Some electronic instruments have a reputation for sounding like the inorganic machines they are. Synthesizers and drum machines can be sterile and robotic. In fact, that’s often the appeal. But it wasn’t always that way. This week, the contemporary classical ensemble Intersection performs a program showcasing the highly expressive and nuanced character of one of the first electronic instruments ever invented.
The Ondes Martenot is a product of the 1920s, when radio wave technology was thrilling and new. Like the better-known theremin, the instrument manipulates radio frequencies to create an otherworldly tone. But the Ondes Martenot has multiple, palpable inputs that give a musician great control over the resulting sound.
Players, called “ondists,” can use a piano-like keyboard to perform quick, precise passages or create long, sliding lines by moving a metal ring along a wire. The Ondes Martenot’s musicality is often compared to the cello, which its inventor played. But Maurice Martenot’s goal was actually to create an instrument that gave him greater control over expression than he could get from a string instrument.
Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood, who is a fierce advocate for the Ondes Martenot, compares it instead to a living thing, saying, “it’s as close to singing as I can get.” Greenwood has worked the instrument into multiple Radiohead songs as well as his orchestral compositions, such as his soundtrack for the film There Will Be Blood. Greenwood has returned to the instrument multiple times.
In fact, it’s a piece by Greenwood for two Ondes Martenot and strings that triggered Intersection’s spring program. Artistic director Kelly Corcoran says she was specifically interested in mounting a performance of Greenwood’s Smear, thinking at first it would be the only piece highlighting the instrument. However, contacting and booking a pair of skilled players proved to be an adventure in international networking worthy of something more.
Given that Martenot never taught anyone but his assistant how to master the art of building the instrument, there aren’t many working examples in the world right now; some estimate as few as sixty remain, with only about 40 trained ondists. Having two in town to perform with Intersection was a rare opportunity, Corcoran discovered. She chose to capitalize on their presence by making the instrument the focus of an entire concert. The result is a set list that explores its repertoire, ranging from one of the first pieces written for the instrument to a contemporary, acrobatic soundscape, complete with dancers.
Both of the ondists performing with Intersection are Canadian musicians who trained at the only North American music school to include the instrument, the Conservatoire de musique du Québec in Montréal. Estelle Lemire and Marie Bernard both work as composers and perform as members of the Montreal Ondes Ensemble; Lemire currently teaches the instrument at the conservatory.
For a taste of the instrument and how it sounds with an ensemble, watch ondist Valerie Hartmann-Claverie and pianist Jean Yves Thibaudet perform Olivier Messiaen's Turangalia Symphony with the Verbier Festival Orchestra. A particularly good look at the instrument comes at 7:30.