Karlheinz Essl


for toy piano and playback

Playing With a Lot of Toys, but for a Serious Purpose (Allan Kozinn)
in: New York Times (29 Sep 2006)

(...) Apart from the Cage and her own endearingly quirky arrangement of Johann Strauss Jr.’s “Wiener Blut Waltz,” offered as a built-in encore, the works that Ms. Ettenauer played were composed for her. Some, like Karlheinz Essl’s “Kalimba” (2005), exploited the sparkling timbre of the toy piano by using the recorded sound of the instrument to thicken the counterpoint. (...)

UnCaged Toy Piano: Phyllis Chen (Bruce Lee Gallanter)
in: Downtown Music Gallery (2009)

(...) The pieces by Andrian Pertout and Karlheinz Essl are both for toy piano and CD, which add some surprising sounds to the toy piano's sound. (...) Essl's Kalimba featuring a hazy, echo effect to the piano making it even more harrowing as if time is slowing down and speeding up simultaneously. (...)

Concert Announcing Phyllis Chen (Peter Margasak)
in: Chicgao Reader (20 Feb 2009)

The tracks I’ve heard from a forthcoming CD of Phyllis Chen’s prove that the instrument’s principal limitation is that so few people treat it as respectfully as she does. In a 2005 Karlheinz Essl composition called Kalimba, which combines live performance with prerecorded toy piano played through a loudspeaker inside the instrument, it attains an otherworldly percussive resonance (...).

Celebrating Elliott Carter and Randy Hostetler (Karren LaLonde Alenier)
in: The Dressing - Poet Karren LaLonde Alenier, as the Dresser, addresses what's underneath the art (20 Dec 2008)

Kalimba (2005) by Karlheinz Essl, played by Jenny Lin on toy piano with CD playback. The Dresser was both fascinated and annoyed with this piece. It was hard to tell where all the sounds were coming from. At first the Dresser wondered if the pianist was playing accompaniment to a recording. Some of the exotic sounds seemed like those from a gamelan ensemble. In one passage, annoying ascending and descending scales seemed like a waterfall. In another passage, the sound produced was like a loudly ticking mantel clock.

Whatever Shall Be. Music for Toy Instruments and Electronics (Dirk Wieschollek)
in: Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, 02/2014 (Schott: Mainz 2014)

(...) In Kalimba (2005) ist die elektronische Ebene per Mini-Lautsprecher im Instrument selber versteckt, sodass Livespiel und «playback» scheinbar derselben Quelle entspringen. Chromatische und diatonische Skalen werden hier hypnotisch in- und übereinandergeblendet, beschleunigt, verlangsamt, verdichtet und ausgedünnt.

Toy Pianos, Poor Tools: Virtuosity and Imagination in a Limited Context (Xenia Pestova)
in: Tempo, vol. 71 (281), p. 34 (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge 2017)

(...) One of the most frequently performed works for toy piano and fixed media arguably contributed to the toy piano revival of the early twenty-first century, a period which witnessed a rapid proliferation of new repertoire: Kalimba by Karlheinz Essl was written in 2005 at the request of pianist Isabel Ettenauer, who is a specialist toy piano performer. The toy pianist is required to place a portable loud-speaker inside the instrument and trigger a soundtrack from an MP3 player. The live performance is then synchronised with pre-recorded sounds, blending the two sound sources and creating complex aural illusions through remarkably simple means, resulting in a portable and elegant ‘lo-fi’ solution. (...)

PROBES #24: Toys, Music Boxes and Balloons (Chris Cutler)
in: RWM - Ràdio Web Macba, 23 Aug 2018 (web podcast)

(...) The Austrian pianist Isabel Ettenauer also started her toy piano career with a performance of Cage’s Suite in 1991. In her case, played on an ancient Bontempi. Like our other specialists, she searched for other instruments and other repertoire, and soon began commissioning her own. It was through Ettenauer that the composer Karlheinz Essl, specialised mostly in hybrid pieces involving electronics or spatialisation encountered the toy piano in 2005. After which he went on to compose a flory of pieces with ensembles, electronics and in multiples, releasing a full CD in collaboration with Isabel Ettenauer in 2013, dedicated only to his toy piano works. Here is the first piece that he wrote in 2005 for real time and recorded toy piano. This is Kalimba played by Isabel Ettenauer which has also become the staple of the toy piano repertoire. (...)


Experimenting with toy piano, electronics, and ensemble, Austrian composer Karlheinz Essl was one of the first composers I came across in my early days of touring solo with the instrument. Kalimba (2005), his first piece for toy piano and soundtrack, has been played all over the world by many, including myself. Since then, Essl has broadened his output and added works pairing the toy piano with harpsichord, computer, live electronics, ensemble, other toys, and ring modulator.

Performing With Toy Pianos (Xenia Pestova Bennett)
in: Gresham College Lecture, 26 May 2021

Composer Karlheinz Essl writes: ‘At the beginning of the 3rd millennium, I had a strange encounter with a strange instrument: the toy piano, which at first didn't attract me that much... after being forced to dedicate myself to this instrument I soon understood that it has nothing to do with the piano as we know it. When I hit a key on a regular piano, I am not just hearing a note, but also the whole history of this instrument with its repertory from Bach to Boulez [...] This fact always makes it difficult for me to compose for piano as it always reminds me of historical music that I love - and also abhor. This didn't seem to happen to me when I was playing on the toy piano...’

The resulting sense of freedom led Essl to compose at least eleven pieces for toy piano to date, many of which combine the instrument with intricate electronic processing.

One of Essl’s most frequently performed pieces contributed to the toy piano revival of the early ’00s, which followed a lull when the toy piano almost slipped into obscurity. During this period, new pieces for toy piano appeared like mushrooms after heavy rains (John Cage pun intended). Kalimba was written in 2005. The performer places a portable loudspeaker inside the instrument and triggers a soundtrack from an MP3 player. The live performance is then synchronised with pre-recorded sounds, blending the two sound sources that appear to come from the inside of the instrument and creating complex aural illusions through very simple means. Let’s listen to the beginning of this piece...

Entdeckung neuer Klangwelten in Fratres (Monika Freisel)
in: Niederösterreichische Nachrichten (30 Jul 2021)

Komponist Karlheinz Essl hatte unter dem Titel whatever shall be ein außergewöhnliches Musikprogramm speziell für die Kulturbrücke Fratres konzipiert, das in dieser Form noch nie zu hören war. Die Pianistin Isabel Ettenauer spielte auf verschieden großen Toy Pianos, also Spielzeugklavieren, Werke von Essl, die er für sie komponiert hatte. In „Kalimba“, dem ersten Stück, das der Komponist für das Toy Piano schrieb, wird der sanfte Klang des gleichnamigen afrikanischen Instruments nachgezeichnet.

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Updated: 1 Aug 2021