Cynthia Millar and the strange beauty of the ondes martenot

by Elizabeth Kerr / 21 March, 2019
RelatedArticlesModule - Cynthia Millar and the strange beauty of the ondes martenot

Cynthia Millar on an ondes martenot. Photo/Alamy

The sci-fi sound of the ondes martenot is playing a key part in the upcoming performance of an epic symphony.

Cynthia Millar’s chosen instrument, the ondes martenot, is something of a curiosity in orchestral music. When she plays with the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra and pianist Joanna MacGregor in the Auckland Arts Festival this month, she will have played the solo ondes part of Olivier Messiaen’s monumental Turangalîla-Symphonie more than 200 times.

The Englishwoman never tires of the demanding work. “Every performance is different; you come around corners and different things happen, and different piano soloists bring something fresh.”

The ondes was invented in 1928 by Maurice Martenot, a French cellist who was a radio operator during World War I. Like the better-known theremin, patented the same year, it also became useful to composers of sci-fi soundtracks.

Millar describes it as the closest instrument to a human voice. The player, she says, has “the ability, over a very large range, to be a voice – a voice that never needs to take a breath, that can be whisper-soft, but also absolutely dominate the orchestral texture. Each player sounds different, because we have complete control over pitch and over techniques like singers: vibrato, glissando, portamento.”

The ondes (French for “waves”) is sometimes described as an early electronic instrument, but Millar rejects this. “It’s actually electric; at first, it simply had two oscillators. The sounds range from the very pure sine-wave sound through to what is more like a sawtooth-wave sound, with every variation in-between. It’s a limitless canvas.”

The ondes resembles an electric organ with a keyboard, but it is played by the left hand using a special key – Millar compares it to the breath of a wind player or the bow of a violinist – and the keyboard is not played directly. Sounds can also be varied by using different speakers. “One contains an orchestral gong, which acts as a speaker diaphragm,” she says. “This adds a beautiful metallic sheen to the sound, which Messiaen calls for often in Turangalîla.”

One of the most significant 20th-century composers, Messiaen, a Frenchman, was known for his kaleidoscopic music and diverse sources: birdsong transcriptions, Greek and Indian rhythms, religious symbolism, colour theories and a modal language of his own invention. He first used the new instrument in Fête des belles eaux for six ondes, composed to accompany the fountains at the 1937 Paris Exhibition. Later, he employed its powerful otherworldly voice in several works, most famously Turangalîla, composed in the late 1940s.

A huge work in all dimensions, the 75-minute symphony requires a vast orchestra with a battery of percussion. “Turangalîla” refers to a Hindu rhythmic formula, and Messiaen contrasts the two parts of the word: “turanga”, meaning “the speed of a horse”, and “lîla”, the “life force” or “love”. The loud “turanga” sections are dramatic, fast and rhythmic, whereas the tender, lush love music fully exploits the colour palette of the ondes, which frequently doubles the strings in soaring melodies.

How did Millar become an ondist, as a player of the instrument is called? Growing up in England, she was a fine pianist, but never intended to become a professional musician. She was “ambushed” while working for US composer Elmer Bernstein, who asked her to research the intriguing instrument for him. John Morton, the only player in England at the time, got her started, and she’s never looked back. Her work has included Bernstein musicals and soundtracks, as well as film music for composers Maurice Jarre and Richard Rodney Bennett.

French inventor Maurice Martenot in 1931. Photo/Getty

Millar studied in Paris with Jeanne Loriod, an ondes virtuoso who frequently played Turangalîla with her pianist sister Yvonne, Messiaen’s second wife. For Millar as a player, Turangalîla is “an opportunity to sing and fly – to play one unbroken melody for many minutes. The piece speaks to everyone who hears it; it’s very rare for new listeners not to come away with something very vivid and exciting.”

She encourages audiences to “stick it out” to the end. “The eighth movement is very extreme and loud, and sometimes people think they’ve had enough. But the ninth is wonderfully mysterious, and the tenth a rollicking finale.”

She often talks to audience members afterwards. “People come down when I’m packing up and I love hearing from those who’ve never heard Turangalîla before. How fortunate they are to have this rare opportunity to hear it live.”

Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Symphonie, Auckland Town Hall, Auckland Arts Festival, March 23.

This article was first published in the March 23, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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