Karlheinz Essl & Isabel Ettenauer
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Little But Big
Isabel Ettenauer, Karlheinz Essl and the metamorphosis of the toy piano
by Christoph Wagner
Musical instruments sometimes undergo miraculous transformations. This is also the case with the toy piano. Originally invented as a children’s toy, these days it gets more and more attention as a concert instrument. Whether it’s pop, jazz or contemporary avant-garde music, use is made of it everywhere.
There are two different shapes of toy pianos - the upright and the grand - but both are several sizes smaller than usual. Although the toy piano has a conventional piano keyboard, the sound is produced differently than with a full-size piano: instead of strings the hammers hit metal rods. This makes the instrument a relative of the xylophone and glockenspiel.
What once started in the nursery has in the meantime reached the concert hall. In 1948, the American composer John Cage wrote the first serious composition for toy piano, the Suite for Toy Piano. When Isabel Ettenauer came across the piece in 1993 it had far-reaching consequences.
“I really wanted to perform this piece and was searching for an appropriate instrument, which wasn’t easy. Finally I purchased three different models of the American brand Schoenhut”, the toy pianist remembers. She soon developed her project THE JOY OF TOY and commissioned a number of composers to write new works for toy piano.
In the meantime Isabel has collected more than 30 different toy piano models, many of them second-hand. Each instrument has its own character and its special timbre. There are many different types which all have a unique sound. Some instruments have wooden hammers, others plastic ones. They also vary in size and tone range. When the Austrian pianist goes on concert tour these days, she usually has at least half a dozen toy pianos in her luggage. Toy pianos abandoned in the past are now becoming the sound pool of the future.
In 2001, in the course of her concert activities, Isabel Ettenauer met the composer Karlheinz Essl. He expressed his fascination with the toy piano after a performance and showed interest in writing a piece for this instrument. When Isabel lent the composer one of her instruments, Essl started experimenting with it and completely immersed himself in its sound world.
The first piece that emerged out of Essl’s explorations was his composition Kalimba. In this work a small loudspeaker is hidden inside the toy piano and mixes electronically enriched sounds with the acoustic toy piano tones. They blend perfectly together, creating a fascinating interplay of illusions and deceptions.
Essl, however, continued to explore the depths of the toy piano more thoroughly. He applied John Cage’s idea of the prepared piano to the toy piano. In the composition whatever shall be a spinning top is rotated inside the instrument, and beautiful glissandos are produced on the metal rods with a thimble.
“In every new piece that Karlheinz Essl composed for the toy piano, it was approached in a different way”, says Ettenauer. “Every new composition opens up a world of previously unheard sounds and demands the use of a different instrument.”
In compositions like WebernSpielWerk or Sequitur V the composer makes use of digital technology. With laptop and self-developed interactive software, he takes us into the wonderland of electronics. In his piece Pandora’s Revelation it’s a music box that provides the acoustic raw material for the electronic art of transformation. In Sequitur XIV, an African thumb piano takes its place.
Sounds are transformed and distorted, pulverized and scattered around the room, or miraculously multiplied. Sometimes they seem to lose their footing and float weightlessly through space. At other times sounds are slowed down or accelerated, or they bubble like a cascade. Colorful, dazzling concentrations of sounds can almost dissolve into silence before resuming their original shape shortly after. In Essl’s compositions, the electronics and the acoustic sounds of the toy piano (or music box or kalimba) enter into a wonderful symbiosis.
So, by taking the toy piano into the electronic realm, Isabel Ettenauer and Karlheinz Essl have bestowed on this instrument a groundbreaking music of visionary power. Compositions of such calibre will make it more and more difficult to brush aside the toy piano as a mere ‘toy’ – let alone a ‘children’s instrument’!
for toy piano and playback (2005)
is the first piece that Karlheinz Essl wrote for me. After experimenting with my Schoenhut Grand he had the brilliant idea of enriching its sound with an eletronic soundtrack based on a recording of the same instrument. Placing a small loudspeaker inside the toy piano made it possible to create a perfect blend between the sounds of the instrument and the playback. The piece is entirely based on an eight-tone scale which alternates whole and halftone steps. Kalimba was premiered at the Komponistenforum Mittersill on 15 September 2005.
for kalimba and live electronics (2009)
In 2008, Karlheinz Essl started a series of compositions entitled Sequitur. Over a period of two years he created 14 works for various solo instruments and live electronics which were inspired by Luciano Berio’s Sequenze cycle. As in Berio, each Sequitur composition explores the specific sound world of a single solo instrument. However, Essl goes even further and confronts each instrument with a very complex electronic accompaniment. The especially developed Sequitur Generator (written in Max/MSP) processes the live input of the solo instrument in real time and creates a complex 8-part canon – hence the title Sequitur, the Latin word for ‘it follows’. Being confronted with their own playing in all sorts of mutations, the performers often feel as though they were in a house of mirrors. Sequitur XIV was written for Jennifer Hymer and her Kalimba! project.
for toy piano and ring modulator (2005/12)
is a ‘mini version’ of the sound installation WebernUhrWerk, which was composed for the 60th anniversary of Anton Webern’s death – an algorithmic music for computer-controlled carillon. Karlheinz created an exactly notated score of the piece for toy piano for me. Both works were premiered on 15 September 2005 at the Komponistenforum Mittersill. On this CD I play the piece on a three-octave Michelsonne, accompanied by Karlheinz on the ring modulator.
The composition has four movements: I. espressivo – ‘mit einem gewissen sprechenden Ausdruck’ – II. molto rubato – III. Gemessenen Schritts (‘wie Totenglocken’) – IV. sehr frei – ‘molto intenso’.
for music box and live electronics (2009/13)
is the concert version of Pandora’s Secret, a sound performance that Karlheinz wrote for my Circus Lebasi, a music circus for the festival Linz09, when Linz was the European capital of culture. Scored for punch-tape-controlled music box and live electronics, its ideas are based on Essl’s improvisation environment non Sequitur, which uses a software similar to the Sequitur Generator.
for toy piano and live electronics (2008)
Being already familiar with the toy piano, Karlheinz fortunately included this very instrument in his wonderful Sequitur series. In some ways this piece is a logical continuation of compositional ideas he explored in Kalimba. By listening and reacting to the complex electronic accompaniment, the performer has much more creative freedom than in a piece with fixed media, and always experiences moments of surprise. Sequitur V makes use of a two-octave range, and I play it on a 25-key Schoenhut tabletop toy piano. I premiered the piece at the Alte Schmiede, Vienna, on 20 June 2008. software similar to the Sequitur Generator.
palindromic christmas canon for toy piano (2008)
In December 2008 I received a very nice Christmas gift from Karlheinz Essl. It was a piece he had just composed as a present for his toy piano friends. Originally it was written for music box. In this version, a custom-punched paper tape is inserted into the music box in four different orientations. When the tape is finally inserted in its prime form (in the last movement), it turns out that the music we have been hearing all the time is in fact the famous Austrian Christmas carol Silent Night (in a special arrangement by the composer), played in four different directions. Karlheinz then had the wonderful idea of making a transcription of the piece for toy piano. Not only can the original music be heard in four different variations, but even the titles of all four movements are anagrams of Silent Night:
1. ‘Tingle Hints’ (inversion) 2. ‘Shingle Tint’ (retrograde) 3. ‘Lent in Sight’ (retrograde inversion) 4. ‘Silent Night’ (prime form) software similar to the Sequitur Generator.
whatever shall be
for toy piano, dreidel, music box and live electronics (2010)
In 2010, my toy piano colleague Phyllis Chen from New York commissioned a composition from Karlheinz Essl, which in the meantime became one of my absolute favorites. In this piece, Essl uses the inside of the toy piano for the first time. As in Sequitur V, a contact microphone is attached to the instrument and connected to a custom-made computer program which acts as a kind of sonic ‘particle accelerator’. During their voyage through the piece, the performer not only scratches and knocks on the sound board, but also has to stamp their feet (the source of the rhythm is later revealed) and make use of some special gadgets. A spinning top is played on the soundboard, and a thimble produces beautiful glissandos on the metal rods of the toy piano. At certain moments notes are also played on the keys in a conventional manner, but even these sounds burst into explosive glissandos. At the very end, a small music box enters the scene. Mounted on the soundboard, this little instrument plays the melody of the well known song, ‘Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will be, Will be)’, from the Hitchcock movie The Man Who Knew Too Much. The magic of this piece probably also has to do with the fact that everything that is heard before the entry of this beautiful melody – all rhythmic cells, melodic motives, even the harmonic structures – are in fact derived from this very melody.
In 2005, I borrowed a toy piano from Isabel Ettenauer, who asked me to write a piece for her. Exploring its possibilities, I soon realized that this instrument has nothing to do with the piano as we know it.
When I strike a key on a regular piano, I don’t just hear a note, but also the great history of piano music from Bach to Boulez. This renders it problematic for me to compose for the piano, which is saturated with musical connotations. However, this doesn’t happen to me when I play the toy piano. It sounds more like bells, Asian gamelan, or even an African kalimba - something fascinating, beyond our narrow Western horizon.
By its very nature, the sonic possibilities of the toy piano are limited. So I started to experiment with electronics and developed computer programs for creating hyper-instruments that use the toy piano (or a music box or a kalimba) as an input device. This yields stunning results, as what was formerly an impoverished instrument is transformed into something rich and powerful above all expectations.
It was Isabel who encouraged me to continue my research. In the course of our collaboration, she became expert in using my software, which enables her to perform my compositions all on her own, without any assistance. Knowing that she plays my music all over the world was another motivating factor. Thanks to her, I wrote a large palette of works for these little instruments, including a concerto for toy piano and orchestra, always striving for new solutions and exciting sounds.
My collaboration with Karlheinz Essl seems exceptional to me in many ways. Our paths first crossed at the beginning of my toy piano career in early 2001. Little did I know that a decade later his works would have become a major part of my repertoire. No other composer has created such an amazing body of works for toy piano, each of them a world of its own. In every new composition for it, the toy piano’s sound world was opened up a little more. The results were always extraordinary and exceeded my expectations by far.
It was Karlheinz who introduced me to performing with live electronics. I have been very keen on learning how to use his self-developed software, and every new composition meant a new and exciting challenge. Karlheinz has always been a very benevolent and laid-back instructor in this matter. He also inspired me to approach other small instruments such as kalimba and music box, for which he composed beautiful pieces.
It turned out that his oeuvre of solo works for small instruments could form the basis for a wonderful CD. Not only do I find it very interesting to present the toy piano in so many different ways, but I also like the combination of the toy piano piece Kalimba with a composition written for an actual kalimba. A music box also comes into play a couple of times, and I like the fact that Listen Thing was originally written for this instrument, too.
The title for the album was obvious to me. It not only derived from one of its essential pieces, but also seems to have become a kind of motto for Karlheinz and me: to remain open-minded, whatever new shores our collaboration might take us to.
(born 1960) is an Austrian composer, performer, improviser, media artist and composition teacher.
He studied composition in Vienna with Friedrich Cerha and completed his studies in musicology with a doctoral thesis on Anton Webern. As a double bassist, he played in chamber ensembles and experimental jazz bands.
Essl was composer-in-residence at the Darmstadt Summer School (1990-94) and at IRCAM in Paris (1991-93). Between 1995-2006 he taught Algorithmic Composition at the Bruckner University in Linz. Since 2007, he has been professor of composition and electro-acoustic music at the University of Music and Performing Arts in Vienna.
His work with computers and a long-term preoccupation with the poetics of serial music have been formative influences on his compositional thinking. During the 1990s he carried out various projects for the Internet and became increasingly involved with improvisation. In 1997, Karlheinz Essl was a featured composer at the Salzburg Festival. His compositions are now played all over the world.
Besides writing instrumental music, Karlheinz Essl also works in the areas of electronic music, interactive real-time compositions and sound installations. He develops software environments for algorithmic composition and live electronics. As a performer and improviser, he plays his own computer-based real-time composition environment m@ze°2 and also instruments such as electric guitar, toy piano and music box.
(born 1972) is an Austrian pianist and toy piano virtuoso. After studying piano in Vienna, Switzerland and London she dedicated herself to the music of our time, and is now a champion of living composers.
Press reviews have called her ‘outstanding’, ‘unusual’, ‘spectacular’ and ‘impressive’. Ettenauer is a regular guest at international festivals and concert halls. Career highlights have included performances at the Wigmore Hall (London), the Philharmonie Luxembourg (Toy Piano World Summit), the Avignon Festival, the Opéra de Lille, the Ravello Festival, the Uovo Per- forming Arts Festival (Milan), the International Gaudeamus Music Week (Amsterdam), the Vienna Konzerthaus, the festival Linz09, the Making New Waves Festival (Budapest), plus tours to the US and Taiwan.
Composers from all over the world have written more than 40 new works especially for Isabel, including Henry Brant, Karlheinz Essl, Stephen Montague, Joe Cutler, Errollyn Wallen, Otto Lechner, Max Nagl, Bertl Mütter, Vanessa Lann, Tomi Räisänen, Matthew Hindson, Manuela Kerer and Manuel de Roo, to name but a few. In June 2006 her debut album THE JOY OF TOY, with nine especially commissioned compositions, was awarded the ‘Pasticciopreis’ by Austrian state broadcaster Österreich 1.
Isabel Ettenauer has also collaborated with artists as diverse as circus artist Jérôme Thomas, mime Markus Schmid, accordionist Otto Lechner, actress Anne Bennent, harpsichordist Goska Isphording, accordionist Guy Klucevsek and stage director Richard Brunel.
Isabel Ettenauer: toy pianos, kalimba, music box & live electronics
Karlheinz Essl: ring modulator (track 3)
All compositions © by Karlheinz Essl
- Kalimba: 27 Jun 2013 Elak Wien (by Hans Döllinger)
- Sequitur XIV: 27 Mar 2013 Studio kHz
- WebernSpielWerk: 23 Jan 2013 Essl Museum (live)
- Pandora’s Revelation: 17 May 2013 Studio kHz
- Sequitur V: 18 Jan 2013 Studio kHz
- Listen Thing: 27 Dec 2011 Studio kHz (live)
- whatever shall be: 27 Mar 2013 Studio kHz
Recording: Karlheinz Essl
Editing: Karlheinz Essl, Isabel Ettenauer
Mastering: Alfred Reiter
Photography: Julia Wesely
Location: Essl Museum
Graphic design: Pablo Farassat
Booklet notes: Christoph Wagner (English translation: Isabel Ettenauer), Isabel Ettenauer, Karlheinz Essl
Proof reading: Peter Burt
Updated: 4 Apr 2014