Filmmaker Caroline Martel is the producer and director of Wavemakers, a documentary about the Ondes Martenot, an electronic musical instrument invented in France in the 1920’s. Her documentary traces the unusual history of the instrument and its enthusiasts from its creation through to the present. (photo: N. Corre)
The flood of technical inventions appearing at the beginning of the 20th century transformed society as radically as the digital revolution that is disrupting our world. By the 1920’s, the more future-oriented visionaries began questioning why the arts should not be transformed by technology as well. In 1929, mathematician and aesthetic theorist Joseph Schillinger would ask “why, in a world where night-time Broadway dazzles with the light of artificial suns, sweaty men in tailcoats still rub calf-guts with horsehair or blow into brass tubes”.
And in a round of concert slash lecture-demonstrations throughout north america and europe, Leon Theremin spent the 1920’s promoting his famous etherphone, played by waving one’s hands in the air. A commercial product sold by RCA for 175 dollars, it was claimed that “without musical knowledge or training of any sort, anyone can make exquisitely beautiful music” with it.
Well, a theremin is actually pretty hard to play. But some months after Theremin’s appearance in Paris in 1928, Maurice Martenot, a cellist and former World War I telegrapher, announced his instrument the Onde Martenot, which might be translated as “Martenot’s Wavemaker”.
Dispensing with the gimmick of waving one’s hands in the air, his instrument, which like Theremin’s was still monophonic, was an expertly designed real musical instrument, with a reasonable learning curve and a great range of expressive possibilities. It was taken seriously by the serious in the French musical world, and throughout the 20th century hundreds of compositions were written for it. Caroline Martel’s film traces its ups and downs, and the curious community of ‘ondistes’ who keep its tradition alive.