Ethereal from the Outer Limits

'Wavemakers' film delights in the spooky sounds of the ondes Martenot instrument
Ethereal from the Outer Limits
(Photo: Cindy Boyce)

The sounds are eerie and ethereal, "from being really dark and low to very high like angels singing." They are also familiar—if anything so strange can be familiar—to fans of old 'Outer Limits' TV episodes, sci-fi flicks from the 1950s, classical concert-goers who love Olivier Messiaen and Arthur Honegger, and devotees of Radiohead.

They come from the ondes Martenot, invented in 1928 by French cellist Maurice Martneot and coming to the Exploratorium in San Francisco for an evening performance and a movie about the instrument's lure, lore, and history, 7 p.m. Thursday February 20.

Montreal filmmaker Caroline Martel, who heard angels singing in the instrument's sound, will show her 96-minute 'Wavemakers,' followed by a question-and-answer session and a demonstration by Geneviève Grenier, among the world's few and best ondists.

One of the first electronic instruments (arriving a decade after the theremin, whose sound and technology it recalls), the ondes produces music from vacuum tubes using a metal ring, a keyboard and a volume knob. 'Ondes' is French for waves.

The Thursday event is for the 18-and-over crowd. However, on Saturday afternoon, February 22, the Exploratorium presents Martel in what it calls "a family-friendly program of new works about sound."

For more on the Exploratorium's 'Wavemakers' Thursday 2/20 showing, click here. For Saturday 2/22, click here.