The ondes martenot were invented by (who else) Maurice Martenot in 1928, one of the first electronic instruments created. The sound is very similar to the theremin: eerie, soundtrack type stuff, and is mostly associated with Olivier Messiaen, who went overboard with it in the early twentieth. The sound is actually produced by oscillations in vacuum tubes, believe it or not. A vacuum tube was a big glass tube that functioned the same as one transistor -- just one. I remember my dad's big laptop-sized homemade radio made of vacuum tubes, one of which would blow like a light bulb every time you turned it on. In Canada, Quebec has long had a tradition for playing and using this instrument. So, in 1974 a group of classical composers worked together to create a more accessible introduction to the instrument and compositions for it for popular enjoyment. Considering the degree of open-mindedness and willingness to experiment in music in the early 70s this idea was not as crazy as it seems today.
The instrument is still played and practiced in France, though it is considered a historical curiosity, its rarity due mostly to the legendary difficulty of playing the instrument -- it uses a normal keyboard, there is a sliding ruler or ring worn on the finger which is used for vibrato or glissando effect, but no sound is produced until yet another set of controls is pushed to increase volume. Sounds ridiculous? I think so, and today we would have no patience for an instrument like that, especially considering it is not quite as pleasurably melodious as the mellotron, which few can resist.
On this record Sylvette Allart plays the ondes, backed by piano and harp. Four classical composers, including the famous Dompierre (who wrote soundtracks for Quebec films), Eduard Michaels, Georges Guinot, Luc-Andre Marcel contribute pieces which they wrote in the past (mostly from the 50s). The compositions range widely, overall level is comparable to the earlier posted Giuntoli and Mertoli on this blog, or more well-known Julverne, Conventum, bearing in mind the unusual instrumentation, i.e. chamber progressive. The first composition by Dompierre is a sonata with some ravel movements around a very beautiful rachmaninoff like middle adagio movement. Eduard Michaels contributes a gorgeous piece called "Through a small window" a duet with harp I think. Several pieces relate to birds, which I believe is an homage to Messiaen's obsession with ornithology.
The last, "l'oiseau de java" is the standout virtuoso piece, using many ondes together, making the instrument sound at different times like flutes, violins, cellos, bassoons, clarinet, and that crazy lady who plays variously-filled wineglasses with her fingers.
Check out the review from rateyourmusic (which actually misses the point of the album entirely):
"Who would've thought that after so much crate-digging, after enormous efforts that the ProgQuebec label is doing to promote the progressive music of the French-Canadian scene of the 1970s, there'd still be treasures to unearth in this particular region? And then out of the blue appears this little gem of an album, full of chamber rock elegance and weird experimental twists..."
In fact it's not out of the blue, being very much a part of modern classical music, but I agree that it's shocking that crate-digging still produces such amazing gemic surprises for us fans.
As I've said before the abandonment of this beautiful music is a tragedy for the world and human culture which has become swamped in mediocrity-- think of how many fewer people, especially proportionate to the current population, can enjoy this now, than did in the seventies when it appeared. One in a million people? Ouch. This is why I think it's really imperative for all of us fans to share this music as much as possible with each other and the outside world... We should not be hoarding this like gold. Shame on those of you who do! There are so few of us! Our only hope is that, like the monks in the middle ages, we can keep the flame alive until a time when people will rediscover and reappreciate the incredible ingenuity and mastery expressed in this artform, like the writings of the classical poets and playwrights copied by hand by the same monks who invented champagne and my favourite, dark Chimay. God bless those trappist monks! But I doubt that moment will ever come. So let's have a leffe brune and listen to this now.
L'oiseau de Java...