“I find it so amazing when people tell me that electronic music has no soul. You can’t blame the computer. If there’s no soul in the music, it’s because nobody put it there.”
Upon first hearing a recording of Messiaen’s Oraison, it is hard to believe that it was created on an electronic instrument. The performance is so expressive and organic that it could almost be confused for a human voice. Even more surprising is that the synthesizer it was written for was invented in 1928 – decades before electronic music became popular.
Performance of Messiaen’s Oraison featuring the ondes Martenot.
Messiaen composed the piece to be performed by six ondes Martenot, an instrument invented in France by cellist, Maurice Martenot. Similar to the Theremin, which was invented around the same time, the ondes Martenot is performed by the musician using the right hand to adjust pitch and the left to control dynamics. A ring is fixed to a string (the ribbon) running the length of the instrument with the pitch determined by ring’s location – moving it to the right increases the pitch and left decreases. The Tiroir is a drawer that opens containing a button (the Touche) that, when pressed, increases the volume.
Ondist, Cynthia Millar, demonstrates the ondes Martenot.
As versatile and expressive an instrument as the ondes Martenot is, it never gained the popularity of the its contemporary, the theremin, or other more modern synthesizers. Few of the instruments were created, (I can’t verify this, but I heard that all were made by hand by Martenot) and they are difficult for modern composers or musicians to access, but there has been a renaissance for the instrument of late in popular music led by Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead.
This renaissance has only been possible by a new generation of ondes Martenot-like instruments being made available to musicians and composers by inventive instrument makers. I have not had the opportunity to play an original ondes Martenot, but I have played some of the recreations, each having their own unique characteristics. The Haaken Continuum allows for polyphony and MIDI control. Analogue Solution’s French Connection is a CV controller allowing the performer to manipulate complex sounds on an external synthesizer. The Theravox is hand-crafted, containing a built-in sound generator and has MIDI outputs via USB. The most authentic to the original ondes Martenot is the Ondomo created by Naoyuki Omo.
Omo, a former Formula One race car designer has spent the last nineteen years developing the Ondomo, calling it a “Legacy of Love.” The design is portable and he has priced it affordably with the goal of sharing its sound with as large an audience as possible. This stays true to the original philosophy of Martenot, a teacher as well as inventor and musician, who wanted the ondes Martenot to be accessible, believing that everyone could be a musician. Martenot spent his life making adjustments and improvements to the instrument, so each one is unique. Much the same way, Omo is constantly tweaking and improving his designs for the Ondomo.
In February, Omo travelled to Los Angeles from Tokyo and gave me my own Ondomo. While, I have been casually practicing other ondes Martenot-style instruments for a couple years (primarily the Theravox), I have been dedicating more time to studying the instrument since receiving the Ondomo. Omo has been cultivating a friendly community of ondes Martenot enthusiasts and I have been lucky to receive tips from Micka Luna and Ayako Hase, both accomplished ondists.
Omo has put a lot of energy and love into the Ondomo and the Ondomo makes it effortless for a musician to put soul in to electronic music.
My recent performance of Wojciech Kilar’s Love Theme to Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) on the Ondomo.