Here at National Sawdust, we take great joy in our efforts to present music from all corners of the globe and eras of the art. This week we’re hosting a remarkable presentation of a very unique instrument… the Ondioline!
Unless you’re already an expert in electronic-music arcana, though, you might not yet know what to expect. Fear not! In an effort to prepare for this thrilling show, here are five key things to know about the Ondioline:
1. Where did the Ondioline come from?
The invention of the Ondioline dates back more than 50 years, the brainchild of a Frenchman named Georges Jenny. According to legend, Jenny conceived of the instrument while undergoing treatment at a tuberculosis sanatorium in 1938. By 1947, he had made the instrument commercially available.
An early disciple – to whose memory Ondioline Orchestra dedicates its Nov. 22 debut show – was a medical student by the name of Jean-Jacques Perrey. In the early 1950s Perrey heard a demonstration of the Ondioline on the radio, and, according to author Mark Brend in The Sound of Tomorrow, became so enamored with the instrument that he requested a free sample… with the provision that he would help to promote it. Jenny agreed, and soon after Perrey was earning such substantial commissions that he quit medical school, devoting his life to electronic music.
A better question would be, what doesn’t the Ondioline sound like? By design, the instrument is crafted to deliver a complex and varied range of sound. Essentially, the Ondioline can mimic most symphonic instruments: everything from a trombone to a violin, not to mention percussive instruments such as bongos. You can even produce a bagpipe tone. But you don’t have to take our word for it; a short demonstration by none other than Perrey can be viewed here:
But don’t just take my word on it, a short demonstration by none other than Perrey himself may be viewed here:
3. What is the Ondioline made of?
During electronic music’s early era in the late 1930s, the advent of reliable vacuum tubes opened the world of music to an entirely new class of instrument. The Ondioline is a member of this class of vacuum tube-powered implements, a family that also includes the Clavioline, Tuttivox, and Univox, among others.
Dana Countryman, an expert in the art of electronic instruments, described the appearance of the Ondioline as “an old radio with a keyboard on top.” You can take a peek for yourself at these photos from his website:
The Ondioline was designed by Georges Jenny to be a consumer-friendly alternative to the more expensive vacuum tube-powered instruments of his day. The instrument could be purchased assembled, or as a kit for adventurous do-it-yourself types. Ondioline lore has become a bit muddled over the years, but in terms of Hollywood fame, the instrument is a star of Alex North’s soundtrack for the 1960 Stanley Kubrick film Spartacus.
Further, legendary recording studio Motown was known to have kept an Ondioline handy for the explicit purpose of mimicking rarer string instruments5.
5. What became of the Ondioline?
As mentioned, the Ondioline was crafted with an eye toward affordability. Unfortunately, a side effect is that most Ondiolines were crafted with cheaper materials. Many models would become unplayable after a few years, if not properly maintained.
Complicating matters, the official Ondioline manual, written by Georges Jenny himself, is only available in French. And as Dana Countryman notes, many of the changes made by Jenny were not even noted in this official guide.
Perrey believed that fewer than 700 Ondiolines were sold in Europe, and a little over a thousand in the U.S. Today, it is estimated that less than a few dozen have survived.
All of which promises with no exaggeration that the Ondioline Orchestra celebration at National Sawdust should prove a genuinely historic occasion.
Ondioline Orchestra pays homage to Jean-Jacques Perrey Nov. 22 at 7 (sold out) and 10 p.m. at National Sawdust; www.nationalsawdust.org