He Scores

Ennio Morricone has written great music for good, bad and ugly films

Ennio Morricone has been nominated for five Oscars -- and he's yet to win one.
Ennio Morricone has been nominated for five Oscars -- and he's yet to win one.
Ennio Morricone can tell you stories about each of his 400 children--where they were conceived, what they mean to him, why each one remains so singular and special he cannot and will not choose a favorite. He's proud even of the orphans, the runts, the bastards, the children long ago born and forgotten, left abandoned and unloved by filmmakers and audiences. The 72-year-old father leaves no one behind: What's insignificant to us remains cherished and beloved to him. And when he's forgotten something about a child, he needs only a small shove in the right direction before every detail comes rushing back to him. "Two or three seconds of music," he says, "and I know exactly every detail."

At this moment, from the end of a phone line in his home in Rome, Morricone is talking about one such forsaken child: his score for the 1979 film The Humanoid, an Italian-made Star Wars knockoff starring Richard "Jaws" Kiel--a movie so cheesy it went straight from theaters to the dairy case. The film is but one of dozens on Morricone's r´sum´ that never saw the dark of an American theater; it ranks up (or down) there with the likes of 1972's The School That Couldn't Scream, 1974's Spasmo, 1975's Torture Train, and on and on. Morricone is legendary for his work with Sergio Leone (he scored all of the director's films, among them such carbo-loaded Westerns as A Fistful of Dollars and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly) and beloved for his music for Roland Joff´'s The Mission and Brian De Palma's The Untouchables, but he is understandably tired of speaking about those movies. As Morricone has so often said, of his 400 kids, only a handful were Westerns--roughly "8 percent," give or take, he reminds.

"There was a moment when I had to turn down lots and lots and lots of Westerns," he says, speaking through an interpreter, "because everybody was coming to me saying, 'Write the music for my film! Write the music for my film!' I had to avoid becoming just a Western specialist. It was very, very dangerous."

Better, then, to talk about the neglected work, if only because it too should be celebrated, even if so many of the films to which Morricone's music was attached are unworthy of the connection. The man referred to by his friends as Il Maestro is clearly delighted to explain why his score for The Humanoid is electronic, minimalist, avant-garde bleep-bleep-bleeps plinked out on a synthesizer, perhaps because it sounds nothing like the soaring coyote-calls of his Western scores or the symphonic grandeur of his more recent and more familiar works. To hear him explain why explains a great deal about this man who ranks alongside Bernard Herrmann, Nino Rota, Alfred Newman, Henry Mancini, John Williams and Elmer Bernstein as one of the few composers to make music as vital as the films to which their names were attached. (This despite the fact that in the handful of books written about film music, Morricone receives scant mention; in most, he is ignored completely.)

"The Humanoid was an Italian science-fiction film where I believed I was answering, in my own way, the American science-fiction films with which I was familiar," he says. "Also, I was recognizing the great bravura of John Williams and his Star Wars score. I felt that the [music in those films] was inadequate to explain the infinite, which is what science fiction wishes to represent. It was a personal answer to the [music] which American cinema had proposed for space. It gave me the feeling of the infinite, of the mysteries of the world we don't know. When I used to see American science-fiction films, when I didn't approve of certain musical behavior, I asked myself what would I have done in that case. So when I did The Humanoid, I already had in mind what my behavior would be. In this case, my behavior came from a position of, let's call it correctively critical of American science-fiction films."

And that, put simply, is Morricone's genius (though he bristles at the mention of the word): He destroys the clich´s and builds in their place the unheard music. What was once banal and familiar becomes, in Morricone's hands, thrilling and alien. When he and Leone hooked up in 1964 for A Fistful of Dollars, the first of the director's films to star Clint Eastwood as The Man With No Name, Morricone looked not to the sweeping scores of Dmitri Tiomkin (who provided the music for such films as High Noon, Rio Bravo and Duel in the Sun) but Italian opera, American rock (especially the twang of guitarist Duane Eddy) and the ambient sounds of the city (say, the striking of an anvil or the ringing of a bell in the distance). When he composed the theme for The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, he imagined it being howled by a coyote somewhere on the horizon.

In the process, he's among the few film composers to make music that works even better off the screen; Rhino Records' 1995 two-disc collection, A Fistful of Film Music, proves how powerful his work is once freed from the confines of the theater. As such, he has been a tremendous influence not just on composers but on the larger pop-music world. "Il Giardino Delle Delizie" from the 1967 film The Garden of Delights eerily presages "Private Idaho" by the B-52's (they're nearly identical); avant-garde composer-performer John Zorn paid homage to Morricone on his 1985 album The Big Gundown (restored and rereleased just last year); and Wall of Voodoo, Adam and the Ants, Portishead, David Holmes and so many other new-wavers and post-rockers lifted their strum-and-twang from Morricone's Westerns. Morricone says only recently did he become aware of how his work informed the music of others, but he's loath to claim himself as an influence.

"I really pay attention to what I have to do less than what the others are doing," he says. "I think that each composer always has to maintain their own personality...Still, everything that's happening in the progress of music, be it that on the high level or be it that on a low level, you need to be aware of. You have to be informed."

Morricone began writing music when he was 6 and enrolled in Rome's Conservatory of Santa Cecilia when he was 12, hoping to master the trumpet, the instrument his father played. But he soon found himself surpassing his professors: He completed a four-year course in harmony in a matter of months. He would end up studying composition by day and playing trumpet in Rome's nightclubs by night, and when he graduated from the school, he left with degrees in orchestration, conducting, composition and, of course, the trumpet. Morricone would go into film composing only after he'd been hired as a session musician on a handful of scores, which he found "ugly"; he was convinced he could do better, especially after having heard West Side Story and Alfred Newman's score for The Robe. Morricone thought he would put on hold, for a little while, his writing for the concert stage. That was nearly 40 years ago, and decades would pass before he began writing and performing music not intended for film.

For a long time, he felt writing movie music made him "a traitor" to the art of composing music; if it wasn't exactly beneath him, it was, at the very least, foreign and frustrating. He'd been trained by some of the best writers and musicians in Italy, and now he was going to make music for movies? For Westerns, for God's sake? It was unfathomable. But soon enough, he realized movies allowed a different kind of freedom--the kind that allows a composer to score a Western today, a political drama tomorrow and a horror movie the day after that. Within those confines was a world of possibilities.

"I started from a much higher point [than most film composers]," he says. "I was not a dilettante. A long time ago, I didn't know what I know today, and it's true: Then, writing for cinema seemed to be a frustration. Almost no one goes into this thinking, 'I want to become a film composer,' but people do go into it saying, 'I want to be a composer.' Therefore, when you change paths, you still have the same creativity that you would in making music for concerts. A composer is worthy of this name only if he has his own personality, even if he does films that are completely different one from another. His style has to come out clearly, even though each film is different.

"The reasons for doing cinema is that if one believes in doing it, it can also give you back a lot. First of all, you're in contact with the orchestra very often. You get to listen to your music continually while you're recording it, and you get to hear it very shortly after you've written it. You can experiment privately and listen to these experiments and learn a lot by doing this, and this I owe to cinema...It has improved within me a general sense of composing. Movies have conditions, make demands, and you must find a way to get over these conditions. You must find a new freedom."

Despite his 72 years, Morricone has little interest in cutting back on his workload; only two weeks ago, he traveled to London for the first time to perform his non-film music, along with selections from his best-known scores. And last year, he scored three films: De Palma's Mission to Mars, Joff´'s Vatel and Giuseppe Tornatore's Malena, the latter of which earned him his fifth Oscar nomination (he lost out to Tan Dun's score for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon). But Morricone was resigned to losing: When his score for The Mission lost in 1987 to Round Midnight, which was nothing more than a collection of jazz standards, Morricone realized it was perhaps never meant to be. Hollywood belongs to the hacks and heathens whose awards are, in his estimation, nothing but "propaganda for the movies." Maybe that's why he stays in Rome and refuses to learn English.

But Morricone may have little say in his own destiny: Now, more than ever, soundtracks are but top-of-the-pops compilations, one more product in the merchandising business plan. Movie music has been devalued; the larger-than-life orchestral soundtrack has been rendered all but obsolete. Perhaps the film composer is not far behind.

"You have touched on the problem with all music of this time," Morricone says. "Certainly, the record companies are now trying to take advantage of music that is hot, that is now, that doesn't last for a very long time--music of the moment. So, the industry doesn't like something that lasts a long time. They like something that's just for the moment, something seasonal, something temporary. It's just the natural evolution of the music industry."

Even though he speaks in Italian, the weariness in his voice needs no translation. Perhaps, then, Morricone can take solace knowing that he, or at least a good portion of his work, is immortale.

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