Main Essential Library Resources Composer Bios

Continued from page one - Introducing Maurice Ohana

Ohana also experimented with microtones and modified instruments.  Like the Mediterranean folk music he admired, notes that are one- third and two-thirds sharp of equal-tempered pitches appear not infrequently in his compositions.   (He re-tuned the zither accordingly and, as such, this instrument figures prominently in many compositions.)  Ohana also developed a ten-string guitar (as opposed to the normal six) by adding four strings below the E-string, expanding not only the instrument’s range, but also its harmonic possibilities.  

For me, it is the guitar music that offers the easiest introduction to Ohana’s output.  Guitarist Stephen Schmidt recorded a wonderful CD of the complete 10-string solo guitar music for Naive (#782138), but it might be hard to find.  Still, for those who persist, the masterful suite Si le jour parait (“If day breaks, we shall depart”) awaits.  Inspired by a Lorca ode to an anonymous political prisoner of the Spanish Civil War, the music rapturously unfolds from brilliant improvisatory flourishes into delicate, sparse passages of pristine beauty.  Another favorite piece of mine, already mentioned, is Livre des Prodiges (Timpani # 1C1056)  Here the listener encounters Ohana’s penchant for mystical imagery and extraordinary talent for tone color.  The piece is organized into short sections with titles like “Earth Light,” or “Black Sound,” or “The Inverted Sun.”   I first heard the piece two years ago in Fontainebleau, and, after listening to it, the composer André Bon, who was leading a group of young composers in a seminar, lifted the score to his check and said, “If you sleep with this, you learn how to orchestrate!”

Naive’s recent compilation of Ohana’s major choral works does not disappoint and has significantly deepened my own appreciation for his music.  The four large compositions recorded here, particularly Office des Oracles and Avoaha, exhibit the powerful, ritualistic side of Ohana’s music.  Both works feature bravura passages for percussion, and the latter, Ohana’s final work, brings to a culmination his life-long involvement with African music.  (Ohana made numerous trips both north and south of the Sahara.)  His interest in pre-religious myth and pagan mysticism may strike some as garish, but, on its own terms, the music (usually sung on phonemes) is constantly beguiling, coherent, and impossible to get out of your head.  
For Messiaen enthusiasts especially, Ohana is a must-listen.  Like his contemporary, Ohana had an extraordinarily idiosyncratic field of influences which gave rise to an oeuvre filled with unique imagery and sound, and free of aesthetic partisanship.  Messiaen’s compositional profile may well be sharper than Ohana’s, but Ohana’s music bears all the hallmarks of a truly great composer: imagination, beauty, integrity, and the diversity of spirit to take those who care to listen into a world like no other. 


1)  Deval, Frédéric.  “Maurice Ohana: the Complete Works for Ten-String Guitar.”  Trans. Mary Pardoe. (Naive #782138) CD Liner-Notes, 2001.

2)  Halbreich, Harry.  “Two Rituals and a Song of the Soul.”  Trans. Jeremy Drake.  (Timpani, #1C1056) CD Liner-Notes, 2000.

3) Prost, Christine.  “Maurice Ohana: Office des Oracles, Messe, Avoaha, Lys de Madrigaux.”  Trans. John Sidgwick.  (Naive # 732171) CD Liner-Notes, 2003.

4)  Rae, Caroline.  “Maurice Ohana.”  The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians.  Vol. 18, pp 361-4  (London, Macmillian Publishers Ltd.)  2001.