Karlheinz Essl & Isabel Ettenauer

Whatever Shall Be

Music for Toy Instruments and Electronics
10th Anniversary Extended Release (col legno)
2013 / 2023

Liner Notes | Introduction | Statements | Bios | Credits | Download | Order | Reviews | Interview | Bonus

CD cover "whatever shall be"

Editor's Note

The first thing you notice about the toy piano is its particular and unusual sound. It also looks rather strange when adults play it. Originally designed and manufactured as a toy for children, it hasn’t been considered by musicians or composers for almost a century until John Cage composed the piece “Suite for Toy Piano” in 1948. This was the turning point for the instrument because since then, it seems to be impossible to imagine new and contemporary music without this instrument.

In 2013, the pianist Isabel Ettenauer and the composer Karlheinz Essl collaborated on a special project. It resulted in the album Whatever Shall Be – Music for Toy Instruments and Electronics, on which the virtuoso Ettenauer interprets pieces on the toy piano, kalimba and jukebox that Essl composed especially for her. He also added electronics to some of the pieces.

On the 10th anniversary of the release, we proudly present the digital version of the album that includes two previously unreleased pieces, namely >Underwood, created in collaboration with Ensemble Reconsil (conducted by Antanina Kalechyts), and Trois Cent Drones. This album also contains the original versions of WebernSpielWerk and Listen Thing, two tracks recently released on the album ORGANO/LOGICS by Karlheinz Essl and Wolfgang Kogert.

Original tracks

1 Kalimba (2005)
for toy piano and playback
2 Sequitur XIV (2009)
for kalimba and live electronics
3 WebernSpielWerk (2005/12)
for toy piano and ring modulator
4 Pandora's Revelation (2009/13)
for music box and live electronics
5 Sequitur V (2008)
for toy piano and live electronics
6 Listen Thing (2008)
palindromic christmas canon fo toy piano
7 whatever shall be (2010)
for toy piano, gadgets and live electronics

Additional tracks

8 under wood (2012)
for amplified and prepared toy pianos and chamber ensemble
9 Trois Cent Drones (2021)
for toy piano and live electronics

  total time: 01:07:43

First Release: 3 Oct 2013 by edition eirelav

10th Anniversary Extended Release: 6 Oct 2023 by col legno
CL3 1CD 15022

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’!

Karlheinz Essl’s compositions for toy instruments
A short introduction by Isabel Ettenauer

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 electronic 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.

Sequitur XIV
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’.

Pandora’s Revelation
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.

Sequitur V
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.

Listen Thing
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.

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.“

Trois Cent Drones
for toy piano and live electronics (2021)

This composition is a transformation of the original piano piece Trois cent notes, in which the resonances of the sympathetic strings of the grand piano are simulated by electronic means. The toy piano becomes a new instrument with an artificial sustain pedal. Although notated in eighth notes only, the tempo covers a wide range from very slow to extremely fast. A similar transition occurs in the harmonic domain, where the range of three octaves (from F to f") eventually collapses into a single pitch (f').

No longer just a toy
Statement by Karlheinz Essl

In 2005 I borrowed a toy piano from Isabel Ettenauer, who asked me to write a piece for it. As I explored its possibilities, I soon realized that this instrument had nothing to do with the piano as we know it.

When I strike a key on a normal piano, I don't just hear a note, I hear the great history of piano music from Bach to Boulez. This makes it problematic for me to compose for the piano, which is saturated with musical connotations. But that 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 horizons.

The sonic possibilities of the toy piano are naturally limited. So I started experimenting with electronics and developed computer programs to create hyper-instruments using the toy piano (or music box or kalimba) as an input device. The results are astonishing. What was once an impoverished instrument is transformed into something rich and powerful beyond all expectations.

It was Isabel who encouraged me to continue my research. As we worked together, she became an expert in using my software, which allows her to perform my compositions all by herself, without any assistance. Knowing that she plays my music all over the world was another motivating factor. Thanks to her, I have written a wide range of works for these small instruments, including a concerto for toy piano and orchestra, always looking for new solutions and exciting sounds.

whatever shall be
Statement by Isabel Ettenauer

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.


Karlheinz Essl

(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.

In addition to 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 uses self-developed computer software and instruments such as electric guitar, toy piano, and modular synthesizers.


Isabel Ettenauer photographed by Julia Wesely 2013

Isabel Ettenauer

(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), live-electronics (track 9)
Ensemble Reconsil, dir. Antanina Kalechyts (track 8)

All compositions © by Karlheinz Essl

Recording dates

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
under wood: 7 Oct 2020 by Rainer M. Picha @ REAKTOR Vienna with Ensemble Reconsil (live)
Trois Cent Drones: 24 Jul 2021 @ Kulturbrücke Fratres (live)

Recording: Karlheinz Essl, Rainer M. Picha, Hans Döllinger
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

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Updated: 17 Nov 2023