Christine Ott is a classically trained pianist, teacher and composer based in Strasbourg. Since the beginning of her career, she has also been instrumental in preserving and promoting the sound of the Ondes Martenot, the early electronic instrument introduced in 1928 by Maurice Martenot. A long-time collaborator of Yann Tiersen with whom she recorded and toured extensively in the 2000s, the musician has since launched her solo career with Solitude Nomade in 2009, followed by Only Silence Remains in 2016. In 2015, she formed the Snowdrops duo with pianist Mathieu Gabry to explore a contemporary chamber music repertoire over the course of three LPs.

In May 2020 last, Christine Ott made history by unveiling the first ever solo recording entirely dedicated to the nearly century-old semi-electronic instrument. Chimères (pour Ondes Martenot) was released on the Paris-based label Nahal Recordings.

Christine Ott - Chimères (pour Ondes Martenot) 2020
Christine Ott – Chimères (pour Ondes Martenot) 2020 – Artwork © Fanny Béguély

The Ondes Martenot

Maurice Martenot (1898 – 1980) was a classically-trained pianist and cellist who also worked as a radio operator during the first world war. Intrigued by the otherworldly modulations and humming of electro-magnetic radio waves, the musician endeavoured to replicate and control the sine wave oscillations through a new musical instrument. 

Introduced for the first time in 1928 and very close sonically to the Theremin (coincidentally patented in the same year), the Ondes Martenot is (in its modern version) a keyboard-based electronic instrument featuring a pull wire or ribbon alongside the keyboard connected to a ring worn on the index finger, allowing the musician to slide between pitches in a glissando fashion. A unique characteristic feature of the keyboard is the ability to generate a vibrato on a single note when an individual key is moved from side to side. Another set of switches on the left-hand controls the attack of the notes and the volume dynamics, from pianissimo to fortissimo.

Finally, as a result of several iterations during the early decades of its existence, a “modern” Ondes Martenot instrument comes with four speakers – a dry loudspeaker, a stretched coiled spring loudspeaker, a “diffuseur métallique” which is essentially a suspended metal gong and a “palme”, an elegant lyre-shaped speaker fitted with set of sympathetic strings. Designed to be monophonic, the Ondes Martenot is nevertheless a hugely expressive instrument, combining the pitch control of fretless string instruments with the breadth control of wind instruments.

A new repertoire was written for the instrument from its inception, mainly by French classical composers such as Darius Milhaud, Edgard Varèse, André Jolivet or Arthur Honegger. Oliver Messiaen’s “Fête des belles eaux” (1937) for six Ondes Martenot or “Turangalîla-Symphonie” (1946-1948) for orchestra, piano and Ondes Martenot were written specifically to showcase the range of the new electronic instrument.

This array of connected devices, switches and keys make it of course a very heavy and cumbersome piece of equipment extremely difficult to master. As it was never intended to be mass-produced, the hugely expensive Ondes Martenot were nearly relegated to the annals of history in the 1970s with the arrival on the market of more affordable and versatile electronic keyboards and synthesisers, and all the more so after the death of its inventor in 1980. The practice of the instrument never ceased however (it can be heard on dozens of science-fiction and horror movies) and its practice was maintained by a handful of passionate musicians or teachers, in particular Jeanne Loriod (1928 – 2001) who taught several contemporary “Ondistes” like Cynthia Millar and Christine Ott for instance.

Christine Ott therefore belongs to a new generation of “ondistes” alongside Thomas Bloch and of course Jonny Greenwood. Coming across the instrument in the 1990s and integrating its eerie sound into Radiohead’s post-OK Computers albums and solo film scores, the musician has also played a huge role in preserving the practice of the Ondes Martenot, even spurring the manufacture of cheaper and more portable versions.

Over the last two decades, three instrument makers have taken over the continuous improvement and re-design of the original machines with several contemporary models now on the market – Jean-Loup Dierstein’s “Ondes Musicales” which Christine Ott plays on Chimères, Ambro Olivia’s “Ondéa” or Naoyuki Omo’s “Ondomo”.

The future is in the past

Illustrating both the experimental nature of the project and the 20th century context of the recording, the CD and LP artwork features an original chemigram – a painting technique which was originally developed in the 1930s and 1940s using chemicals with photo-sensitive paper – by contemporary artist Fanny Béguély.

Because the Ondes Martenot have been used on so many science-fiction films, its eerie sonorities have often been associated with futurism, the cosmos or space travel. But as much as song titles like “Darkstar”, “Sirius”, “Pulsar” or “Eclispse” definitely suggest a deep dive into outer space, the compositions serve also to show off the incredible sonic range of the instrument by exhausting its capabilities to the limits. “Todeslied” is an almost gothic experiment with glissando, dynamics and saturation. The short “Pulsar” explores an IDM percussive and glitch mode while “Eclipse” elicits a spectral choir and features pulse-quickening acceleration.

With an album title alluding to fantastic fire-breathing monsters, Chimères is an experimental recording which references not only the works of early composers for the instrument but also the more modern compositions from contemporary experimental musicians such as Roger Tessier or Tristan Murail who was himself a student of Oliver Messiaen. Both composers have written for the Ondes Martenot and their work encompasses new compositional methods focusing on timbres and the acoustic properties of sound. At the same time, adopting live processing techniques using several effects pedals and filters as the recording progressed, Chimères also taps into an electronic ambient sound explored by musicians like Laurie Spiegel, Roly Porter or Tim Hecker, thus conjuring up a surreal and timeless soundscape – simultaneously vintage, contemporary and futuristic.