Review: Mira Martin-Gray – Stick Control For The Air Drummer

FULL SPECTRUM.

This album essentially captures the execution of several snare drills from George Lawrence Stone’s 1935 percussion training book Stick Control For The Snare Drummer, described by the author as aiding improvement in “control, speed, flexibility, touch, rhythm, lightness, delicacy, power, endurance, preciseness of execution and muscular coordination”. Mira Martin-Gray executes these drills perfectly, albeit via an alternate route. In other contexts, “air drumming” refers to a human player rhythmically moving their limbs in the absence of actual drums (and thus silently). Here it’s the precise inverse: each drill is enacted without a real-time human player, instead translated into MIDI data and mapped onto tuned 808 samples, before being beamed at a snare drum that has been prepared in various ways (earrings, steel balls, pinback buttons) – quite literally using air pressure to play the drums. Largely unable to perform percussion anymore due to chronic pain, Mira Martin-Gray drains the utility from these exercises – the persistent refinement of a drummer’s physical technique – and presents them as a technical fact achieved perfectly through mechanical means, rendered as an acoustic event rather than as a companion to intense practice.

Not only have the exercises been stripped of their original purpose, but the sound at the centre of the first three tracks is one often associated with nuisance and redundancy: the buzz of a snare wire against the drumskin, commonly only audible in error (recalling live shows and rehearsals where the drummer has neglected to slacken the wires when the kit isn’t being used, leaving the snare to fizz obnoxiously over quiet performances). It flutters to the rhythm of the MIDI pulse, cycling through the same pattern over and over again, fizzing and whirring, modulating as repetition accentuates some frequencies over others, feeling almost tuneful and jubilant at points and abrasive at others. Persistence renders the sound as something abstracted from its source and bent into self-referential loop. After 10 minutes of hearing the same drill manifested through rippling sheets of static, I find myself no longer calling to mind the snare drum at all. Martin-Gray sheds the drummer first, then the drum itself.

The latter two pieces take on a different flavour. “Combinations in 3/8, piano (feedback)” sounds like a pair of accelerated Newton’s cradles in stereo, slipping in and out of phase with eachother and studding an accompanying whistle of interference. “Combinations in 3/8, forte (feedback)” is the closest the record comes to feeling percussive in the traditional sense, stripping away all of the fizzing, hissing decoration to leave just the patter of impact. Even as the record approaches the sound of drumming, the intense concentration of a physical player is palpably absent. Yet this energy has been transposed rather than lost, manifest via meticulous scrutiny of a listener who has been liberated from the responsibilities of performance and left to simply ingest Stick Control For the Air Drummer for its every resonant inch.