AMIS 2022: The Ondes Martenot—A Brief History and Contemporary Design Trajectory, 1928–2022

The American Musical Instrument Society (AMIS) promotes better understanding of all aspects of the history, design, construction, restoration, and usage of musical instruments in all cultures and from all periods. In June 2022, their annual meeting was held at Studio Bell, home of the National Music Centre.

The Ondes Martenot: A Brief History and Contemporary Design Trajectory, 1928–2022
David Kean

David Kean is the founder and president of Audities Studio in Calgary, AB. The studio was built around the Audities Foundation collection that was begun in 1989. Early accomplishments include the acquisition and resurrection of the Mellotron company, the new production of tape replay instruments, and the restoration of multiple consoles. His publications include numerous contributions to the “Vintage Synths” column in Keyboard Magazine. David has placed instruments in numerous temporary and permanent museum collections, including the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, EMIAPP in Philadelphia, and The NAMM Museum in Carlsbad, CA. At the National Music Centre, David has placed 75 instruments in the permanent collection, along with a substantial document archive for Moog, Buchla, E-mu Systems, Chamberlin, and Mellotron instruments.

The story of the Ondes Martenot gives us a uniquely complete picture of the dynamics, opportunities, successes, and failures of Electronic Music’s instrument design history. The instrument, invented and built by Maurice Martenot, was conceived in 1927–28, around the same time as Lev Theremin’s ether instrument, although this seems to be coincidental and purely born out of a similar cross pollination of technologies evolving from early radio and telegraph design. Symbiotic relationships between technologies and musical instruments propelled electronic instrument designs in an ever-increasing tempo that both nurtured and threatened their value, potential, historical significance, and impact on post World War I culture. We present the Ondes Martenot from the f irst prototypes to the current expression of the design esthetic and intended execution with the Ondéa, built here in Calgary. The Ondéa reveals how Maurice Martenot’s original ideas have evolved with contemporary materials, fabrication techniques, circuit innovations, and modern interfacing possibilities to bring the potential of the Martenot’s instrument to a world that badly needs its gestural controls and timbral expression. Bringing an established musical instrument design into the realm of modern manufacturing, distribution, pedagogy, academia, and use for both legacy and contemporary composition is an act of interpretation. One has to consider both the inventor’s intention and the needs of today’s players of the Ondes, who perform the wide-ranging repertoire that has accumulated in the nearly one hundred years since the instrument’s inception. In this presentation, I would like to shine a bright light on our efforts to keep the Ondes Martenot instruments built in the previous decades alive and to reconceive Maurice Martenot’s intentions for the present and the future.

Watch more videos from the 2022 AMIS Conference here.