Considerations for listening: Ondine

an essay by Greg Anderson

There is no avoiding the issue of sex when listening to (and viewing) popular music today. Artists like Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera have been known to dangle sensuailty in your face; just when one thinks Britney is down to her last layer of clothing, she says something like:

Intoxicate me with your lovin' now
Inflate me now
I'm ready now

So what would this have looked like 100 years ago in the music world? How did audiences relieve their sexual urges without music videos and Britney-in-leather?

Ravel’s Ondine is one such example, and in my opinion, it’s even more erotic and certainly much more sophisticated. Ravel knew he was being naughty when he composed the work; in the score, he placed the music alongside a poem written by the devil himself. The devil’s poem depicts a mortal man awoken in the depths of the night by the singing of a water spirit named Ondine. Ondine’s motivations are deeply twisted; she aims to seduce men to the bottom of her lake... where they will drown themselves to their demise. She is unimaginably beautiful and her talent for seduction is without equal. Her lyrics are no less graphic than anything Britney would sing; she sings about whips, lesbian play, and a lot of water – and it’s in French to boot! (Read the poem here.)

I am continually blown away by Ravel’s translation of this sexual fantasy into a purely musical language. The song of Ondine is painfully seductive – an orgasmic whirl of watery soundscapes. Ravel conveys it through the use of over 10,000 notes is six minutes … but I hesitate to say more. I’d rather not ruin the magic by describing how it works. Instead, give in, and allow yourself to be immersed in Ravel’s – and the devil’s – world of hedonistic hallucination.

Immerse yourself in the devil’s world of hedonistic hallucination. The concept of immersion provides a complication for me as a pianist performing this work. Where do I immerse myself? Do I become the seducer – the water spirit who seduces my audience? Or do I allow myself to become immersed along side of you, the listener, by Ondine’s entrancing song? Am I both – am I seducing myself in some weird form of pianistic masturbation? Or do I play the devil, directing the action above in the control tower? However I look at it, the moment that really gets me is toward the end. While most of the piece is Ondine's song, there’s a passage where her song stops – everything stops – and she waits for the verbal reply of her mortal victim. It’s so dramatic I can’t breathe, even when I’m the one performing at the piano!

Before you begin listening, try to imagine the various sounds of water – the sound of stepping into a bath, of waves hitting a shore, of a skipping stone. Now, what would the water sound like if it were trying to tempt you?

To listen to Greg play an excerpt from "Ondine," click the play button.


(Recording is from Greg's CD, "On Wings of Song")