Intersection’s “Key of Intensity” explores the Ondes Martenot

At the end of April, Intersection Contemporary Music Ensemble will give a unique concert for Nashville audiences consisting entirely of music featuring a rare instrument: the Ondes Martenot. This unusual electric instrument will take center stage when Intersection returns to The Platform on April 28, 2016, for its “Key of Intensity” program.

Luckily for Nashville, Intersection founder and Artistic Director Kelly Corcoran has fully embraced the notion that a successful contemporary music organization needs to set the artistic agenda on its own terms. People across the city are looking for new musical experiences, and Corcoran understands that Intersection can serve a curatorial role in introducing composers, repertoire, and even unique instruments to a public that doesn’t know what it’s missing. With Corcoran stepping down as Director of the Nashville Symphony Chorus at the end of the current season, the Nashville musical scene stands to benefit greatly from her dedicating her full attention to building audiences for contemporary music in Music City.

Back to the Ondes Martenot: Maurice Martenot invented the instrument in 1928 and later added modifications such as timbral switches to increase its sonic range. The instrument manipulates the qualities of sound waves to create eerie, almost ghostly fluctuating pitches. It’s no surprise that the Ondes Martenot was invented in the late 1920s. Heinrich Rudolf Hertz first confirmed the existence of electromagnetic waves in a series of experiments in 1886-1888, which rapidly led to additional experiments and inventions to develop practical applications. World War I spurred significant advancement in the use of radio waves for military purposes. At the conclusion of hostilities, civilian use of the radio as a news and entertainment medium accelerated rapidly. In this context, the Ondes Martenot brought scientific discoveries and commercial applications of the physical properties of sounds waves back to the concert hall.

The Ondes Martenot has appeared in a variety of concert music written since the instrument’s invention nearly 90 years ago. Intersection will perform one of the earliest, Darius Milhaud’s Suite for Ondes Martenot and Piano (1933), as part of “Key of Intensity.” A member of Les Six, Milhaud’s music during this period was highly influenced by his experiences of Brazilian popular music and American jazz. Perhaps the most famous composer to write for the instrument was Olivier Messiaen, who used the Ondes Martenot extensively in his Turangalîla Symphonie. He wrote the piece on a commission by Serge Koussevitzky for the Boston Symphony; due to Koussevitzky falling ill, the orchestra premiered the Turangalîla Symphonie on December 2, 1949, under the baton of none other than a young Leonard Bernstein. Film scores have also made broad use of the Ondes Martenot, as its weird, other-worldly sound palette is ideal for atmospherics. Many of the sounds associated with classic science fiction films of the 1950s are thanks to the Ondes Martenot.

A more recent generation is equally familiar with the sounds of this unusual instrument, if not with the instrument itself. Johnny Greenwood has played the Ondes Martenot extensively with Radiohead, including on the albums Amnesiac (2001), Hail to the Thief (2003), and In Rainbows (2007). Intersection will perform Greenwood’s composition for the instrument, “Smear” (2004), along with Marie Bernard and Estelle Lemire on two Ondes Martenot.

As so much popular music continues to turn toward a highly electronic aesthetic, Intersection’s “Key of Intensity” offers Nashville a unique opportunity consider the history of how electronics entered into music in the first place. Much to their detriment, most orchestras and chamber music groups largely ignore the crucial role “classical music” has played in the development of a huge range of instruments and musical techniques that are ubiquitous in current pop music. If classical music seems culturally irrelevant to many people today, that sense of irrelevance is largely the by-product of musical institutions that run screaming from any mention of “modern” and “new.” That Corcoran is boldly leading Intersection purposefully in the direction of embracing this musical heritage is a promising sign that this contemporary music ensemble is on a trajectory worth following.