Theremin? No thanks. The sound connoisseurs are all into the … – KUER 90.1

Imagine an instrument so rare that there are only 50 to 100 of them that still exist — even more scarce than a famed Stradivarius.
Even rarer yet is the person who has mastered it.
On stage at Abravanel Hall in downtown Salt Lake City, Augustin Viard sits in front of an instrument that looks something like an organ. There’s a keyboard, but then he slips his right pointer finger into a silver ring and he slides it up and down — back and forth — along a responsive wire. With it, he makes waves of music.
High, oscillating tones float into the air. They’re at once electronic and organic — with recognizable notes that burst into a staccato report.
This is the sound of the ondes Martenot. It was created in 1928 by French cellist and telegraph operator Maurice Martenot. While working with radio during World War I, he was intrigued by the accidental sounds radio waves could create.
The first time Viard heard the instrument in concert, he was hooked.
“It was a revelation because the sound is so unique. It can make the body vibrate when you hear it, and it’s very special.”
The instrument’s airy sounds pack their own celestial power. As the frequencies fill a performance hall, Viard said they’ve been known to resonate with the metal in the spotlights — making them hum from above.
The instrument has a better-known cousin in the theremin, but it wasn’t quite enough for Martenot. He wanted more control. Viard said the inventor-musician spent 10 years researching a “real instrument” that was more musical.
“Everything is touchable. [With] the theremin — everything is in the air. The Martenot is very good to play on tune. The theremin is just the sound. Martenot is the sound and the speakers and the acoustic.”
The instrument provides options for creating sound. There’s a keyboard with enough flexibility to play with vibrato as you would a cello or a violin. The ring is slid along a narrow panel with markings that help the ondist find precise notes on its wire. A drawer contains the heart of the ondes Martenot — a telegraph-like button known as the touche.
“And this is like a bow,” Viard explained. “The sound is created by pressing the touche with our left hand.”
The pressure also controls how quiet or loud the music is.
“So, the left hand is creating the sound and the right hand is playing the notes.”
And though the ondes Martenot is electronic, it is magnified through three speakers that give it a dynamic range of voices: the metal springs reverb, the orchestral gong, and the 24-string palm — which looks like a self-standing stringed instrument. The three can be mixed and matched to give color to the composition.
Martenot refused to mass produce the instruments — making around 300 of them in his lifetime. He died in 1980, taking many of the secrets of the ondes Martenot with him.
“There are some models today, but the electric components — today’s are different. It’s very weird, but you can make exactly the same electronics inside, but with other components, it will sound different.”
Viard is one of approximately 40 people in the world who has mastered the ondes Martenot, an instrument he said is very rock and roll. He’s collaborated with British rock singer Marianne Faithfull and with Nick Cave on the 2019 album “Ghosteen.”
But one of his favorite compositions to play is Olivier Messiaen’s only symphony, “Turangalila.”
Messiaen’s deep Catholic faith influenced his compositions, and the ondes Martenot played a special role in that.
“It’s really magical, because sometimes you have all the orchestra playing the theme and the ondes Martenot plays the same but a little bit louder,” Viard explained — reaching as he often does to the instrument that seems to serve as an extension of his own body.
“When the ondes Martenot floats over the orchestra, it’s like an angel speaking.”
Augustin Viard will be performing Olivier Messiaen’s “Turangalila” with the Utah Symphony on May 19 and May 20, 2023, at 7:30 p.m.


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