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Taking the ‘Toy’ out of Toy Instruments

I have been working exclusively with toy instruments for almost a year now, although the title of this post perhaps implies a degree of severity and gravity in this exploration, which, in reality, was never intended, nor ever materialised.

However, the title helpfully alludes to a desire to drag these instruments out from the shadows of their expensive, and expertly-constructed counterparts – thinking less about how a toy piano could imitate a Steinway, and more about how a toy piano could produce sounds that a Steinway could not. To that end, this project aimed to treat these toys as instruments in their own right, separated from the associations they often spawn, in order to discover the individuality they can offer.

Due to the rinky-dink nature of their components, it quickly became the case that most of this individuality stemmed from deficiencies and infirmities in each instrument – the products of slap-dash assembly. In fact, after only a few hours of concentrated use, each instrument began to deteriorate and offer a twinkling pallet of unpredictability with which to paint sound. I thought this was wonderful.

Therefore, before the instruments could further hasten their demise (and before I was left sifting through a sparkling heap of ash and dust where my disintegrating instruments had once been), I recorded five études for individual instrument groups, alongside a more substantial piece for an extended ensemble. The realisation of the latter piece took place under the watchful ears of Fred White – the independent producer behind Tajdar Junaid’s ‘What Colour is Your Raindrop’. Fred’s work dances and sings, like a spoonful of Chocolate Gâteau after a week of Victoria Sponge.

Working with Fred was great. We both spoke of our disdain for the trend of rendering almost every contemporary recording as an auralisation of the concert experience. We wanted to try something different.

Consequently, our realisations offer little in the way of artificial distance; there’s a coarseness and befuddlement intrinsic to our perception of sound, and we thought it would be a shame to hold this at arm’s length with the addition of reverb and space – particularly while working with the relatively novel sounds produced by the toy instruments. However, offering this closeness and detail to the mix was initially difficult, due to the flimsy, and often very quiet, nature of the noises generated by the ensemble of playthings.

To counter this, while remaining true to the organic sound of the toys, Fred added no EQ to the project, instead only subtracting information the ear didn’t need. Likewise, manual gating was used to eliminate the human aspects of the performance – breath for example. The idea behind this was the removal of distraction in order to truly listen to the toys, as opposed to any of the human beings behind them, (and also to the pot-bellied men across the road holding a barbeque on a balmy April afternoon), regardless of any role they played in generating the instrument’s sound. Even post-production only faintly leaves it’s mark, and no sound is coloured unnecessarily.

The compositions themselves revolve around themes of infirmity, indeterminacy and improvisation (though the importance of the latter element is reduced in our realisations by the fixed multi-tracked nature of my solo-performance). Movement ‘C’ of the piece for an extended ensemble is embedded below, and also acts as a hyperlink to the near-complete collection of pieces for Toy Instruments – written for melodicas, toy accordions, slide-whistles, toy pianos, and plastic clarinets, trumpets and saxophones.


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About the author

Aaron is an MA composer currently working under the supervision of Roger Marsh. His most recent work explores unconventional instrumentation, and has been underpinned by the dialogue between organised music and indeterminate sounds. His musical language makes use of anything minute, infirm or tactile. He has previously studied music with the British contemporary-composer Matthew Bourne,…

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