Antonietta Loffredo

The Toy Piano

From the Playroom to the Concert Platform


Another composer deeply interested in exploring the possibilities offered by the toy piano, together with the electroacoustic elaboration of its sound, is Austrian composer Karlheinz Essl. In 2005 he wrote Kalimba for toy piano and playback for the Austrian toy pianist Isabel Ettenauer saying that the primary aim of this piece is "an attempt to break up the restricted sound world of the toy piano — not by superficial means of additional sound processing, but by the sound of the instrument itself". The result is a performance in which the real sounds are superimposed on to the recorded ones thanks to a small speaker, hidden inside the 37 key toy piano case, which reproduces elaborated pre-recorded sounds of the same instrument.

Kalimba performed by Isabel Ettenauer
From the CD whatever shall be (edition eirelav 002, 2013)

Essl's body of work dedicated to the toy piano continues with a series of very original pieces. Listen Thing is a palindromic Christmas canon in four parts written in two distinctive versions, one for music box, the other for toy piano. Each section carries a title which is an anagram of "listen thing" — Tingle Hints, Shingle Tint, Lent in Sight, Silent Night — and reveals the musical structure underneath, respectively: inversion, retro-gradation, inversion of the retrograde, original form. If the piece is played using a music box, the perforated paper strip must be inserted successively in four different directions; the toy piano version is substantially an integral transcription.

Listen Thing for toy piano solo, performed by Isabel Ettenauer
Studio kHz, 27 Dec 2011

Essl composed Sequitur V (2008) for toy piano and live-electronics and again dedicated the work to the toy pianist Isabel Ettenauer. Despite its small dimensions, the instrument is able to produce an incredibly rich sound thanks to the amplification and elaboration in real time. Sequitur belongs to a cycle of compositions, each one dedicated to a different instrument, a work in progress following the footsteps of the Sequenze by Luciano Berio.

Sequitur V for toy piano and live-electronics, performed by Isabel Ettenauer
BACK TO THE FUTURE - Neue und alte Musik für Toy Piano
Klosterneuburg, Essl Museum, 11 Mar 2009

Finally, a more recent work by Essl is Under Wood (2012) for two amplified toy pianos (with just one player) and ensemble, and dedicated to toy pianist Isabel Ettenauer. In this piece Essl combines, for the first time, the toy piano with conventional instruments, using it as an "exceptional solo instrument but also as some sort of exotic percussion". Thus, the pianist plays a 37 keys Schoenhut concert grand with open lid also used for internal sounds, a "deconstructed" and prepared two-octave table top Schoenhut toy piano and two desk bells (one in A2 and the other in D#3). Both the toy pianos are equipped with contact microphones (AKG C411) and amplified with small speakers placed next to the instruments. It is impossible to describe in this text the whole production of toy piano pieces by Essl, who is surely the most prolific composer for the instrument.

under wood (2012)
Isabel Ettenauer (toy piano) with Ensemble Reconsil Vienna (dir. Antanina Kalechyts)
REAKTOR Vienna, 7 Oct 2020

Two essential references for those wishing to learn more about his work are the composer's website and an essay titled A Short Introduction to the Music for Toy Piano by Karlheinz Essl, written by Isabel Ettenauer, accredited interpreter of this repertoire.

Antonietta Loffredo, The Toy Piano. From the Playroom to the Concert Platform
(Bologna: Ut Orpheus, 2018). - ISBN: 978-88-8109-511-7

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Updated: 22 Nov 2021