A Tactile Extension of the Nervous System
Today, the future of the ondes Martenot is secure, not only in classical music, but in popular music, where it can be heard in the musical arrangements of artists from Jacques Brel to Yves Lambert, not to mention Michel Rivard, Harmonium and Beau Dommage. While the qualities of this unique instrument are being discovered by more and more artists, those who know it most intimately-the ondists themselves-have yet to explore its full potential in its 70-odd years of existence.
It is to these rare performers that falls the future technical development of the ondes Martenot, an instrument that seems to have a particular resonance with human sensitivity. In fact, Jean Laurendeau, Martenot’s biographer and a great ondist himself, says that for ondists, the instrument acts as a tactile and acoustic extension of their nervous systems.
Anyone seeing an ondist play, vibrating with his instrument so to speak, would attest to the truth of this description. The approaching listener, captivated by this sonorous magic, would soon see why the ondes Martenot has such expressive powers. Its monodic keyboard (i.e., permitting only one note at a time) is mobile, allowing the player to control vibrato naturally, like a violinist. It has a moveable ring mechanism (jeu à la bague) that allows soulful glissandi and a volume control key that allows the most subtle or the most extreme nuances and all types of articulations and attacks.
The listener would also discover an instrument that has a wide and rich range of tones, the “pure” electronic tone being the one used most often. This pure sound is emitted from a vibrating membrane (a kind of loudspeaker) but can also be emitted from three other resonators: a sound box with strings (cordes tendues de la palme), a gong and a set of springs (les ressorts). These complementary elements produce a variety of other sonorities. Today, certain ondists also use electronic reverberation and standard, high-quality loudspeakers.
It should also be noted that while the ondes Martenot is a monodic instrument, like the human voice or the flute, it has a range of seven octaves, allowing easy leaps between contrabass and piccolo registers. It is an instrument that plays in real time, like the clarinet or the cello, and requires the performer’s continual presence.
The ondes Martenot is taught in several cities in France and was taught over a period of 29 years in Quebec (1968-1997) at the Montreal and Quebec conservatories of music. Unfortunately, budget cuts resulted in the loss of funding (temporary, one hopes) for this program, unique to North America, the quality of which contributed to the spread of a unique and uncommon instrument. In the absence of governmental support, it is the performers, more than ever, to whom falls the task of popularising and making known the ondes Martenot.
For the complete story of the ondes Martenot and its inventor, Jean Laurendeau’s “Maurice Martenot, luthier de l ’électronique, 1990 (2892391067)” is an essential work.