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How to play – Wavemakers // Le Chant des Ondes
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How to play

How to play

While trying to make electronic music I’m trying to keep it organic,
something you can touch rather than just keep inside a box.
 I’ve got a synthesiser… It’s just switches. You can’t put
your personality into it like you can with a violin or an oboe.
The Martenot is the only electronic instrument that can do that.

– Jonny Greenwood (Radiohead)


By Jean Laurendeau

This electronic instrument requires the continual presence of a performer, who is offered a monodic keyboard with vibrato that can be controlled as personally as that of a violin; a jeu à la bague, which gives real feeling to glissando effects; a touche d’expression (key volume), which allows the most varied nuances, and any articulations and modes of attack desired. These diverse aspects explain the reports of those who play it, according to whom this instrument constitutes a veritable tactile and sonorous extension of the nervous system.

It also offers a choice of timbres (jeu de timbres) comprising a great wealth of colors. The “pure” electronic timbre, coming from the membrane of a speaker, constitutes the basic sound of the instrument. Three other fundamental tones conceived by the inventer can be used, which result from non-electronic elements being made to resonate. These are the stretched strings of the Palme, the gong, and the ressorts (springs), all three set in vibration by motors of the speakers. Each can be affected by a dose of harmonics—progressive or sudden—making a great variety of timbres possible. More recently, some ondistes have chosen to add electronic resonances through the use of a digital reverb; this achieves the effect, with increased reliability, that Martenot achieved using acoustic elements. Finally, some ondistes prefer to use the standard speakers that are found on the market.

This is a monodic instrument, such as the human voice or the flute. Its tessitura of seven octaves allows it to go, without interruption, from the register of the double bass to that of the piccolo. The instrument is taught in France, Switzerland, and in Japan. In Canada, the Conservatoire de Montréal has provided teaching of the instrument for almost thirty years.

From the CD booklet Olivier Messiaen – Fête des Belles eaux by the Ensemble d’Ondes de Montréal published by Atma Classique, 2009