Around the time Radiohead released Kid A in the autumn of 2000, the music press was abuzz with talk of an instrument you’d be forgiven for thinking had never before been heard by humankind. Queuing to buy the album outside Fopp on Division Street in Sheffield, the gathered fans were all looking forward to hearing Jonny Greenwood’s new toy in action – the message boards and fan sites had been speaking in reverent tones for some time about the wondrous sound he had presumably unearthed, Indiana Jones-like, from a mysterious underground chamber decorated with symbols not of this planet. For months thereafter, as the impact of the game-changing album began to sink in, nary an interview passed in which Greenwood was not asked about the instrument. The reviews at the time seemed awestruck by it and to this day, if you type “Ondes Martenot” into a search engine, the majority of results mention Kid A in some capacity. Many link to in-depth dissections of how the world was forever changed on the fateful day when Sir Jonathan of Greenwoodshire did swipe his bejewelled index finger o’er the humming… well, bit of wire.
Debuted in 1928 by its creator, the French cellist Maurice Martenot, the Ondes Martenot is for all intents and purposes a type of theremin with added organ. Inspired by his work as a telegraphist during the World War I and “the purity of the vibrations produced” when radio frequencies would overlap and interfere with one another, he set out to invent something that would encapsulate the eeriness and incorporeality of his experiences but maintain the emotional weight and expression of the instrument he was trained in. Martenot continued to make improvements to what he called the Ondes Musicales (“Musical Waves”) up until his death in 1980, but the essentials remained the same since its inception: the player controls pitch using a metal ring worn on the right index finger, running it up and down a ribbon of wire strung above a keyboard upon which the left hand controls all else.
Far from forgotten or dismissed as an artisan’s curio until some skinny lad from Oxford happened upon its dusty carcass in a Parisian catacomb, the Ondes has in fact been in regular use since its unveiling. Particularly beloved of Olivier Messiaen, who made his own alterations to it, the instrument was almost instantly lauded as a seriously powerful addition to a composer’s arsenal; critics across Europe were thrilled by its “ethereal, supernatural, inexplicable” qualities where “wonder triumphed over scepticism” and those in New York were so spooked they likened Martenot to a Medieval witch. With each new modification more boundary-pushing musicians took up the instrument: Edgard Varèse re-wrote his 1934 “Ecuatorial” in order to feature it (replacing the Theremin, no less), Pierre Boulez utilised four of them in the mid-1940’s, and prolific Czech chamber musician Bohuslav Martinů made it a major part of his expansion beyond the Romantic style he was schooled in to become one of the most unique voices in European classical music. Mere months before Kid A was released, the Ondes Martenot was celebrated at the UK’s most prominent classical music event, the BBC Proms, as part of a major showcase.
Outside those rarefied circles you might be excused for your ignorance. Certainly Radiohead did as much as anyone to bring the Ondes Martenot to a wider audience, even if the reaction was a little hyperbolic among writers whose business it is to actually know about these things. The movie business certainly knew its evocative worth: Lawrence of Arabia, Ghostbusters, A Passage to India and My Left Foot are all well-known examples of films whose soundtracks sailed up and down the Ondes’ wire, and there are many others. Of particular note here is Yann Tiersen’s soundtrack for Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s 2001 movie Amélie, upon which performed Christine Ott.
Ott has close ties to the cinema. As well as working with Tiersen’s band for the best part of a decade, the Strasbourg-born artist has performed her own scores to silent classics such as Robert J. Flaherty’s Nanook of the North and F. W. Murnau’s Tabu. With her Snowdrops partner Mathieu Gabry she provided the original score to Phuttiphong Aroonpheng’s Manta Ray (2018), and she collaborated with Tindersticks on Claire Denis’ Les Salauds (2013). So it is natural her solo work is also extremely visually evocative.
Chimères (pour Ondes Martenot), released later this month by Paul Régimbau’s NAHAL Recordings, is Ott’s third LP proper, following Solitude Nomade (2009) and Only Silence Remains (2016). Unlike with those albums, Chimères features Ondes Martenot alone, which makes its incredible variety even more astonishing.
It opens much as you might imagine, with the smooth, high-pitched whistles of “Comma” redolent of playful spaceships painting luminous patterns across a dark night sky. With tremendous dexterity, Ott layers and builds to crescendo in a manner suggestive of a great bank of violins – that you are not hearing an entire string section perform is something of a marvel. The same applies to “Darkstar,” whose rising drones and glitchy bloops collapse gradually into a screaming hive of shrill Pendereckian chops. The effect is eerie, startling and dangerously attractive; a single wavering tone hangs above it all like an angler fish’s hypnotic lure.
Yet on “Mariposas,” Ott evokes wind instruments in the manner her music dances and darts gaily about itself, the butterflies of the title well represented by the track’s weightless discombobulation. It is one of only two relatively airy pieces on Chimères – the other being the scintillating, balletic “Sirius,” that evokes both Sergei Prokofiev and Daniel Lopatin in the way its dual stars rotate, interact and react against each other.
“Sirius” is the first in a series of space-related tracks that become progressively darker and more mournful. The short, spiky “Pulsar” crackles with pent-up heat, winding up gradually to fire jets of blinding energy away from its pounding centre. “Eclipse” tries desperately to glow but is overcome by layer upon layer of increasingly violent drones and snarls that sound like Loki’s wolves themselves are in pursuit. This is an eclipse of old, with all the fear and folklore thrown in, the sun’s flares whipping viciously at the shadow consuming it and the spectators cowering below.
“Burning” closes the album on a desolate note, perhaps reflecting the scarified aftermath of its predecessors’ celestial carnage. Balancing a delicate swell of string sounds against a haunting reverberation of fading technology, it demonstrates perfectly two sides of the Ondes Martenot’s personality as well as Ott’s expertise in manipulating the notoriously difficult instrument. Chimères will hopefully help propel his electric myna bird closer to the public conscience where it belongs; Ott is doing its inventor proud but even a visionary such as he cannot have imagined that 100 years on its players could still find ways to make it sound current. It is genuinely conceivable that another century hence it will sound equally as radical.