I’m a timbre hound. New sounds and rare instruments stir me. And I’ve found that in this pursuit, I’m more open than some to the charms of analog synthesizers. I see few obvious reasons why a string or pipe has more inherent value as a source of vibration than a vacuum tube. So I was surprised and excited to learn about the Ondes Martenot, an instrument I’d never heard of until Kelly Corcoran determined to bring not one but two of them to Nashville (From Canada!) for a concert on April 28 by her contemporary ensemble Intersection. Now you might say I’m oscillating with anticipation.
The Ondes Martenot is a hyper-articulate cousin of the spooky, spacey Theremin, introduced a few years after that more famous instrument in 1928. Its French inventor Maurice Martenot was a cellist and a radio telegraph operator. His creation could be considered a love child of those two pursuits.
I’m no expert on this stuff, but as I understand it, the player of both the OM and Theremin is interfering with an electrical field. The OM was developed over years to do this with a keyboard, a sliding ribbon, switchable timbre selectors and a left hand spring-loaded button that smoothly controls volume and enables wild effects on attack, sustain and decay. Then there’s a bit that will make electric guitar players envious; the player can switch among speakers, each of which has its own dramatic effect. One is a simple paper cone. One is metal. One is a palm-shaped wooden box with sympathetic lyre strings. Together the full instrument evokes something Dr. Seuss might have drawn, and it can sound like a flute, a buzzy accordion, a wine glass being rubbed about the edge, a bell choir in a church crypt and many other things one couldn’t name. It can tweak the air with an explicitly electric edge or float with an uncannily woody tone. Far out doesn’t cover it.
Like the much more famous Moog synthesizers of almost forty years later, the OM can only produce one note at a time, so it is more like a cello than the organ it resembles. But in the hands of a good player (as rare as million dollar coins) it has an expressive range and tenderness that I’ve never heard from a Moog and a complex texture that seems to come from the 19th century and the 21st at the same time. That’s why for years it was the go-to sound for science fiction futurism, including the main theme of the original Star Trek TV show, where the Ondes Martenot was paired in counterpoint with French horn.
On April 28, Intersection will offer a program of five pieces for Ondes Martenot and chamber ensemble, featuring works composed between 1933 and 2004. The most recent isthe easiest to find online and the one that ought to provoke the most vivid interest as it was composed by Jonny Greenwood, the imaginative guitarist from Radiohead. He’s brought the OM into a half dozen Radiohead albums and brought it to bear on some of his high profile film score work.
Realizing the Ondes Martenot was conceived in the 1920s should recalibrate our idea of how edgy and forward thinking that era actually was. Realizing the instrument has lain in obscurity for decades should prod us into listening more actively for fresh tone colors and textures. Because this odd and elaborate instrument isn’t just a curiosity. It found a way into Jonny Greenwood’s heart and it’s rapidly finding a way into mine.
Compared to the arena productions that dominate the entertainment-scape, Intersection’s exotic, daring and exciting programs are a bargain. But they’re not free. Intersection is a startup arts organization with a bold vision and a tall, important challenge. Classical music and composed music are critical parts of Music City and the national culture. I’m part of a team of people in Nashville who are reaching out to friends and allies for a modest but powerful donation. We need financial help now. I’m challenged to raise just $150 but I think you guys collectively can beat that. This is part of an ongoing general expansion of conceptual and art-first music. Some great things are going to happen this year. I urge you to be part of it in the way that helps most. My Crowdrise campaign link is this entire paragraph. Click and give. Thank you so much.
Here’s Jonny Greenwood’s ‘Smear’, one of five pieces on the April 28 program.