Karlheinz Essl

Portrait KHE

whatever shall be

for toy piano, dreidel, chop sticks, music box and live electronics with surround sound

Dedicated to Phyllis Chen

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

Program Note

At the beginning of the 3rd millennium, I had a strange encounter with a strange instrument: the toy piano, which - at the first glance - didn't attract me that much. On the contrary, I didn't properly estimate its restricted sound possibilities and regarded it quite uninteresting and boring. My immature prejudice changed entirely when I borrowed a toy piano from Isabel Ettenauer who was asking me since years to write a piece for her. And now, 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 that the piano sound transports. 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 because its sound has nothing to do with a conventional piano. Instead of strings this instrument has metal rods which are hit by a hammer, producing sonic qualities that rather remind me of bells or a celesta, Asian gamelan, or even an African kalimba.

After writing my first toy piano piece in 2005 called Kalimba, I became more and more interested in scrutinizing the possibilities of this instrument. A few months later I composed WebernSpielWerk as a tombeau for Anton Webern. Here, the toy piano was utilized as a carillon - a very tiny one -, and in fact the piece was modeled after the generative sound installation WebernUhrWerk which was played at the 60th anniversary of Webern's death from a loudspeaker hidden inside a roof at the market place of Mittersill where the composer was shot in 1945.

But that was not enough: In 2008, when I started my Sequitur project for various solo instruments with live electronics, of course a piece for toy piano was on my agenda. But then, after having written already several toy piano pieces, I met Phyllis Chen in New York. It was a hot and humid summer day in 2009 as we sat together in a tiny park in Midtown, exchanging our experiences with this strange and fascinating instrument. That's when Phyllis suggested to write another piece, for her. And I immediately said Yes!

In my previous toy piano composition, my aim was always to find a new perspective to this instrument. In order to break up the restricted sound world, I was hiding a tiny loudspeaker inside the toy piano for Kalimba which played back pre-produced sounds. WebernSpielWerk, however, is only played on the keys, and Sequitur V uses live electronics which create a sonic house-of-mirrors solely from the live input of the instrument.

This time I concentrated on the "ugly" parts of the instrument which are commonly not regarded as musical: the guts apart from the keys - the body of the instrument. So I was approaching the toy piano like an innocent child who looks into the belly of the instrument and starts scratching and knocking here and there. In fact, due to the acoustic properties of the sound boards, this produces very rich and fascinating sounds. Then I mounted a contact microphone on the downside of the the sound board which was connected to a special computer program (written in MaxMSP) that I had conceived for this composition: a kind of sonic "particle accelerator" (like the ill-fated CERN in Geneva) which creates a maelstrom of sounds, swirling around the audience.

But there is yet another story which I have to mention in the end: When experimenting with the entrails of the toy piano, I realized that its sound board acts as a splendid amplifier for tiny sounds and noises. When putting a small music box inside, its lanky sound becomes strong and mighty, mixing nicely with the key sounds of the toy piano. That happens at the very end of the piece. And in fact everything that is heard before - rhythmical cells, melodic motives, even the harmonic structure - has derived from this little music box melody which arose from the great movie "The Man Who Knew Too Much" by Alfred Hitchcock. And the refrain of the song reads: "Que sera, sera, whatever will be, will be."

Karlheinz Essl (7 April 2010)


music box mechanism Schoenhut Concert Grand Toy Piano            Dreidel

Music Box, Toy Piano and Dreidel
NB: not true to scale!


  1. Open the lid of the toy piano so that you have access to the sound board.
  2. Stick the contact microphon underneath the sound board of the toy piano.
  3. Connect the contact microphone with the audio interface. Set the input level to approx. 80%. NB: The phantom power must be switched on. Connect the four outputs of the audio interface (L front, R front, L rear, R rear) with the 4-channel PA system which has to be placed in equal distance around the audience.
  4. Start the customized computer program for whatever shall be (supplied by the composer on request) on your Apple laptop. Choose "Audio..." from the "Settings" menu and select your interface at "Driver". Afterwards, turn Audio „on“.
  5. Start the piece by pressing the [TAB] key on your computer which activates the microphone. Now you can start playing.
  6. The bottom field is dedicated to the "FX Control". If you play the piece alone, you can step through a sequence of presets according to the boxed numbers of the score. In order to switch to the next preset, just press the space. Alternatively, a second musician can do this for you.


Isabel Ettenauer performing whatever shall be
Museum Humanum, Fratres: 24 Jul 2021
Video: Benjamin Epp

Phyllis Chen performing whatever shall be
New York, Brooklyn: 7 May 2010

Víctor Trescoli Sanz and Karlheinz Essl performing whatever shall be
Universitat Politècnica de València: 27 Apr 2012


The score of whatever shall be can be downloaded for free. Please note that the music is protected by copyright.


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.


Michael Zwenzner: Werkzeuge der Neuen Musik: Das Toy Piano
Karlheinz Essls Musik für Toy Pianos.
Radiofeature: hr2 | Neue Musik (Erstsendung: 26.03.2020)

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Updated: 6 Oct 2023