There was an article on Jonny Greenwood’s ‘Smear’ (which debuted tonight in Leeds) with the title: ‘Ondes but not forgotten’: “Jonny Greenwood is known to millions as the guitarist in Radiohead, but he is enjoying a parallel life as the unlikely champion of an obscure instrument called the ondes martenot. The device, invented in 1928 by French experimenter Martenot, has featured on the past three Radiohead albums and on Greenwood’s solo debut, Bodysong. It is also, he says, the source of “that swirly sound like a woman’s voice on the Star Trek theme”.
Greenwood first heard the ghostly instrument at school, when a teacher played him a piece by French composer Messiaen. For years he didn’t know what one looked like; eventually he stumbled across one in Paris and bought it immediately. “It looks like a tiny piano, and it’s similar to the theremin, but more precise,” he says. “There’s a string with a ring in it that you slide up and down horizontally, and a button that controls the amount of sound. It’s mono, so you can only hear one note at a time – but that is a lyrical way of playing a melody.”
Now Greenwood has written Smear (being performed tonight by the London Sinfonietta at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, as part of Leeds’s Fuse festival), which features not one but two ondes martenots. “The sound of two of them together is really amazing,” he says. In fact, he has become so obsessed with the instrument’s sound that he feels “guitars just aren’t enough any more”. The martenot has become a pivotal part of Radiohead’s music: the band have even fed Thom Yorke’s vocals through its speakers.
Greenwood welcomes the news that electronics companies are looking to market the formerly obscure instrument. “It might be too late but it’s something anyone can play and it really should have had the populist appeal of the Stylophone,” he says. “It just needed a Rolf Harris. Although I’m not quite sure if that’s me.” [thanks Alex]