Karlheinz Essl

Portrait KHE


for toy piano and playback

Dedicated to Isabel Ettenauer

In 2005, Kalimba won a prize at the composition competition of the Extensible Toy Piano Project at Clark University (Worcester, MA).

The piece was released first by Isabel Ettenauer on her CD the joy of toy - New Music for Toy Piano (edition eirelav 001, 2005). A new recording was released on Isabel's 2nd solo CD whatever shall be (edition eirelav 002, 2013).

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Kalimba performed by Isabel Ettenauer
From the CD whatever shall be (col legno 2023)


Kalimba is a piece for toy piano and playback which was composed in April 2005 for the pianist and toy piano performer Isabel Ettenauer. 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. This is achieved by a pre-recorded soundfile which is played back by a small loudspeaker hidden inside the toy piano; this creates a perfect blend between the sounds of the instrument and the sounds from the loudspeaker. Furthermore, as the listeners won't notice any electronic devices, they might assume that all the music comes from the toy piano itself.

Introduction to Kalimba
Studio kHz, 5 Aug 2020

The piece is entirely based on an eight-tone scale which alternates whole and halftone steps. It was recorded from the Schoenhut Concert Grand Piano that Isabel uses to play in her performances. This material was processed by a computer program which was written be Karlheinz Essl in Max/MSP using compositional algorithms from his Realtime Composition Library. It creates five layers of the same basic soundfile which are affected by very slow glissandos. The result of these operations is stunning: starting from the original scale (which is also played synchronously on the toy piano), 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 2 octaves lower (and 2 times slower) can be heard.

This is the beginning of the "coda" of the piece, where over the "ground" of a slow toy piano melody the entire piece is compressed into a few seconds.

Playing Instructions

Kalimba was composed for a Schoenhut Elite Baby Grand Toy Piano with 37 keys from f to f3. The score is written one octave lower than actually sounding.

Schoenhut Concert Grand Toy Piano

As the sounds on the playback CD have been recorded from the toy piano model specified above, it must be played on such an instrument in order to achieve the perfect blending between the playback and the toy piano played live.


Notes by Isabel Ettenauer

When I asked Austrian composer Karlheinz Essl (b. 1960) to write a toy piano piece for me, he had the idea to use a playback CD to enrich the sound world of the toy piano. The interesting thing is that the sound on the CD, which is played back from a small loudspeaker hidden inside the toy piano, again comes from the toy piano itself.

One sunny afternoon in April 2005 I visited Karlheinz at his studio and recorded my playing of a certain material (the whole piece is based on an eight-tone scale with alternating whole and halftone steps) which was later processed by one of his computer programs. The result is a very unexpectedly rich sound.

Kalimba was premiered at the Komponistenforum Mittersill on 15 September 2005.

from: booklet of the CD the joy of toy by Isabel Ettenauer (edition eirelav 001, 2005)


Isabel Ettenauer performing Kalimba
Essl Museum, Klosterneuburg/Vienna (11 Mar 2009)

Dorrit Bauerecker performing Kalimba on a Michelsonne toy piano
NRW-Forum Düsseldorf (1 Dec 2021)

Dorothy Chan performing Kalimba
MIS-EN_PLACE, Brooklyn (6 Aug 2020)

Xenia Pestova performing Kalimba
Muziekcentrum de Badcuyp, Amsterdam (12 Oct 2010)

Klaus Steffes-Holländer performing Kalimba
Freiburg (11 Oct 2015)

Víctor Trescoli Sanz performing Kalimba
Universitat Politécnica de Valencia (27 Apr 2012)

Tinna Þorsteinsdóttir performing Kalimba
Television recording for the Icelandic National Broadcasting Service
RUV, Reykjavík (11 Jan 2012)

Carlos G. Arredondo performing Kalimba
Querétaro, México (21 May 2020)

Phyllis Chen performing Kalimba
Gaudeamus Contemporary Music Interpreters Competition
Amsterdam (18 Apr 2007)

Animation film created by pupils of the Gymnasium Klosterneuburg
Clang:Bilder Workshop directed by Mukato (October 2012)


Isabel Ettenauer: A short introduction to the Music for Toy Piano by Karlheinz Essl
Published in: Fowl Feathered Review, Issue 4, Summer 2013, ed. by Virgil Kay (Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada), p. 74-81.
Adam Scott Nea: Buy, Build, Break: Composers and Objects
Chapter about Karlheinz Essl's compositions for toy piano.
Doctoral dissertation, University of Florida, School of Music (Gainesville 2014), p. 39-41.
Antonietta Loffredo: The Toy Piano. From the Playroom to the Concert Platform
(Bologna: Ut Orpheus, 2018). - ISBN: 978-88-8109-511-7
Ana Szilágyi: "Kalimba" und "Computer 01". Ein Beitrag zur Analyse der elektronischen Musik.
Diplomarbeit am "Institut für Komposition und Elektroakustik" der Universität für Musik und darstellende Kunst in Wien (Wien 2006)
Hyeree Cha: Toy Piano Toy
Seoul 2023 - ISBN: 979-6756-187-9 (93670)


Michael Zwenzner: Werkzeuge der Neuen Musik: Das Toy Piano
Karlheinz Essls Musik für Toy Pianos.
Radiofeature: hr2 | Neue Musik (Erstsendung: 26.03.2020)
Barbara Eckle: Toys 'R' Us. Spielzeug in der Neuen Musik.
Karlheinz Essls Musik für Toy Pianos.
Radiofeature: SWR2 | JetztMusik (Erstsendung: 19.09.2016)
Karlheinz Essl: Spielen
Der Komponist Karlheinz Essl über über sein Verhältnis zu Spiel und Spielzeug-Instrumenten
in: Radiokolleg Spielzeug- und Chipmusic, 4-teilige Sendereihe von Hans Groiss (Österreichischer Rundfunk, Ö1: 3.-7. Dezember 2007)


The score of Kalimba (udpated: 29 Aug 2013) can be downloaded for free. Please note that the music is protected by copyright.
The playback sound required for performing this piece is available only on request.

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Updated: 6 Dec 2023