Isabel Ettenauer

A Short Introduction to the Music for Toy Piano by Karlheinz Essl


Writing about the toy piano music of Karlheinz Essl from the perspective of a performer is quite a personal undertaking for me. Having played all of these amazing pieces, some of them many, many times, I feel a close relationship to them. After more than 50 performances of Kalimba (Essl's first composition for toy piano) for instance, this piece is not just a very important part of my repertoire but almost feels like a part of myself (without wanting to sound presumptuous).

Let me start with a story about the beginning of a new adventure. When I had the idea of a new project which was about performing on toy pianos, I wasn't aware that this would soon be the main focus in my work. In 2000 I was looking into possible venues for toy piano performances. (At that time I had only one toy piano, the Bontempi of my childhood, and a little later ordered my first three Schoenhuts. - Up till then I was only performing on grown up Grand pianos...) One venue that seemed perfect to me was the - at that time recently opened - Essl Museum in Klosterneuburg near Vienna. The wonderful museum which is the home of the immense private collection of contemporary art owned by Essl's family has also served as a venue for a concert series with new and experimental music from the moment of its opening. So I contacted Karlheinz Essl who was programming these concerts. That's how we met, and in March 2001 I played one of my very first toy piano recitals at the Essl Museum. At that time my repertoire was limited to a few already existing works (including Cage's legendary “Suite for Toy Piano“) and some brand new pieces I commissioned from composer friends and colleagues. After the concert we had a nice get-together in a little Italian restaurant and Karlheinz expressed some interest in writing a piece for toy piano himself, perhaps something with electronics. An idea that of course delighted me. Busy a composer as he is, it took him several years to find the time to really work on it. In spring 2005 – after having played my second concert at the Essl Museum - I finally lent Karlheinz my Schoenhut Concert Grand (a 37-key chromatic toy piano) which obviously inflamed his inspiration.

I am absolutely amazed by the creative output that followed. Within seven years Essl created a whole body of works for toy piano, each of them a world of its own. In every new piece that he composed the toy piano was approached in a different way. And every time he created a new piece, the toy piano was discovered and explored a little more. While the very first piece, Kalimba, is entirely played on the keyboard of the instrument – although Essl already succeeded enriching the toy piano's very own sound by adding a pre-recorded soundtrack – the composer later started to explore the inside of the toy piano as well as finally dismantle and prepare it.

Isabel Ettenauer rehearsing with Karlheinz Essl at Studio kHz, 2012

Isabel Ettenauer rehearsing with Karlheinz Essl
Studio kHz, 28 Aug 2012

In the following I would like to give short introductions to each of the seven pieces:

Kalimba for toy piano and playback (2005)
WebernSpielWerk for toy piano solo with optional ringmodulator (2005)
Listen Thing for toy piano solo (2008)
whatever shall be for toy piano, gadgets, music box and live-electronics with surround sound (2010)
under wood for amplified and prepared toy pianos and chamber ensemble (2012)
Miles to go for four prepared and amplified toy pianos (2012)

Isabel Ettenauer und Karlheinz Essl sprechen über ihre Zusammenarbeit
Toy Piano Talk @ Meßmer Momentum (Hamburg, 26.9.2014)

for toy piano and playback (2005)

After experimenting with my Schoenhut Grand for several weeks, one sunny afternoon in April 2005 Karlheinz invited me to his studio to make some recordings of a certain material. This material should be the basis for a soundtrack to be played back by a small loudspeaker hidden inside the toy piano. The brilliant idea was to enrich the sound of the toy piano by a sound that again came from the instrument itself, but this time processed by a special computer program written in Max/MSP.

Placing a small loudspeaker in the corpus of the toy piano made it possible to create a perfect blend between the sounds of the instrument and the sounds from the loudspeaker. In fact the sounds mix so well that the audience might even assume all the music would come from the toy piano itself. But what special toy piano could that be that produces such rich and unexpected sounds? It is a miracle.

The piece is entirely based on an eight-tone scale which alternates whole and halftone steps. About the soundtrack Essl writes himself: “The computer program makes use of a compositional algorithm that creates five canonic layers of the same soundfile which are affected by very slow glissandos. The result is stunning: starting from the original scale (which is also played synchronously on the toy piano during performance), the sound gradually transforms itself from a rich variety of sonic transformations into a "chaotic" distribution of the 8 tones which finally fall together into chord repetitions. In the adjacent part of the piece, the glissandos are expanded to a much wider range and – by forming an ambitus of 4 octaves in the end – a proportional canon of the form 1/4 : 1/2 : 1 : 2 : 4 is created. Continuously, all layers except the (s)lowest are fading out, so that in the end only a transposition of the original recording two octaves lower (and two times slower) can be heard. This is the beginning of the “coda“ of the piece, where upon the “ground“ of the extremely slowed-down toy piano motif the entire piece is compressed into a few seconds.“

Karlheinz Essl gave his first piece for toy piano the name “Kalimba“ as the instrument reminds him more of an African kalimba (or perhaps also celesta, or Asian gamelan) than a conventional piano. In fact the overlapping figures on the soundtrack produce these kind of “inherent patterns“ we also know of Kalimba music from central Asia (as explored by the Viennese music ethnologist Gerhard Kubik): Through overlapping rhythmical patterns - produced by a number of Kalimba players - new sound structures develop.

To this day Kalimba is probably one of Essl's most performed compositions. Since its premiere at the Komponistenforum Mittersill (Salzburg, Austria) on 15 September 2005, it was not only played by me at venues all over the world more than 50 times, but in the meantime about 20 other pianists also have it in their repertoire, which added to the amazing number of 127 performances up until January 2013. For a piece written only eight years ago, I would say that this is a pretty amazing figure. It also shows that Kalimba very quickly became a very important work in today's repertoire for toy piano. In November 2005 the piece won a prize at the composition competition of the Extensible Toy Piano Project at Clark University (Worcester, MA). It was released on my debut CD the joy of toy – New music for toy piano (edition eirelav 001, 2005). You can also find a detailed analysis of this work (although in German language) by Ana Szilágyi on Essl's website.

Isabel Ettenauer performing Kalimba on a Schoenhut Grand Toy Piano
Essl Museum Klosterneuburg, 11 Mar 2009

for toy piano solo with optional ringmodulator (2005)

After a rehearsal of Kalimba a few weeks before its premiere, Karlheinz told me about another piece that he recently composed and that would be premiered in the same festival as Kalimba.

WebernUhrWerk is a work that was composed for the 60th anniversary of Anton Webern's death. It's an algorithmic music for computer-controlled Carillon. Karlheinz played the piece for me in his studio – it was to be premiered at the Komponistenforum Mittersill on 15 September 2005, in the town where Webern was accidentally shot dead by an American GI 60 years before. The work was composed as a generative sound installation to be hidden inside a roof at the market place of Mittersill. Every quarter hour one could hear the carillon as death bells for Anton Webern.

I was fascinated by this music and immediately could imagine something like this on a toy piano. So it came that Karlheinz made me an exactly notated version of the piece for toy piano, the WebernSpielWerk which I premiered in the same concert as Kalimba, on this very 15 September 2005. After the performance of the original piece in the town of Mittersill in the afternoon, in the evening it was played in its smaller version at the intimate setting of St. Anna Church. At that time I played it on my first Schoenhut Grand, but a few years later when my collection of toy pianos started growing, I found out that the perfect instrument for this piece is in fact a three-octave Michelsonne (a beautiful French instrument which was produced in the 60ies of the 20th Century). In addition, in 2012 Karlheinz Essl had the wonderful idea to make the sound even more bell like by adding a ring modulator.

The piece is in four parts:

I. espressivo – “mit einem gewissen sprechenden Ausdruck“
II. molto rubato
III. Gemessenen Schritts (“wie Totenglocken“)
IV. sehr frei – “molto intenso“

Isabel Ettenauer playing WebernSpielWerk on a Michelsonne toy piano with ringmodulation
Philharmonie Luxembourg, 29 Nov 2012

Sequitur V
for toy piano and live-electronics (2008)

In 2008 Karlheinz Essl started a series of compositions with the name Sequitur. Within a couple of years he created 14 works for various solo instruments and live-electronics which were somehow insprired by Luciano Berio's cycle Sequenze. Being already familiar with the toy piano, Essl fortunately included this very instrument in this wonderful series. As in the Berio series, each Sequitur composition explores the special sound world of one solo instrument. However Essl goes even further and confronts each solo 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 realtime and creates a complex 8-part canon – hence the title Sequitur, the latin word for “it follows“. Being confronted with her/his own playing in all sorts of mutations, the performer often feels like in a House of Mirrors.

In case of Sequitur V the live-input is transmitted by a small contact microphone which is mounted on the downside of the sound board. In this piece as in most works of the Sequitur series the electronics can be controlled by the performer her/himself.

The Sequitur Generator works in a way that the individual canonic entrances are not constant like in a traditional canon for example in folk music. The interval of the canon entrances accelerates during the piece - which increases the density of the musical structure – and gets longer again towards the end of the piece.

A number of sound transformers are used to process the live-input, for example a ring modulator, detuner, flanger and comb filter. The performer can evoke the various transformations which are controlled by a sequence of pre-composed presets by pressing the space bar on the computer keyboard as exactly indicated in the score. The next preset (in total there are 17 presets) will be loaded at each key stroke. In a later revision Essl also added an expression pedal to the electronic setup of Sequitur V to enable the performer to control the volume level of the electronics. Another important principle of the Sequitur Generator is that the eight live-generated canon voices do not always play. In the program there is a hidden "conductor", controlled by random operations, who gives cues to the various canons. In this way the canon can vary between one and eight voices which is completely unpredictable and makes each performance unique. 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 surprises. In this sense one could say that Sequitur V is a logical continuation of the musical ideas of Kalimba. It makes use of a two octave range hence can be played on a 25-key Schoenhut tabletop toy piano, but of course also on instruments with a larger range. I premiered the piece at the Alte Schmiede, Vienna, on 20 June 2008, in a concert in which a number of Sequitur pieces were premiered.

Isabel Ettenauer performing Sequitur V on a Schoenhut Grand Toy Piano
Essl Museum Klosterneuburg, 11 Mar 2009

Listen Thing
for toy piano solo (2008)

In December 2008 I received very nice Season's Greetings from Karlheinz Essl. It was a piece that he had just composed and gave as a present to his toy piano playing friends.

The work was originally written for music box, that means in this version it exists as a custom-punched paper tape which 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 is in fact the famous Austrian Christmas carol “Silent Night“ (in a special setting by the composer), played from different directions. Karlheinz then had the brilliant idea to make a transcription of the piece for toy piano.

Not only the original music can be heard in four different ways in this piece, but even the title of the piece as well as the titles of all four movements are anagrams of “Silent Night“. Is this imaginative or what? Here are the titles of the four movements and their compositional form:

1. Tingle Hints (inversion)
2. Shingle Tint (retrograde)
3. Lent in Sight (inversion of retrograde)
4. Silent Night (prime form)

Isabel Ettenauer performing Listen Thing on a Michelsonne toy piano
Studio kHz, 27 Dec 2011

whatever shall be
for toy piano, gadgets, music box and live-electronics with surround sound (2010)

In 2010 my toy piano colleague Phyllis Chen from New York commissioned a piece from Karlheinz Essl which in the meantime became one of my absolute favorites. In this piece Essl made use of the inside of the toy piano for the first time. By approaching the instrument like an innocent child he started experimenting with sounds by knocking and scratching on the sound board. As in Sequitur V, a contact microphone is mounted on the downside of the sound board. The mic is connected to a specially written computer program (again done in Max/MSP) which acts as a kind of sonic “particle accelerator“. The piece is originally written in a version with four-channel surround sound (of course my favored version!), but a two-channel version also exists.

During the 10 minute long voyage through the piece, the performer does not only scratch and knock on the sound board, but also has to stamp with the feet (the very rhythm that we hear is later revealed...) and makes use of some special gadgets. A wooden dreidel (a small four-sided spinning top) is played on the sound board, and a thimble (originally there was a chop stick used) produces beautiful glissandos on the metal rods of the toy piano. At certain parts some notes are also played on the keys in a conventional way, but even these sounds at some point burst out into explosive glissandos. But that's not all: In the very end of the piece a small music box comes into scene. Mounted on the soundboard, the little instrument plays the melody of the well known song “Que Sera, Sera, Whatever Will be, Will be“ from the great Hitchcock movie “The Man Who Knew Too Much“. What a magical moment!

The magic of this piece probably also has to do with the fact that everything that is heard before the entry of this beautiful music box melody - all the rhythmical cells, melodic motives, even the harmonic structures – in fact has derived from this very melody.

Isabel Ettenauer performing whatever shall be
Schlosstheater Schönbrunn, Vienna, 12 Nov 2011

under wood
for amplified and prepared toy pianos and chamber ensemble (2012)

This is the first composition of Karlheinz Essl in which he confronts the toy piano with other instruments, in this case an ensemble of flute, clarinet/bass clarinet, trumpet, trombone, accordion, violin, viola, cello and double bass. Although the composition can be seen as a concerto for toy piano(s) and ensemble, in fact all instruments are completely intervowen with each other and form together a larger ensemble. The 12-minute long work is a very intense composition and reminds of Albrecht Dürer's term from 1512, “inwendig voller Figuren“ (inwardly full of characters).

Essl writes about the piece: “The title under wood refers to a mechanical typewriter of the same name with its characteristic hammering sound. Besides, it can also be interpreted as the attempt to look behind the surface and investigate the fascinating complexity that one discovers in the woods by changing the viewing perspective from the trees down to the earth: an almost impenetrable cosmos of independent, yet secretly connected gestures and movements of little creatures which one cannot see but only hear.“

The toy pianist is playing on two instruments, each of them amplified with a contact microphone. The mics are connected to a small audio mixer and are being slightly filtered. The output signal is sent to a small loudspeaker which is placed close to the toy pianos.

One of the toy pianos, a two-octave Schoenhut table top is kind of deconstructed and prepared in a special way so that its sound is completely transformed. The bar which holds the metal rods was taken out and put back in in a different way so that most of the hammers don't hit the metal rods but the thick metal bar which holds them. This creates an amazing metallic sound (without any pitches), especially when amplified. For the more melodic lines a Schoenhut 37-key Concert Grand is used. In the inside of this instrument there are also delicate sounds produced, for example by circling and scratching with the finger tips or nails on the resonance board. Apart from the two toy pianos, the toy pianist also plays a couple of other instruments which play an important part in the piece: two desk bells (tuned in a2 and d#3). In the second part of the piece these are even used in a dialogue between the toy pianist and the trumpet and trombone players who suddenly also turn into desk bell players.

It is very interesting how the instruments are positioned on stage. The ensemble instruments are forming a half circle around the toy pianos which are positioned in the middle of the stage. The half circle starts on the left side of the stage with the trumpet, then there come clarinet, violin and viola. In the middle of the half circle, behind the toy pianos there is the accordion, while on the right side of the half circle there are cello, bass, flute and on the very right (opposite the trumpet) the trombone. This means that the wind players are sitting outside, while the string players are more inside of the half circle. The accordion forms as the harmonic bass of the toy pianos, it functions like a prolongation of the toy piano, providing it with the sustained notes that it cannot produce itself.

The piece was commissioned by the Viennese ensemble die reihe and was premiered by them and myself at the Radiokulturhaus Vienna with Alexander Drcar conducting on 7 November 2012.

Isabel Ettenauer performing under wood with the ensemble "die reihe" (dir. Alexander Drcar)
Vienna, Austrian Radio, 7 Nov 2012

Miles to go
for four prepared and amplified toy pianos (2012)

The title of Essl’s newest toy piano piece - which was composed shortly after under wood - was borrowed from the poem Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening by Robert Frost which says:

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

In a magic way this describes the 14-minute journey through the piece. For this new work in which for the first time four toy pianists are involved Karlheinz Essl uses four 25-key Schoenhut tabletop toy pianos which are prepared in a similar way as one of the toy pianos used in under wood. The position of the metal rods is changed in a way that most of the hammers don’t hit the rods any more but the metal bar to which they are mounted. Apart from this metallic sound which is created by the special preparation of the toy piano, the lowest key does hit the wooden sound board (creating a dry wooden attack) and a few keys still produce the usual toy piano sounds. All these subtle sounds become much more audible by amplifying them through a contact microphone which is fed into a small mixer that is connected to a small studio monitor positioned next to the instrument (in larger halls mounted on a stand behind the player). Hearing the piece without seeing the instruments the listener might assume a percussion ensemble or even a thrash metal band producing this music, rather than four children’s instruments.

The four players are not just acting as four different voices but in fact are treated as a single unit, forming quasi one single meta-instrument. In the beginning of the piece we hear a dense hammering at different tempos that gets more and more intense and creates a kind of phasing effect similar to what is known as “moiré patterns“ in visual images. What might seem stressful and breathless in the beginning after a while appears to the listener as a quality of calmness. And towards the end of the piece the hammering metal sounds are more and more replaced by soft and flowing sonorities produced by stroking and scratching the wooden sound board with the handle of a percussion mallet.

Miles to go was commissioned by the Philharmonie Luxembourg and was premiered at the first Toy Piano World Summit there by Phyllis Chen, Xenia Pestova, Pascal Meyer and me on 2 December 2012.

Premier of Miles to go with Isabel Ettenauer, Phyllis Chen, Pascal Meyer and Xenia Pestova
Philharmonie Luxembourg, 2 Dec 2012

Published in: Fowl Feathered Review, Issue 4, Summer 2013, ed. by Virgil Kay (Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada), p. 74-81.
© 2013 by Isabel Ettenauer

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