Song Of The Day 1/9/2013: Ensemble d'Ondes de Montreal - Excerpt from "Fête des Belles Eaux"

The ondes martenot was created by cellist Maurice Martenot, who was a radio operator in World War I and shared Léon Theremin's fascination with, as this Guardian article points out, "the accidental overlaps of tones from military radio oscillators." Martenot's instrument was first released in 1928, the same year as the Theremin, which is the vintage electronic instrument everybody wants to go on a date with. Less baggage.

Martenot's invention was more hands-on than Theremin's, which one plays by essentially hailing a taxi in slow motion with both hands. (Perhaps that's oversimplifying.) The ondes martenot musician, however, wore a metal ring on one finger and slid it up and down a thin metal wire, generating sound from oscillations in vacuum tubes. Later modifications to the ondes martenot included a keyboard that one could slide left and right to create a vibrato effect on the notes it plays. I also saw a version that created jarring percussive sounds, like a Jazz Age drum pad.

These days the ondes martenot's biggest champion is probably Jonny Greenwood, who plays in Radiohead and was nominated for an Oscar for his score to There Will Be Blood. Radiohead has used no less than six ondes martenots in live performances of their Kid A song "How To Disappear Completely." They likely got that idea from Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992), a French composer who wrote some of the first modern classical pieces for the instrument. His suite Fête des Belles Eaux was composed for six of the machines.

The piece you hear above is an extract from that composition. I'm fairly certain it's called "L'eau," but I'm not 100% on that, and don't want to be chased down by the antique electronics police. They're every bit as menacing as Radiohead's karma police, just more staticky.

Here's a picture of an ondes martenot set-up. Check out the arched tubes. The gong had some sort of reverberant function, I believe. The More You Know.


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