(K. Brent Tomer),
IN “The Exterminating Angel”, Thomas Adès’s new opera, a group of people find themselves mysteriously unable to take their leave from a dinner party. Trapped in their genteel surroundings amid the remnants of the soirée, they succumb to claustrophobic puzzlement and, eventually, anarchy. As in Luis Buñuel’s film from 1962, the spell that keeps them captive has no name. But Mr Adès’s opera gives it a voice—an unearthly wail that rings out whenever the dinner guests try to escape their prison.
This siren song is produced by an ondes Martenot, an electronic instrument conceived nearly a century ago by Maurice Martenot. A trained cellist and composer working as a telegraph operator in the French army, he was inspired by the sounds his valve-powered radio equipment made when he scanned the frequencies. It took a decade of development before the first iteration of the instrument that bears his name had its premiere in Paris.
Meaning “Martenot waves”, the ondes Martenot is far from the earliest electronic instrument, yet most that came before were curiosities (like the clavecin électrique, a bell-ringing machine invented by a Jesuit priest in 1759) or highly impractical (it…Continue reading