Music for Ondes Martenot (Naxos: 8.555779)
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The ondes Martenot
Maurice Martenot (Paris, 1898 - Clichy, 1980) beganhis musical education early, giving his first celloconcerts at the age of nine, accompanied by his sisterGinette who was to become the first ondes Martenotsoloist. He was equally passionate about science (anarea in which he was self-taught) and teaching; he wrotebooks on relaxation and breathing techniques, as wellas, with his older sister Madeleine, developing theMartenot teaching method, widely used in France.
In 1917 Martenot was working as an army radiooperator when he came across the principle behind theinstrument he went on to invent. While using valveradios tuned to similar (but not identical) frequencies, henoticed the \purity of the vibrations produced by triodevalves when the intensity of the electrical charge isvaried by means of a condenser [or capacitor]". Hebegan his musical experiments in 1919.
At around the same time the Russian physicist LevTheremin was perfecting his own electronic instrument.
The theremin has two aerials and the performer moveshis or her hands towards and away from them, withoutever touching them, to change the pitch and volume ofthe sound produced. Greatly piqued by the appearanceof the theremin in Paris in 1927, Martenot presented thesecond version of his instrument, which he was thencalling the "ondes musicales" (musical waves) at theOpera on 3rd May 1928. The international tour thatfollowed was met with great critical acclaim: theDeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung said, "Theremin is aphysician-musician while Martenot is a musicianphysician";"It is ethereal, supernatural, inexplicable"claimed Information, and Der Abend (Vienna) enthused,"Wonder triumphed over scepticism", while the NewYork Herald said that had he lived in the Middle Ages,Martenot would have been accused of witchcraft andburned alive in the town square.
Martenot's primary interest, however, was notresearch into new sounds (unlike the inventors ofsynthesisers, whose first models appeared almost thirtyyears later). The development of this most musical ofelectronic instruments was driven above all by aninterest in the expressive, musical potential offered byelectricity.
To understand how the ondes Martenot works, weneed to look at an acoustic phenomenon. The string ofan instrument playing the note A has a frequency of 440Hz, 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 Martenotonly worked at a very high frequency, emitting anultrasonic note inaudible to the human ear (80 000 Hz).
To obtain an audible sound therefore, he used theprinciple of heterodyning (which musicians use whentuning to another instrument) - producing a beatfrequency by the combination of two oscillations ofslightly different frequency in order to generate a third,whose value is the mathematical difference between thefirst two. The note A, for example, can be produced bythe simultaneous production of two inaudiblefrequencies of 80 000 and 80 440 Hz. The firstfrequency is fixed and never changes, while the secondis variable, modified by the performer who plays theinstrument either via a keyboard or by moving a wireknow as a ruban or ribbon.
The ondes Martenot is monophonic, so thekeyboard and ribbon are played with the right handonly, with the exception of a number of virtuosic worksrequiring the use of both hands. With the left hand, theperformer can alter aspects such as dynamics andtimbre, using controls in a small drawer on the side ofthe instrument.
The keyboard has six visible octaves but actuallyhas a range of almost nine, via a switch and transposebuttons. It is also sprung and the keys can be movedlaterally through microtones a semi-tone up or down,thereby enabling the performer, by moving the righthand from side to side while depressing the keys, tocreate a vibrato effect just as Martenot could whenplaying the cello.
The ribbon extends along the length and in front ofthe keyboard and has a metal ring which fits on to theondiste's right index finger. He or she then playsdifferent notes by sliding the ring along the keyboard,and above a scale calibrated with bumps andindentations which act as visual and tactile referencepoints. The sound made is like that of a fretless stringinstrument or the human voice, producing glissandi thatcan be unbroken or sketched out across the instrument'srange, special effects, lyrical intonation, microtones,vibrato, and so on. Here again there is an obviousanalogy with the cello. In addition, a key element ofMartenot's teaching method was the importance ofgesture and movement and the ondiste's ribbontechnique puts this into practice. Some composers addscroll-like designs to their scores which players thenreproduce with their hand movements, translating theimage into sound.
The musician's left hand works the touched'intensite (intensity key) located in a little drawer onthe left side of the instrument. This controls the soundlevel, something like the volume control of a radio.
Extremely sensitive, it has a two-centimetre range ofmovement and can take the volume from zero to earsplitting.
It acts as an extension of the player's thoughtprocess, enabling a wide variety of nuance, phrasing andattack (accents, slurring, detached notes, staccato,percussive effects, and so on). In order to produce asound the musician has to play the keyboard (or ribbon)and depress the button simultaneously. The action of thelatter is similar to that of a bow, recalling once moreMartenot's beloved cello.
Also located in the drawer are seven switches thatcontrol the choice of wave form (sounds) and theirmixing, enabling numerous timbre combinations. Onthe latest model (1975), they are designated by letters,rather than by numbers as on previous models: O forOndes (sinusoid waves), C for Creux (peak-limitedtriangular signal), g for petit gambe (a square signalwhose intensity can be regulated using a selector), G forGambe (square signal), N for Nasillard (pulse signal), 8for Octaviant (reinforced first harmonic, whoseintensity can be regulated using a selector) and T forTutti (combination of all timbres). There are also twoswitches which can be used to obtain variable-intensitypink noise, comparable to a Puff (S for Souffle), and tofilter the harmonics (F for Feutre), creating a muteeffect.
The drawer also contains six transpose buttonswhich allow the player to change each individual noteinstantaneously and simultaneously: a quarter-tonehigher or lower, or a semi-tone, tone, third or fifthhigher.
Two foot pedals are connected to the drawer towork as a filter and touche d'intensite when a scorerequires both hands on the keyboard.
Finally, the player uses a selection of switches tochoose one or more of the four separate loudspeakers(diffuseurs in French: D1 to D4) which produce specificsound effects that can be combined using a mixingknob. The Diffuseur Principal (D1) is a traditionalloudspeaker invented with the instrument. TheResonance (D2) dates from 1980 and is made up ofstretched coiled strings enabling sounds to beprolonged. It is based on the Palme (D4), developed in1950; both are used in the same way, but the latter hastwo sets of twelve chromatically tuned metal strings,stretched over a flame-shaped case, which resonate insympathy with the notes played by the performer.
Lastly, the Metallique (D3), invented around 1930, has ametallic plate like a gong that acts as the speakermembrane and produces an acoustic halo effect whenthe instrument is played.
Over the decades since its invention, there havebeen seven models of the ondes Martenot, allincorporating various improvements. The 1919instrument, a kind of theremin, was not seen as viableby Martenot and his firs