Meet Israel's Only Toy Orchestra

How to make sophisticated music with plastic instruments - and impress the kids.

Toy instruments are hard to find these days. It wasn’t always that way. A decade ago, when Igor Krutogolov put together his Toy Orchestra, then called Kruzenshtern & Parohod, and created the album “Children for Muzik,” he had no problem finding the plastic instruments — guitars, drums and clarinets — he needed. A quick trip to Herzl and Allenby Streets in Tel Aviv, and 500 shekels later, he was ready to rock. He made sure to buy more than one of each, as toy instruments, generally produced for children, get out of tune pretty quickly, and cannot be re-tuned.

A year and a half ago, when Krutogolov got the urge to start another toy orchestra and create a new album, he went to the toy stores in south Tel Aviv. He expected to quickly collect loads of cheap instruments — but it turns out the selection has dwindled, specifically when it comes to toy clarinets, the most important instrument in the ensemble. “[The toy clarinet] is like a guitar or keyboard in a regular band,” says Krutogolov.

Fortunately, on a second shopping trip, he stumbled upon a store on Allenby that he had previously missed. Seeing one toy clarinet on the shelf, he quickly ordered another 20, all of which turned out to be in tune. “We held onto them for recordings and performances,” says Krutogolov. “Rehearsals we do with the out-of-tune clarinets we ordered from China.”

Two irregular principles are at the heart of Krutogolov’s Toy Orchestra. One of them, of course, is the exclusive use of toy instruments. The other is that most members of the ensemble are not musicians. Krutogolov, the drummer, Guy Schecter, and two or three others are the exceptions. “I think playing with people who aren’t musicians is a lot more interesting than playing with musicians,” says Krutogolov, who once called himself “son to a family in which everyone is a musician but me. Meaning, everyone learned how to play, except me.”

Krutogolov, 38, is a brilliant musician, who managed to create an incredibly original genre, meshing Eastern European Jewish music with punk and noise metal into a wild and precise sound. After immigrating to Israel from Uzbekistan as a young man, he initially felt totally foreign to the Israeli experience, and didn’t speak Hebrew or make friends with Israelis, until he formed Kruzenshtern & Parohod. That incredible band remained an outlier on the Israeli music scene for years. But as time went on, Krutogolov found a place for his prickly style in the sabra environment.

After the tuned clarinets were found, Krutogolov sat down and wrote the music for the new album, “How to be a Crocodile,” which was launched this week at the Levontin 7 club in Tel Aviv. The writing process was fast, says Krutogolov. He wrote about 50 pieces in two weeks, only nine of which made the album.

Krutogolov says compared to writing for Kruzenshtern, writing for Toy Orchestra was much more constrained.

“It’s the same, except with the toys, there are limitations we don’t have on regular instruments. If I write very fast melodies, keyboard players won’t be able to play them. Also, toy clarinets don’t have sharps and flats, so there can’t be any notes like that in the melodies. On purpose, I wrote pieces that play like blues and rock and roll, which have notes like those. As for harmonies: five chords only. That’s all you can play on a toy guitar.”

Sometimes these limitations problematic, he says, but there were benefits too. “When you don’t have too many options, you can be very focused,” he says. And with all of its limitations, the music on “How to be a Crocodile” is much more complex and interesting that the vast majority of Israeli offerings.

It's also almost entirely unique. Krutogolov doesn't see much precedent for his work, nor does he look for it.

“I looked for other ensembles. Not for reference, but to find labels that deal with things like this and propose that they release our album. But I didn’t find any. There’s one ensemble that plays vegetables. They’re pretty successful. It looks very nice and unique, but musically, it’s not so interesting. It always sounds the same. John Cage has a toy piano piece, but it also wasn’t a reference. Recently, I’ve been listening to Mozart and Heiden. I think their influence is in the music, but I didn’t really check that thoroughly.”

If looking for the instruments was time-consuming and exhausting, writing the music was short and easy, and rehearsals with the band were somewhere in the middle. “On one hand, it’s really fun to work with people who aren’t musicians. On the other, it takes a long time,” says Krutogolov. “It quickly turns into baby sitting.”

The show at Levontin 7 started early, around 8:00 P.M., mostly so that children could come see it as well. “Children are the best audience there is,” says Krutogolov. “They don’t lie. If they like it, they listen and dance, and if not, they just leave. That’s how it should be. Adults, in general, don’t do that.”

Daniel Tchetchik