult musical writing presents extremely varied rhythmic patterns repeated in different tempi. The composition brings out the best of spatialized music: the public wrapped up in incessant circling rhythms like a star in its constellation. This brand-new Étoile received a thundering ovation.