Jean Laurendeau lives on an ordinary street in West Montreal. But tucked away in a small second-floor studio in his home is something quite out of the ordinary: a rare musical instrument called the ondes Martenot.
At first glance, it doesn’t look very remarkable. Consisting of a piano keyboard on legs with a few mysterious buttons and switches, it could easily be mistaken for an early prototype of a Moog synthesizer. But it’s much older than any synthesizer: It was invented in France by Maurice Martenot in 1928, and is now eight decades old.
“The right hand plays on the keyboard to determine the notes,” says Laurendeau, a soft-spoken, professorial man of 70 years. “The left hand controls the sensitivity – like the bow on a violin.”
In some ways the instrument is like a theremin – famously used to create weird, otherworldly sounds in old horror and sci-fi flicks. Both instruments work on the same principal: “heterodyning oscillators” control pitch and volume. But according to Laurendeau, the ondes Martenot is more sophisticated.
“When you play the theremin, you don’t touch anything. Everything is in the air, and it’s hard to be precisely in tune and to make a clean attack on a note. The keyboard allows a kind of virtuosity that the theremin does not permit.”
By adjusting the settings on his ondes Martenot, Laurendeau demonstrates how it can warble sweetly or penetrate like a knife. By altering pressure on the keys, he coaxes a gentle vibrato from it. When he puts a metal ring on his finger and slides it up and down the keyboard, a distinctive wail is produced.
“Maurice Martenot was a very simple man,” continues Laurendeau, who studied with the inventor in Paris in the 1960s, and later wrote a book about him. “He was not very good at marketing – it was non-existent for him. Once, some people from a bank came to him and said ‘What do you need?’ He said, ‘I want to be left in peace in my studio.’ “During his lifetime, Martenot built fewer than 300 instruments.
On the other hand, the Russian inventor Léon Theremin was an aggressive advocate for his instrument, performing concerts on his invention throughout Europe and America. As well, the theremin soon found its way to Hollywood – and was also popularized by the Beach Boys in the song Good Vibrations.
As a result, the theremin is much better known in North America. But in the Francophone world, the ondes Martenot holds a position of respect. In France, the instrument can be studied at music conservatories in Paris and other cities. And until the mid-1990s, Laurendeau taught it at the Conservatoire de musique de Montréal.
Yet despite its rarity, the ondes Martenot shows no sign of dying out. It also continues to crop up – sometimes in unlikely places. It can be heard in the soundtracks of the movies Lawrence of Arabia and A Passage to India. Jonny Greenwood of the band Radiohead plays one, and it was used in the 1970s by the Quebec rock groups Harmonium and Beau Dommage. As well, the instrument is the subject of Wavemakers, a documentary film currently being made by the Montreal-based Productions Artifact company.
Most significantly, the ondes Martenot is essential to a small but valued body of 20th-century classical repertoire. Messiaen’s opera Saint François d’Assise requires three of them.
Laurendeau, one of the few professional “ondistes” in North America, is often called upon when his services are needed: He’s performed throughout Canada, and in the United States with the orchestras of Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, St. Louis and Houston, among others.
“Its past guarantees its future. There are great works that need the instrument to live, and new compositions are still being written for the ondes Martenot.”
Excerpted from Colin Eatock, Globe and Mail, April 9, 2008