Ondas Martenot A Very Particular Piano

The Ondas Martenot piano is an electronic keyboard instrument designed and built by the cellist of the same name. The Frenchman Maurice Martenot (Paris 1898-Clichy 1980) began his musical education at an early age. Giving his first cello concert at the age of nine accompanied by his sister Ginette. Eventually she would become the first soloist of the instrument created by her brother known as Ondas Martenot.

Maurice was also passionate about science, an area in which he was completely self-taught, and teaching. He also wrote books on relaxation and breathing techniques, and together with his older sister Madaleine. He developed the Martenot teaching method, widely spread in France.

Invention Of The Ondas Martenot

In 1917, while working as a radio operator of the navy. Martenot came up with the operating principle behind the instrument he finally invented. While using radio valves tuned to similar but not identical frequencies. He noticed the “purity of the vibrations produced by the valve trio. When the intensity of the electrical charge can be varied by means of a capacitor. Thus, in 1919, he started his first musical experiments.

Around the same time, Russian physicist Lev Theremin was perfecting his own electronic instrument: the Theremin. This one is formed by two antennas. And the interpreter has to bring his hands near or away from them. Without touching them, to change the tone and the volume of the produced sounds. Hugely resentful of the appearance of the Theremin in Paris in 1927. Martenot presented the second version of his instrument. Which was then called “musical waves”.

Martenot Piano

The presentation took place at the Opera House on May 3, 1928. The international tour that followed this presentation met with extremely positive criticism. The Deutsche Allgemeine Zeitung said: “It is ethereal, supernatural, inexplicable”. And Der Abend (Vienna) said: “Wonder triumphed over skepticism”. While the Herald of New York said that if Martenot had lived in the Middle Ages. He would have been accused of witchcraft and burned alive in the town square.

How It Operates

To understand how Martenot Waves works, it is necessary to understand an acoustic phenomenon. The string of an instrument like the piano, when the note La4 is played. It has a frequency of 440 Hz, i.e. it vibrates 440 times per second. Depending on the speed of this vibration, the frequency will be either sharper or more severe. The radio used by Martenot only worked at a very high frequency. Emitting an ultrasonic note inaudible to the human ear, of around 80,000 Hz. So, to get an audible sound,

Martenot used the principle of frequency comparison by interference, a system used by musicians when tuning another instrument, producing beats. As piano tuners use when tuning pianos, by combining two oscillations with two slightly different frequencies to generate a third. Whose value is the mathematical difference between the first two frequencies.

For example, the note La can be produced by the simultaneous production of two inaudible frequencies of 80,000 and 80,440 Hz. The first frequency is fixed and never changes while the second is variable. Modified by the player playing the instrument. Either through a keyboard or through the movement of a cable or tape.

It’s A Monophonic Instrument

The piano Ondas Martenot is a monophonic instrument, meaning that only one note can be played at a time. So the keyboard and tape are played only with the right hand. With the exception of a number of very virtuosic works that require the use of two hands. With the left hand the interpreter can alter aspects such as dynamics and timbre, using controls in a small drawer next to the instrument.

The keyboard has six visible octaves but actually has a range of almost nine, thanks to a switch and buttons that allow you to carry the scale of notes. In addition, it has springs and the keys can move sideways along microtones, one half tone up or down. In this way, you can create a vibrato effect, just as Martenot did with the cello by moving the right hand from side to side, while the interpreter presses the keys.

The tape extends along and in front of the keyboard and has a metal bell that is placed on the interpreter’s index finger. He then plays different notes by sliding the ring along the keyboard and on a calibrated scale with protrusions and cracks that act as visual and tactile reference points. The sound produced is like that of a stringed instrument without fret or like that of the human voice producing a “glisando”.

Ondas Martenot

The left hand of the musician can control the intensity keys located in a small drawer on the left side of the instrument. This controls the sound level, something like the volume control of a radio. Being extremely sensitive, it has a range of motion of two centimeters and can carry the volume of the instrument from zero to produce a truly deafening sound.

A Wide Variety Of Nuances

Éhis acts as an extension of the musician throughout the entire process allowing a wide variety of nuances, tonalities, phrasing and attacks (accents, staccato, percussion effects, legato, among others). In order to produce a sound, the musician has to play the keyboard (or tape) and press the button simultaneously. This last action is similar to the one performed by a bow, remembering again the beloved violoncello of Martenot.

Also in the drawer there are seven switches that control the choice of the waveform and its mix, allowing numerous combinations of timbres. In the last model (1975) they were designated with letters instead of the numbers that carried the previous models. There are also six transportable buttons that allow the interpreter to change each individual note instantaneously and simultaneously: a quarter tone up or down, a half tone, a tone, a third or a fifth tone up.

The instrument also has two pedals connected to the case that function as a filter or control of the intensity of the touch when a score requires both hands on the keyboard. In addition, the performer can press several switches to choose one or more of the four separate amplifiers that produce specific sound effects that can be combined using a mixer knob.

Martenot Wave Models

Seven models of Ondas Martenot pianos have been introduced. Each of which has incorporated successive improvements over the years.  The 1919 instrument, a type of Theremin, was not viable according to Martenot, so its first official model did not appear until 1928. The fifth version of the instrument, from 1928, was the first to present the tape next to the keyboard. In the same year the composer Messiaen wrote his famous “Fête des Belles Eaux” for six Ondas Martenot.

Maurice began teaching this instrument at the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique in Paris in 1947. And then a dozen more courses were established in France and Canada encouraging official recognition of the instrument.

In his workshop in Neuilly-sur-Seine, near Paris, Martenot built about 370 instruments. Along with a number of non-professional models: simplified versions for use in schools. Versions for chamber music, one combined with a radio and a record player and a very special one built in 1932 for the Indian poet and musician Rabindranath Tagore to be able to play ragas.

Production Of The Instrument

The production of this instrument culminated in 1988 with the retirement of Marcel Manière, Martenot’s assistant since 1951. Jean-Louis Martenot, one of Maurice’s sons, worked hard on a digital version of the instrument but without much success. In 1995 the engineer Ambro Oliva designed the Ondéa, a very similar instrument.

After 2008, Jean-Loup Dierstein, a world-renowned Frenchman specializing in vintage keyboards, began working on the reconstruction of the original Ondas Martenot. Since July 2011 has begun production and is now available again and for sale. The new instrument is exactly the same model as the one made in 1988.

Today the repertoire for this instrument includes more than a thousand works in various genres: contemporary music, pop songs, film soundtracks, dance, rock and others written for radio, TV and commercials. Despite being a highly multifaceted instrument, it is often considered obsolete by those who ignore its potential, but in the field of pop music artists such as Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead and Damon Albarn of Gorillaz, among others, continue to use this magnificent instrument.