Charlie Draper
 

Ondes Martenot

The Ondes Martenot is among the earliest successful electronic musical instruments, patented in 1928 by French cellist, radio engineer and visionary Maurice Martenot (1898-1980). The most well-known iteration of the instrument is distinguished by three unique features: a laterally shifting keyboard (which permits vibrato), a ribbon control (which permits unlimited portamento), and special resonant speakers which imbue the sound with an otherworldly resonance. I play an Ondomo, a portable version of the Ondes instrument handmade by Japanese master craftsman Naoyuki Omo for his company, Asaden. The evocative tones of the instrument can be reminiscent of a violin, cello, flute, or even a human voice, and have attracted the attention of composers including Olivier Messiaen, Maurice Ravel, Jacques Charpentier, and Jonny Greenwood.

 
 

History

In the closing years of the First World War, teenage French radio operator and cellist Maurice Martenot (1898-1980) noticed that his audio equipment possessed the rudiments of a musical instrument. By adjusting its dials, he could - to the fascination of his soldierly colleagues - pick out a simple melody. This realisation awoke in the young Martenot an insuppressible musical ambition, the very same which had already propelled his sister Ginette towards a career as a professional pianist. Martenot dedicated the rest of his life to using the "extreme purity of [electrical] vibration" to develop a legitimate electronic musical instrument, which he later named the Ondes Martenot (Martenot Waves).

With the war concluded, Martenot began work on his first instrument. This bore little resemblance to later iterations, being practically identical to apparatus developed contemporaneously by Leon Theremin in Soviet Russia. Martenot's contraption comprised a small wooden box and metal antenna, and the player regulated the pitch from a distance, by free motion of the hands in space.

Maurice Martenot demonstrates his fourth instrument (1934)

Almost a decade later in May 1928, Martenot unveiled a much-improved second instrument at the Garnier Opera House in Paris. This instrument allowed him to control pitch by means of a wire connected to ring worn on the finger. By pulling the wire longer and shorter, the performer could modify the pitch. A ruler positioned on the floor allowed tones to be found much more easily than on the theremin, while a button positioned on an adjacent table permitted control of the volume. The concert was met with widespread critical acclaim and encouraged Martenot to develop his instrument further.

Marcel Manière and Pascale Rousse-Lacordaire demonstrate the Mk 7, Martenot's final instrument (1996)

In his third instrument, Martenot positioned the string and ring above a dummy keyboard. This eliminated the difficulties of playing in midair, while still allowing expressive and precise glissando. The instrument continued to garner attention. Composers including Dmitri Levidivis, Darius Milhaud, Jacques Ibert and Arthur Honegger began composing for the instrument, and Leopold Stokowski (who had also worked with Leon Theremin) invited Maurice and his sister Ginette to demonstrate the instrument in New York, accompanied by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra.

While in America, Martenot constructed his fourth instrument, the first to feature a working keyboard. This was ingeniously suspended to allow transmission of vibrato through movement of the keys, allowing the execution of complex passages without sacrificing the instrument's expressive character.

[Incoming: more details of the history of the instrument]

 
A block of strange sounds, fallen from the future onto our planet ... - The Ondes Martenot!
— Olivier Messiaen
the limitless range even beyond the capacity of the human ear, the inexhaustible variety of multiple timbres, the richness of dynamics, rhythm and tempo
— Jeanne Loriod
 

Design & Operation

Gradation KEy (Touche)

Keyboard (Clavier Sensitif)

LA BAGUE

Timbres

The classic iteration of the Ondes Martenot possesses the following timbres, which can be selected and combined using buttons in the drawer (tiroir), in a manner akin to pulling the stops of a pipe organ:

Onde (O)
a simple sinusoidal wave, devoid of all harmonics, reminiscent of a flute or ocarina.
Creux (C)
a clipped triangular resembling a trough. Inoffensive and rich only in lower harmonics, the sound can resemble a clarinet.
Gambe (G, g)
this square signal is reminiscent of a stringed instrument. A slider is available a slider to adjust the intensity of overtones. 
Nasillard (N)
this asymmetrical wave, reminiscent of a buzzing insect, has only uneven harmonics and is particularly aggressive in the higher register. 
Octaviant (8)
this signal employs even harmonics of the Onde signal, giving an impression of superimposed octaves. A slider adjusts the intensity.

[Incoming: samples of each tone, playing something appropriate]

Speakers

D1 Principal:
D2 Résonance:
D3 M
étallique:
D4 Palme:

[Incoming: samples of each speaker type, taken both from actual recordings, and from simulations]

Music can be, or should be, the most beautiful manifestation of the human spirit. I don’t believe any more needs to be said
— Maurice Martenot