Jean Laurendeau lives on an ordinary street in West Montreal. But tucked away in a small second-floor studio in his home is something quite out of the ordinary: a rare musical instrument called the ondes Martenot.
At first glance, it doesn't look very remarkable. Consisting of a piano keyboard on legs with a few mysterious buttons and switches, it could easily be mistaken for an early prototype of a Moog synthesizer. But it's much older than any synthesizer: It was invented in France by Maurice Martenot in 1928, and is now eight decades old.
"The right hand plays on the keyboard to determine the notes," says Laurendeau, a soft-spoken, professorial man of 70 years. "The left hand controls the sensitivity - like the bow on a violin."
In some ways the instrument is like a theremin - famously used to create weird, otherworldly sounds in old horror and sci-fi flicks. Both instruments work on the same principal: "heterodyning oscillators" control pitch and volume. But according to Laurendeau, the ondes Martenot is more sophisticated.
"When you play the theremin, you don't touch anything. Everything is in the air, and it's hard to be precisely in tune and to make a clean attack on a note. The keyboard allows a kind of virtuosity that the theremin does not permit."
By adjusting the settings on his ondes Martenot, Laurendeau demonstrates how it can warble sweetly or penetrate like a knife. By altering pressure on the keys, he coaxes a gentle vibrato from it. When he puts a metal ring on his finger and slides it up and down the keyboard, a distinctive wail is produced. (A seven-minute clip of Laurendeau playing and talking about his instrument can be found on YouTube.)
Toronto Symphony Orchestra audiences will experience the ondes Martenot this month when Laurendeau plays it in Olivier Messiaen's Trois petites liturgies de la présence divine on April 12, and also in Messiaen's Turangalila Symphony on April 16 and 17 - all part of the TSO's 2008 New Creations Festival.
(The TSO has a long-standing relationship with Turangalila: 40 years ago the orchestra made a recording of this massive work for RCA that's still commercially available.)
"Maurice Martenot was a very simple man," continues Laurendeau, who studied with the inventor in Paris in the 1960s, and later wrote a book about him. "He was not very good at marketing - it was non-existent for him. Once, some people from a bank came to him and said 'What do you need?' He said, 'I want to be left in peace in my studio.' " During his lifetime, Martenot built fewer than 300 instruments.
On the other hand, the Russian inventor Léon Theremin was an aggressive advocate for his instrument, performing concerts on his invention throughout Europe and America. As well, the theremin soon found its way to Hollywood - and was also popularized by the Beach Boys in the song Good Vibrations.
As a result, the theremin is much better known in North America. But in the Francophone world, the ondes Martenot holds a position of respect. In France, the instrument can be studied at music conservatories in Paris and other cities. And until the mid-1990s, Laurendeau taught it at the Conservatoire de musique de Montréal.
Elsewhere, the instrument is as rare as hen's teeth. Moreover, it's sometimes regarded as a uniquely French phenomenon that's of little concern to anyone else - much as the highland bagpipes belong to Scotland.
Yet despite its rarity, the ondes Martenot shows no sign of dying out. After a hiatus in production following the death of Martenot in 1980 (he was killed in motorcycle accident at the age of 82) the instruments are again being built. They aren't cheap: A new one costs about $20,000.
It also continues to crop up - sometimes in unlikely places. It can be heard in the soundtracks of the movies Lawrence of Arabia and A Passage to India. Jonny Greenwood of the band Radiohead plays one, and it was used in the 1970s by the Quebec rock groups Harmonium and Beau Dommage. As well, the instrument is the subject of Wavemakers, a documentary film currently being made by the Montreal-based Productions Artifact company.
Most significantly, the ondes Martenot is essential to a small but valued body of 20th-century classical repertoire. Messiaen's opera Saint François d'Assise requires three of them.
Laurendeau, one of the few professional "ondistes" in North America, is often called upon when his services are needed: He's performed throughout Canada, and in the United States with the orchestras of Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, St. Louis and Houston, among others.
Like the amphibious car and the jet-pack, the ondes Martenot is one of those modern inventions that was initially hailed as revolutionary, but never really took off. Nevertheless, Laurendeau is optimistic about the future of his instrument.
"Its past guarantees its future. There are great works that need the instrument to live, and new compositions are still being written for the ondes Martenot."
Jean Laurendeau performs with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra at Toronto's Roy Thomson Hall on April 12, 16 and 17.
Special to The Globe and Mail
An interest in the expressive, musical potential offered by electricity and the vibration or frequency of musical notes inspired Maurice Martenot to create the ondes Martenot.
A small gong is used as the loudspeaker diaphragm to produce a 'halo' effect rich in harmonics.
An iconically lyre-shaped loudspeaker that uses strings to produce sympathetic resonances.
A traditional loudspeaker invented with the instrument.
Contains many switches that control the choice of sound wave forms, intensity, note changes and the separate diffusers.
Extends along the front of a six octave keyboard. A metal finger ring plays different notes as it slides along the ribbon.
TRISH McALASTER/THE GLOBE AND MAIL