on the Ondes Martenot

Barry Gray
Ondes Martenot

Much of the strange and 'spacey' music which I have composed for Supercar, Fireball, and Stingray has been produced on a very unusual instrument called the Ondes Martenot, and as far as I know I possess the only one in this country. The Martenot (as it is called for short) was invented in Paris in 1928 by Monsieur Martenot from whom it takes its name.

The Ondes Martenot is what is called an 'Ether Wave' instrument, and opposing electrical circuits are made to oscillate, thereby producing musical notes (or 'frequencies', as they are called in electronic terms). Those of you who are learning French at school will know that the word 'ondes' means 'waves'.

One has to learn two separate ways of playing. Firstly, there is 'Au Clavier', (French for 'with the keyboard'). The right hand plays the keys while the left hand operates the small volume control, and by moving a key from side to side you can make your own 'vibrato', or 'wobble'. You must have heard many rather bad lady sopranos on the Radio — wobbling away like an over-exited jelly.

The other method of piaying is called 'Au Ruban' (French for 'with the ribbon"). By placing your 1st finger through the special metal ring attached to the ribbon, you can 'slide' from high notes to low, or vice versa just as you please. In musical terms this is called a 'Glissando', or 'Gliss' for short, and as we are doing a little French at the moment, it is interesting to note that the French for 'to slide' is 'glisser'.

It is possible to slide over a wide range of six octaves, and so for the benefit of my musician readers this is how a long 'glide' would be written for the instrument:

glissando musical notation

Another very original idea which Mr. Martenot conceived was the production of sounds through 3 different types of loudspeakers. I will give you the French names, so that you can practise your French. 1. 'Le Diffuseur Normal', ('the normal speaker', for straight electronic tones). 2. 'Le Diffuseur Espace' ('the space speaker' which produces mysterious and ethereal sounds), and 3. 'Le Diffuseur Metallique', ('the metal speaker', out of which can come strange eastern and metallic sounds). These three speakers can be used separately, or can be combined to piay together in any combination. It is also possible to switch any one of them in or out of use whilst playing.

One of the great advantages of an electronic instrument to a composer is, of course, the fact that it can hold long notes for any length of time, unlike a playing musician who runs out of breath, or needs a break from continuous blowing.

article originally appeared in TV21, issue 7, in the 'Barry Gray's Music Box' series