Arts & DesignEssays

Tiny Instruments Hit a Profound Chord

Toy pianos in the studio of Małe Instrumenty © Susan Yelavich

Last summer I was fortunate to be among the faculty of the Democracy & Diversity Institute in Wrocław, Poland, organized by Transregional Center for Democratic Studies (TCDS). Friendships were forged, ideas were tested, and disciplinary lines constructively crossed, all of which I’d been prepared for and had been looking forward to experiencing as the sole faculty member from Parsons among colleagues from the New School for Social Research.

What I hadn’t expected was that I’d develop a deep affection for the music of toy pianos. Specifically the toy pianos played by Małe Instrumenty (Small Instruments), a band started in 2006 by Paweł Romańczuk with Marcin Ożóg, Tomasz Orszulak, Jędrzej Kuziela and Maciej Bączyk.

Yes, toy pianos. Including a plastic Barbie piano, which, Paweł explained, has a very good sound, in contrast to their sole Communist-era piano called Precision whose keys emitted static.

Wrocław, "Lwów" cinema, built in 1926 by Adolf Rading for the Odd Fellow Lodge © Julo | Wikimedia Commons

I would never have found Paweł, much less met him, had it not been for the generosity of Agata Ganiebna, a highly respected musical and theatrical producer and friend of the Institute. She took me to what a New Yorker might call a loft, but was actually two small rooms squirreled away in a cavernous, nearly deserted building that was once an Odd Fellows Lodge, designed by Adolf Rading in 1926.

I knew Rading’s work. He was a member of the Deutsche Werkbund that had designed the housing estate where our Institute was housed and where we were living. I was, however, completely unprepared for the sounds that were being produced inside Rading’s Lodge that day. Yet, despite the incongruence of the nearly dead building and the living breathing sounds I heard, there was a fitting symmetry between Małe Instrumenty’s miniature pianos, children’s music boxes, and hand-made instruments, and Rading’s humbled work of early 20th century modernism.

For all that, Małe Instrumenty’s sound is anything but modest. Their renditions of Chopin’s mazurkas, nocturnes, etudes, and Polonaises are extraordinarily rich and moving, variously evoking the solemnity of chimes, the clarity and lightness of bells, and the rhythmic swells of klezmer. (Play video below to hear an example of their music.)

Interestingly, when I shared their music with Nora Krug (a German-born Parsons professor of illustration), she said the Chopin CD reminded her of the sound of icicles breaking in the Black Forest. Heresy? Chopin is nothing if not Polish. In fact, it’s not the composer but the instrument she was hearing. The toy piano has a legitimate German heritage as an invention of a German named Albert Schoenhut (1848-1912). The designer of these miniature up-rights and baby grands emigrated from Wurtenberg to Philadelphia in 1866, where he established his eponymous company. (Most of Małe Instrumenty’s instruments bore his moniker.)

Pawel Romańczuk in the Małe Instrumenty studio © Susan Yelavich

Małe Instrumenty is a cosmopolitan cultural phenomenon, one that embraces Wrocław’s layered (and sometimes painful) history as a city once German (Breslau) now Polish; a city that, until Hitler, boasted the third largest population of Jews in Europe; a city that will be the Cultural Capital of Europe in 2016.

Dziękuję Agata! Dziękuję Małe Instrumenty!

Susan Yelavich

Susan Yelavich

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