Christine Ott’s album Chimères (pour ondes Martenot) – streaming at Bandcamp – is the first record in history ever written for and performed solo on that rare machine. French inventor Maurice Martenot patented what was arguably the first-ever analog synthesizer in the early 1920s. Long since eclipsed in popular memory by the theremin, the ondes Martenot is easier to control, and as a result can generate more resonant, pitch-perfect, and less quavery sounds because a player’s fingers move across a ribbon on an electronic keyboard, rather than being activated by motion against a force field. Yet the ondes Martenot – also known as the ondea – can also replicate the sound of a theremin to the point where the two instruments are indistinguishable.
Ott is one of very few musicians alive to have mastered the ondes Martenot, and has been sought out by acts ranging from Tindersticks to Yann Tiersen. Her new album transcends the exotic, or any possible kitschy associations: this is catchy, enveloping, fascinatingly ambient music.
Co-producers Paul Régimbeau and Frédéric D. Oberland mix Ott’s live-in-the-studio performance through a series of effects for extra orchestral grandeur. In the opening track, Comma, tremoloing waves beneath keening, quavering highs give way to a calmly enveloping balance from the lower registers. The second track, Darkstar, rises to a catchy, motorik theme anchored by buzzing lows, Ott finally hitting a theremin-like crescendo way up the scale.
She builds a hauntingly nuanced theme, sliding upward into the melancholy riffs of Todeslied and then adding piercing accents. Much of this uneasy, undulating, increasingly turbulent piece is a sort of electronic analogue to Michael Hersch’s macabre work for strings.
Echo effects flutter and dance throughout Mariposas, then slowly shift to echoey drainpipe sonics and deep-space dopplers in Sirius. Then Ott completely flips the script with Pulsar and its droll, woozy lows.
Eclipse is the most ominously ambient and lowest-register track here: it seems patched through a choir effect and then oceans of loops for extra terror, up to a surprise ending. Ott closes the album with Burning, a broodingly catchy Twin Peaks theme that decays to fragmented shots from every corner of the sonic picture. Let’s hope this album reaches enough of an audience to draw other fearless artists to Martenot’s strange invention.