About this Recording
8.555779 - Music for Ondes Martenot
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The ondes Martenot

Maurice Martenot (Paris, 1898 – Clichy, 1980) began his musical education early, giving his first cello concerts at the age of nine, accompanied by his sister Ginette who was to become the first ondes Martenot soloist. He was equally passionate about science (an area in which he was self-taught) and teaching; he wrote books on relaxation and breathing techniques, as well as, with his older sister Madeleine, developing the Martenot teaching method, widely used in France.

In 1917 Martenot was working as an army radio operator when he came across the principle behind the instrument he went on to invent. While using valve radios tuned to similar (but not identical) frequencies, he noticed the “purity of the vibrations produced by triode valves when the intensity of the electrical charge is varied by means of a condenser [or capacitor]”. He began his musical experiments in 1919.

At around the same time the Russian physicist Lev Theremin was perfecting his own electronic instrument. The theremin has two aerials and the performer moves his or her hands towards and away from them, without ever touching them, to change the pitch and volume of the sound produced. Greatly piqued by the appearance of the theremin in Paris in 1927, Martenot presented the second version of his instrument, which he was then calling the “ondes musicales” (musical waves) at the Opéra on 3rd May 1928. The international tour that followed was met with great critical acclaim: the Deutsche Allgemeine Zeitung said, “Theremin is a physician-musician while Martenot is a musicianphysician”; “It is ethereal, supernatural, inexplicable” claimed Information, and Der Abend (Vienna) enthused, “Wonder triumphed over scepticism”, while the New York Herald said that had he lived in the Middle Ages, Martenot would have been accused of witchcraft and burned alive in the town square.

Martenot’s primary interest, however, was not research into new sounds (unlike the inventors of synthesisers, whose first models appeared almost thirty years later). The development of this most musical of electronic instruments was driven above all by an interest in the expressive, musical potential offered by electricity.

To understand how the ondes Martenot works, we need to look at an acoustic phenomenon. The string of an instrument playing the note A has a frequency of 440 Hz, i.e. it vibrates back and forth 440 times per second. Depending on the speed of this vibration, the note (frequency) is low or high. The radio used by Martenot only worked at a very high frequency, emitting an ultrasonic note inaudible to the human ear (80 000 Hz). To obtain an audible sound therefore, he used the principle of heterodyning (which musicians use when tuning to another instrument) - producing a beat frequency by the combination of two oscillations of slightly different frequency in order to generate a third, whose value is the mathematical difference between the first two. The note A, for example, can be produced by the simultaneous production of two inaudible frequencies of 80 000 and 80 440 Hz. The first frequency is fixed and never changes, while the second is variable, modified by the performer who plays the instrument either via a keyboard or by moving a wire know as a ruban or ribbon.

The ondes Martenot is monophonic, so the keyboard and ribbon are played with the right hand only, with the exception of a number of virtuosic works requiring the use of both hands. With the left hand, the performer can alter aspects such as dynamics and timbre, using controls in a small drawer on the side of the instrument.

The keyboard has six visible octaves but actually has a range of almost nine, via a switch and transpose buttons. It is also sprung and the keys can be moved laterally through microtones a semi-tone up or down, thereby enabling the performer, by moving the right hand from side to side while depressing the keys, to create a vibrato effect just as Martenot could when playing the cello.

The ribbon extends along the length and in front of the keyboard and has a metal ring which fits on to the ondiste’s right index finger. He or she then plays different notes by sliding the ring along the keyboard, and above a scale calibrated with bumps and indentations which act as visual and tactile reference points. The sound made is like that of a fretless string instrument or the human voice, producing glissandi that can be unbroken or sketched out across the instrument’s range, special effects, lyrical intonation, microtones, vibrato, and so on. Here again there is an obvious analogy with the cello. In addition, a key element of Martenot’s teaching method was the importance of gesture and movement and the ondiste’s ribbon technique puts this into practice. Some composers add scroll-like designs to their scores which players then reproduce with their hand movements, translating the image into sound.

The musician’s left hand works the touche d’intensité (intensity key) located in a little drawer on the left side of the instrument. This controls the sound level, something like the volume control of a radio. Extremely sensitive, it has a two-centimetre range of movement and can take the volume from zero to earsplitting. It acts as an extension of the player’s thought process, enabling a wide variety of nuance, phrasing and attack (accents, slurring, detached notes, staccato, percussive effects, and so on). In order to produce a sound the musician has to play the keyboard (or ribbon) and depress the button simultaneously. The action of the latter is similar to that of a bow, recalling once more Martenot’s beloved cello.

Also located in the drawer are seven switches that control the choice of wave form (sounds) and their mixing, enabling numerous timbre combinations. On the latest model (1975), they are designated by letters, rather than by numbers as on previous models: O for Ondes (sinusoid waves), C for Creux (peak-limited triangular signal), g for petit gambé (a square signal whose intensity can be regulated using a selector), G for Gambé (square signal), N for Nasillard (pulse signal), 8 for Octaviant (reinforced first harmonic, whose intensity can be regulated using a selector) and T for Tutti (combination of all timbres). There are also two switches which can be used to obtain variable-intensity pink noise, comparable to a Puff (S for Souffle), and to filter the harmonics (F for Feutre), creating a mute effect.

The drawer also contains six transpose buttons which allow the player to change each individual note instantaneously and simultaneously: a quarter-tone higher or lower, or a semi-tone, tone, third or fifth higher.

Two foot pedals are connected to the drawer to work as a filter and touche d’intensité when a score requires both hands on the keyboard.

Finally, the player uses a selection of switches to choose one or more of the four separate loudspeakers (diffuseurs in French: D1 to D4) which produce specific sound effects that can be combined using a mixing knob. The Diffuseur Principal (D1) is a traditional loudspeaker invented with the instrument. The Résonance (D2) dates from 1980 and is made up of stretched coiled strings enabling sounds to be prolonged. It is based on the Palme (D4), developed in 1950; both are used in the same way, but the latter has two sets of twelve chromatically tuned metal strings, stretched over a flame-shaped case, which resonate in sympathy with the notes played by the performer. Lastly, the Métallique (D3), invented around 1930, has a metallic plate like a gong that acts as the speaker membrane and produces an acoustic halo effect when the instrument is played.

Over the decades since its invention, there have been seven models of the ondes Martenot, all incorporating various improvements. The 1919 instrument, a kind of theremin, was not seen as viable by Martenot and his first “official” model was that of 1928. This only had the ribbon, which the player pulled and released with the right hand to slide from one note to another. The performer stood a little way from the unit and controlled the volume using a control in a drawer on a table. The second model (1929) was more compact and included a dummy keyboard with a pointer to indicate the pitch of the notes played on the ribbon. The third model (1930) could be played from either a seated or standing position and the ribbon was positioned above a dummy wooden keyboard which worked as a visual reference. The next model had no ribbon but had a working, sprung keyboard. Ribbon and functioning keyboard finally appeared together in version five in 1937, the year in which Messiaen composed his Fête des belles eaux for six ondes Martenot (which was performed on a boat floating down the Seine as part of Exposition Universelle). Martenot began giving classes in the instrument at the Paris Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique in 1947, and a dozen or so more courses were later established in France and Canada, encouraging official recognition of the instrument. Model six (1955) was smaller and lighter owing to progress made in the field of electronics. The seventh and final version (1975) replaced valves with transistors. Around 370 instruments were manufactured in Martenot’s workshop in Neuilly-sur-Seine, near Paris, along with a number of non-professional models: simplified versions for school use, chamber music versions, one combined with a radio and turntable and one designed to play raga modes (built in 1932 for the Indian poet and musician Rabindranath Tagore), among others.

Production ended in 1988 on the retirement of Marcel Manière, Martenot’s assistant since 1951. Jean-Louis Martenot, one of Maurice’s sons, worked on a digital version, but this was not pursued. In 1995, engineer Ambro Oliva began work on the ondéa, a comparable instrument, whose prototype was presented at the 2003 Frankfurt Music Fair.

Today the ondes Martenot repertoire comprises more than a thousand works, in varying genres: contemporary music, pop songs, film scores, stage music, dance, rock and pieces written for radio, TV and ads. Composers of works for the instrument include Levidis (whose Poème symphonique of 1928 was the first work written for the instrument), Pierre Boulez (himself a player), Elmer Bernstein, Bussotti, Canteloube, Chailley, J. Charpentier, Constant, Dutilleux, Dao, Honegger, Ibert, Maurice Jarre, Jolivet, Koechlin, Landowski, MartinÛ, Messiaen, Milhaud, Murail, Obouhow, Parmegiani, Rauber (the writer Jacques Brel’s songs), Ravel (who authorised arrangements of a few of his works - Ma Mère l’Oye, the String Quartet and Sonatine for piano - saying they sounded as they did in his dreams), Sauguet, Scelsi, Taira, Tomasi, Varèse and Vellones, among others.

Although the ondes Martenot is a multifaceted instrument, it is sometimes considered obsolete by those ignorant of its potential. Composer Michel Redolfi quashes all such prejudice: “The ondes Martenot, whose most celebrated patron was of course Olivier Messiaen, continues to be used in weird and wonderful compositions. Seen as taboo, rejected by those who fail to understand its qualities, thought of as too pure, out control, too free in its apparently effortless sound production, without exaggerated physical movement, the ondes Martenot can, for instance, create new chords for the human voice, free it from its player’s flesh and breath and let it drift away towards new soundworlds.”


Olivier Messiaen (1908–1992) played a key rôle in gaining recognition for the ondes Martenot as an instrument in its own right. He began writing parts for it in 1937, and featured it in several chamber and orchestral works: Fête des belles eaux, Trois Petites Liturgies de la Présence Divine, Turangalîla- Symphonie, Saint François d’Assise, Le Merle noir. The four undated Feuillets inédits were put together by Yvonne Loriod-Messiaen and published in 2001. The manuscript of the fourth was entitled déchiffrage (deciphering).

Thomas Bloch (b. 1962) wrote Formule (1995) as an encore for one of his recitals. The title makes reference to the use of virtuosic instrumental processes tailor-made for the ondes Martenot and the hands of the ondiste. A repetitive toccata, unrelentingly mechanical in nature, precedes a more frenetic section which explores the entire range of the keyboard and employs the transpose buttons to increase virtuosity. Lude 9.6 (1998) is one of a series of short works exploring the soundworlds that can be created by an ensemble of nine ondes Martenot, its three parts exploiting in turn the three types of loudspeaker: resonance, metallic and principal. Sweet Suite (2003) is also written for nine instruments. The sense of serenity central to the three parts is however far removed from the atmosphere of the previous works, proclaiming as it does a search for simplicity, rather than a purely learned approach, with its layers of keyboard- and ribbon-play.

Bernard Wisson (b. 1948) composes, teaches and performs (piano and organ) a huge range of music, from classical to jazz, solo to symphony works, chamber music to big band, film soundtracks to ballet, electroacoustic to concert-tournaments on a musical chess board, across France, Europe and the USA. Kyriades (2001) is a reflection of his varied experience. It grew out of a series of commissions from Jean Batigne (Percussions de Strasbourg), conductor Jean-Sébastien Béreau, artist and choreographer Véronique Laperrelle and Thomas Bloch, with whom Wisson has joined forces in recent years to form a duo. The title Kyriades alludes to a French word, kyrielle (string), an allusion to this succession of musical projects, and the piece exists in several forms: for ondes Martenot, piano and tape; ondes Martenot, piano, string quintet and one or three percussionists; five percussionists or symphony orchestra. According to Wisson, “Kyriades sounds at times like musical boxes, sound machines, mechanical, lyrical or harmonic. I’ve therefore used modes of limited transposition, heptatonic or pentatonic scales, and superimposed very different effects: a siren-like glissando on the ondes Martenot with a regular beat in the introduction, a military drum illustrating the rigidity of totalitarianism with East-European and South-American rhythms in the finale.” The two soloists provide completely improvised cadenzas, reminiscent of both jazz and classical concerto form.

Michel Redolfi (b. 1951) was formerly head of the CIRM (International Music Research Centre) in Nice (France) and artistic director of its annual MANCA Festival. He is currently designing the Cité du Son, a kind of musical amusement park being built near Bourges. In 1980, as a researcher at the University of California, he pioneered the concept of underwater music, broadcast below the ocean waves or in swimming pools for a submerged audience. Environmental sounds are a constant of his electroacoustic music and he often invites Thomas Bloch to join him in concert. For Mare Teno (2000), Redolfi spent a whole night connected to an EEG machine measuring his brain waves. He then transcribed the results into audible frequencies. He likens the brain’s electrical activity to periods of storm (REM sleep) and calm (alpha waves) on an ocean, and for this work used the purest oscillations of the ondes Martenot, “protecting the instrument’s innocence from showy effects”.

Lindsay Cooper (b. 1951) studied bassoon at the Royal Academy of Music, London, before becoming involved in classical music, improvisation and jazz with Mike Westbrook, Steve Hillage, Fred Frith and the Henry Cow group. She has written several ballet scores and film soundtracks and Nightmare (1994) was conceived in similar vein for the album Sarajevo Suite, “a testimony of opposition to all forms of intolerance”, setting a text by the Bosnian poet Abdulah Sidran (b. 1944): “With the voice I have no more - With the tongue I have no more - I am singing Mother - Of the home I have no more (...)”.

Bohuslav MartinÛ (1890–1959) left Prague in 1923 to study in Paris with Albert Roussel. In 1940 he fled France for the United States where he lived until 1953, returning then to Europe. During his years in Ridgefield, Connecticut, he composed Fantaisie (1944) for his neighbour and theremin-player, Lucie Bigelow Rosen. Theremin’s instrument was however unsuited for virtuosic performance and its tuning very difficult to master. MartinÛ and other composers such as Edgard Varèse (Ecuatorial) therefore authorised its replacement in their works by the ondes Martenot. This Fantaisie “à la française” (slow–fast–slow) is one of the most lyrical works in the ondes repertoire today.

Olivier Touchard (b. 1952), a composer and TV/film sound engineer, has written music for the Institut Pasteur’s scientific films, including Euplotes Euristomes (1987). Euplote is a ciliated protist, transparent, around a third of a millimeter long, which exists in shallow water. These tiny organisms inspired musical layer of aquatic sounds over which, in 1989, Thomas Bloch composed an ondes Martenot part. Euplotes 2 has been performed more than two hundred times, sometimes with additional instruments: cristal Baschet (on this recording), two or three ondes, piano, recorder, the human voice, and so on.

Etienne Rolin (b. 1952), an American-born instrumentalist (saxophone, clarinet, flute) and composer, has lived in France since 1974. He studied with Nadia Boulanger, Xenakis, Messiaen, Malec and Donatoni. His meeting with Thomas Bloch in 1996 has led to the composition of a number of works and creation of the group Fine Tuning, in which they are sometimes joined by Kent Carter (bass) and John Kenny (trombone). In his writing in general and in Space Forest Bound (1997) in particular, Rolin exploits the low resonances of the instruments to find a common denominator somewhere between the serious and the humorous, Baroque and new music, composition and improvisation.

Thomas Bloch

English translation: Susannah Howe

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