Synth French Connection: Ondioline and Ondes Martenot

It was during World War I that Maurice Martenot (1898–1980), a French Army radio operator, noticed that his equipment sometimes created audible pitches. When the war ended, he set out to capture this phenomenon for musical use. In the process, Martenot created one of the first electronic musical instruments, and one that is still in use today.

Leon Theremin and his namesake device, 1924. Photo via Wikimedia.

In 1928, the same year Leon Theremin patented the theremin in New York, Martenot unveiled his invention in Paris. A report in The Guardian that year declared Martenot had "decidedly improved upon the invention which Professor Leo Theremin introduced here [in the UK] last December."

From the start, Martenot presented what he first called the Ondes Musicales (meaning "musical waves") and later the Ondes Martenot ("Martenot’s waves") as a new orchestral instrument. He went on an international publicity tour and performed on US radio, including a rendition of Edvard Greig’s "Anita’s Dance" from Peer Gynt Suite No. 1.

A preview of the event in The New York Times in 1930 described "the musical instrument of the future" that could "mimic almost every known instrument in an orchestra." Martenot, though, asserted that his primary aim was "not to imitate the sounds of other instruments, but to provide new resources of expression for composers and novel color effects to enrich the orchestral palette."

The theremin and the Ondes Martenot both use heterodyne sound production technology—the mixing of frequencies—and both excel at sweeping, swerving portamentos. But there the similarity ends.

Martenot developed his instruments through several prototypes before going into limited production in 1932. This first model and all subsequent ones are monophonic, and feature two ways of pitching notes: a ribbon controller for portamentos and a piano-style keyboard. The keyboard itself allows some lateral movement—moving a finger from side to side while depressing a key produces vibrato. Such versatility, along with a battery of articulation controls and multiple speakers (diffusers), each producing different timbres, makes the Ondes Martenot an extraordinarily expressive instrument.

Ondes Martenot

A Pathé newsreel film from 1934 features Martenot himself demonstrating all of this: "A real musical instrument without string or wind … it’s not necessary to touch the keyboard," and here he demonstrates the ribbon controller, "but if you like you can play on the keys," and he plays the keyboard.

Martenot pitched his instrument at the serious music elite, with some success. Orchestral works featuring the Martenot’s serpentine tones began to appear, including Olivier Messiaen’s Turangalîla-symphonie (1948). Even so, Martenot performed a novelty turn during a demonstration in 1947 for the BBC in London, with impersonations of "a day-old chick, a nightingale, a mosquito, a blue-bottle, a gale-wind, a bomber and a machine gun," according to a newspaper report.

Music From The Ether (1934)

In Paris, another Frenchman, Georges Jenny (c.1900–76), was watching with interest. Sometime in the late ‘30s, he began to conceive of an instrument that applied some features of the Ondes Martenot, but it was less complex. He developed his concept while recovering from tuberculosis and put it into production as the Ondioline in the late ‘40s.

Jenny continued to refine and make Ondiolines for nearly 30 years, never licensing for mass production but instead offering completed instruments or self-assembly kits. At one point, he ran a small factory some 100 miles from Paris where he employed about 20 disabled people who used wheelchairs. Jenny had suffered from polio and sometimes used a wheelchair himself. A later estimate put total production at about 700, sold mainly in France and the USA.

Ondioline, 1950.
Photo by Samasiddhartha's Bizarre Gear Bazaar.

The Ondioline pairs a small monophonic keyboard with a combo amp, rather like a Hammond Solovox. The keyboard features a lateral-movement, vibrato-producing mechanism similar to the Ondes Martenot. Running in front of the keyboard, a metal braid adds attack to a note if pressed at the same time as playing a note on the keyboard. Filter controls offer a range of sounds.

An Ondioline falls short of the expansive possibilities of Martenot’s instrument, but it is more versatile than the Solovox. In contrast with Maurice Martenot, there’s little sign that Georges Jenny ever promoted his instrument to classical musicians, instead aiming at the popular market. Footage from 1948 shows him demonstrating his invention’s aptitude for mimicry. In turn, a saxophonist, a violinist, and a banjo player start a tune that Jenny picks up, the Ondioline’s controls set to reproduce the appropriate timbre.

Around this time, Jean-Jacques Perrey (1929–2016) heard Jenny demonstrating the Ondioline on the radio. Perrey, a Parisian medical student who had previously studied music, was so impressed he called the radio station, obtained Jenny’s telephone number, and called Jenny himself.

Stating his interest in the Ondioline, but that he couldn’t afford one, Perrey made a proposal. Would Jenny lend him an instrument so that he, Perrey, could become proficient and then work for Jenny as a demonstrator? Jenny agreed and Perrey mastered the instrument in six months. Jenny was impressed, and Perrey abandoned medicine for the Ondioline. For the next 15 years or so, he travelled around Europe and eventually to the USA, peddling Ondiolines.

Inventor Georges Jenny Demonstrates the Ondioline (1948)

Perrey’s varied Ondioline discography includes four songs with the singer-songwriter Charles Trenet. One of these, "L’âme Des Poètes" (1951), was a big hit in France. There was also a live appearance with Edith Piaf, and an Ondioline demonstration disc. A series of albums on Vanguard in the ‘60s featured Ondioline and Moog and remain Perrey’s best-known recordings.

A few years before these, Perrey adopted the persona of Mr Ondioline, under which name he released two EPs of novelty pop. The cover of the first features "Mr Ondioline" sitting in front of his instruments, wearing a cape and hood, with slits for eyes. It’s an unintentionally disquieting image for a man who was, by all accounts, full of warmth and humor.

The Ondioline and the Ondes Martenot were in production for decades and developed over the years—the most notable change for both was a move from tube to solid-state technology in the ‘60s. Even so, they were always rare instruments. Perrey’s records aside, the Ondioline turned up in popular music infrequently. Alex North used one during his soundtrack for the movie Spartacus (1960), and in 1963 Kai Winding scored a US hit with "More," an instrumental with an Ondioline lead.

Al Kooper played Ondioline, notably on The Blues Project’s "No Time Like The Right Time," later included on the Nuggets compilation, and with Blood, Sweat & Tears. But as the ‘60s wore on, Ondiolines slipped into obscurity, though they remained in limited production until Jenny’s death in 1976. It seems he used poor quality components, which meant that Ondiolines often deteriorated into unplayability. Few survive today.

Two years after Jenny’s death, the New York new wave band Television released their second album, Adventure, featuring a six-minute song called "The Fire." Tom Verlaine, Television’s guitarist and singer, said in Elektra’s publicity literature that "the weird organ sound is an Ondioline. It’s a 36-note keyboard instrument that can quiver a note by shaking the key."

The Ondes Martenot remains a niche orchestral instrument to this day, though for decades it infrequently crossed over into popular forms. You can hear its demonstrative capacity on the original 1959 version of Jacques Brel’s emotionally tortured classic "Ne Me Quitte Pas." Léo Ferré, too, used it on a few of his ‘50s recordings. The Martenot found some traction among Canadian bands in the ‘70s, including Beau Dommage, Harmonium, and Et Cetera.

Maurice Jarre, father of Jean-Michel Jarre, used Martenot in film soundtracks, including Lawrence Of Arabia (1962). The British film and TV composer Barry Gray acquired one in the late ‘50s, traveling to Paris for tuition with Martenot himself. Gray sometimes used his Ondes Martenot in the music for Gerry Anderson’s Supermarionation puppet TV shows, such as the main theme for Fireball XL5.

Canadian bands aside, the Ondes Martenot was absent from rock music for years. Expensive, fragile, and complex, it just wasn’t the sort of thing you were going to put in the back of a tour bus. Then, gradually through the ‘90s, rock musicians became interested. Joe Jackson, Tom Waits, Bryan Ferry, and Damon Albarn have all made use of the instrument.

360 Behind The Scenes: London Contemporary Orchestra and Jonny Greenwood: There Will Be Blood

Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood first heard the Ondes Martenot "when a teacher at school played us Messiaen’s Turangalîla Symphony," he told Tom Service in 2005. "But I had no idea what it looked like, and then finally, when we were doing Kid A, I found one in Paris." This was a "student model," one of a limited run of 50 instruments built in 1983 by Martenot’s family after his death. It is digital, with four octaves rather than the usual six. Greenwood used it on Kid A, Amnesiac, and many subsequent Radiohead recordings, as well as on soundtracks including There Will Be Blood and We Need to Talk About Kevin.

What Maurice Martenot would have made of this we’ll never know. He died in a road traffic accident in Paris in 1980, four days before his 82nd birthday. Jonny Greenwood continues as the Ondes Martenot’s most vocal champion in what looks set to be a long second life for the instrument. In 2011, Greenwood obtained the first in a new line built by Jean-Loup Dierstein, which reverts to the original Ondes Musicales name. Five years later, he acquired an ASADEN Ondomo, a Japanese replica of an Ondes Martenot. "It’s not like other electronic instruments," he said.

About the author: Mark Brend is an author and a musician. His books The Sound Of Tomorrow (Bloomsbury 2012) and Strange Sounds (Backbeat 2005) explore early electronic music and musical instruments. He lives in Devon, England. More info can be found at his website.

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