Adventures in the Music Trade One of the world’s greatest film composers converses about his work.

Ennio Morricone: In His Own Words

Ennio Morricone with Alessandro De Rosa (Translated from the Italian by Maurizio Corbella) (2018, Oxford University Press) 341 pages including index, notes, and list of musical examples

When director Quentin Tarantino accepted the Golden Globe for Best Original Score on behalf of Ennio Morricone, he praised the latter as his favorite composer.  Tarantino added, “When I say ‘favorite composer’, I don’t mean movie composer … I’m talking about Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert. That’s who I’m talking about.”  For those who share Tarantino’s enthusiasm, the publication of Ennio Morricone: In His Own Words will come as very welcome news.

Morricone is, of course, the legendary composer of music for more than four hundred films during a career that spans nearly five decades. He gained fame early on for the music he wrote for “spaghetti” westerns, like The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1967) and Once Upon a Time in the West (1968). But he also scored many other beloved film classics, such as Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers (1967), Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven (1978), Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables (1987), Giuseppe Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso (1992), and Tarantino’s own The Hateful Eight (2016).

Morricone himself quickly explains that talking about chess is essentially a way to talk about music. Both enterprises involve verticality, horizontality, graphic patterns, and mathematical relations.

The book features interviews Morricone conducted with Alessandro De Rosa during a roughly two-year period between 2013 and 2015. Morricone and De Rosa range over a wide variety of subjects related to Morricone’s multi-faceted career. The book opens with a brief exchange about something seemingly quite unrelated, namely the composer’s love of chess. Morricone has indulged a life-long passion for the game and has even enjoyed the privilege of playing against several grandmasters, including Boris Spassky and Garry Kasparov. For readers, this risky opening gambit may cause just a bit of head scratching.  But Morricone himself quickly explains that talking about chess is essentially a way to talk about music. Both enterprises involve verticality, horizontality, graphic patterns, and mathematical relations. As we learn throughout the book, Morricone approaches specific problems of composition the same way he approaches the game of chess.

With De Rosa serving as a sparky interlocutor, much of Ennio Morricone: In His Own Words plays out as a literary equivalent of Louis Malle’s classic film, My Dinner with Andre (1982). De Rosa takes the Wallace Shawn role, a fellow practitioner who prompts his companion to reflect on his experiences and share his craft wisdom. Morricone takes the Andre Gregory role—that is, a storyteller mostly concerned with problems of creativity and expression, but using these to broach larger questions about the nature of science, faith, and the sacral. Throughout the book, the interviews display the hallmarks of good conversation: witty and observant, but also digressive. Following the maxim that it is about the journey rather than the destination, De Rosa and Morricone frequently pursue unusual tangents that ultimately lead back to the same point at which they started.

Although De Rosa and Morricone cover a plethora of topics, their discussions can be loosely grouped into three categories: 1) Morricone’s compositions for screen media, 2) the music he wrote for concert halls, and 3) his philosophy as a composer for both applied and absolute music. The first of these yields the book’s juiciest bits of information.Morricone has worked with a “who’s who” of filmmakers over the years and shares a number of important insights about their working methods.  Here are just a few of remarkable nuggets he shares:

 

• Although Morricone worked with director Pier Paolo Pasolini on seven films, he admits he never saw his notorious Salò, or 120 Days of Sodom (1975) in its entirety before it was released. Sitting at his Moviola, Pasolini would simply skip over the film’s most scabrous scenes to get to those where he needed the composer’s music.  Morricone explains Pasolini’s apparent reticence: “He made the film to scandalize the audience, not me.” (46)

• On Once Upon a Time in America (1982), Morricone developed “Deborah’s Theme” from a melody he had originally written for the Brooke Shields’s teen romance, Endless Love (1981).  The composer dropped the project when he learned that his love theme would be replaced by Lionel Richie’s title song.

• Because he is not fluent in English, Morricone has sometimes experienced challenges working with Hollywood directors. A case in point: the score he wrote for John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982).  Carpenter flew to Rome, showed Morricone a rough cut of the film on a VHS player in his hotel room, and then promptly left.  They had no contact as Morricone worked on the score in Rome.  He then prepared two versions of a long cue in the film: one for synthesizers and one for full orchestra.  When he attended the film’s premiere, Morricone was horrified to learn that Carpenter had only used the version for synthesizers.  All of the work that went into orchestrating and recording the other instrumental version was for naught.

• Of Tarantino, Morricone says, “I had and have always considered him a great director.” His initial reluctance to work with Tarantino stemmed not from his dislike of the director’s films, but rather from Morricone’s own modesty.  Tarantino held the composer in such high esteem that Morricone feared he would j never be able to write something that would live up to the director’s expectations.

 

In addition to Morricone’s film music, De Rosa also offers a rather extensive discussion of the composer’s concert music. After World War II, Morricone received training in composition, orchestration, choral music, conducting, and trumpet at the Conservatorio di Santa Cecilia. His Cantata for Chorus and Orchestra (1955) and Concerto for Orchestra (1957) were among the first large-scale pieces that he completed. But throughout his career, Morricone has written chamber music, tone poems, solo piano pieces, and ballets, all of it in addition to his prodigious output as a film composer. He also dabbled in aleatoric techniques and musique concrète in pieces like Gestazione (1980), for female voice, prerecorded electronic instruments, and ad libitum string orchestra, and Cadenza (1988), for flute and magnetic tape.

Throughout the book, the interviews display the hallmarks of good conversation: witty and observant, but also digressive. Following the maxim that it is about the journey rather than the destination, De Rosa and Morricone frequently pursue unusual tangents that ultimately lead back to the same point at which they started.

Morricone describes his style as firmly rooted in the Second School of Vienna, derived from Webern’s serialist technique and ordering all musical parameters of timbre, pitch, duration, dynamics, and the like according to strict rules of combination and variation.  However, unlike Webern, who wrote in a twelve-tone system that emphasized dissonance and dodecaphonic harmonic principles, Morricone preferred to use smaller tone rows consisting of anywhere between four and seven notes.  This approach enabled Morricone to use more “listener-friendly” tonal and modal harmonies that created a sense of both unity and simplicity.

Morricone’s Suoni per Dino (1969) exemplifies many of the attributes of his post-Webernian style. He conceived the piece as one that would be composed with only four notes (Eb, D, C#, and A) that could then be thickened and varied as it develops.  Each measure was to last one second and each staff lasts thirty seconds.  During the performance, a violist stands between two tape machines.  The first machine records the violist’s performance in real time while the second plays it back after a thirty second delay. Each iteration, thus, adds a new layer of sound to what has already been recorded, creating a static harmonic texture that is nonetheless varied by the presence of new pitches, rhythms, and timbres. Suoni per Dino represents Morricone’s experiment with the concept of “dynamic immobility.”  The techniques employed provided a perfect blend of musical stasis and flux, moods and textures that could easily be adapted to the different dramatic contexts he encountered in his film work.

A third theme that surfaces throughout Morricone and De Rosa’s dialogues involves the composer’s philosophical musings on the nature of art and music as forms of creative expression. Like many other screen composers, Morricone shares certain assumptions about what makes for good film music. A score should be appropriate to the dramatic situations it accompanies, but this sense of fit can take many forms. Sometimes this involves finding synch points where the music can provide rhythmic accents to the actions appearing onscreen. In other cases, Morricone will seek to match the mood or associational significance of some element in the narrative.  For example, in Casualties of War (1989), Morricone was struck by the figure of a young Vietnamese girl who is kidnapped, repeatedly raped, and eventually murdered by U.S. soldiers. Describing her death on a railway bridge, he says, “She buckles onto her legs like a dying bird, before tumbling down from the high ground.” (77)  The girl’s vaguely avian appearance led Morricone to write a theme based on just a few notes played by two panpipes. By ping-ponging their sounds back and forth, the panpipes evoked, for Morricone, “the slowing, fluttering of a bird’s wings shortly before death.” (77)

Notably, Morricone’s explanation of this scene also demonstrates the way specific aesthetic choices can carry important ideological implications. As Todd Decker notes in his book, Hymns for the Fallen, Morricone’s use of timbre places this particular theme squarely in a tradition of “veil music” that is a common convention of the prestige combat film.[i] Decker notes that the score for Casualties of War is unusual in creating sympathy for a victim of war’s depredations. However, the airy, flitting sound of panpipe also casts the Vietnamese girl as distinctly “Other,” a perpetuation of Orientalist tropes which cast Asian and Middle Eastern cultures in opposition to Occidental norms.

Moreover, Morricone also shares with other screen composers a fondness for certain techniques that create tension between music’s vertical and horizontal dimensions.  Throughout the book, Morricone makes frequent reference to his use of pedal points—that is, sustained tones, usually in the bass, against which other voices create an interplay of shifting harmonies and dissonance.  Similarly, for other cues, Morricone relies on “ostinato” patterns (i.e. musical figures, often in the bass, that stubbornly repeat unchanged throughout a piece) that provide the ground for a melody that plays above it.  Such compositional devices are especially useful in scenes of suspense. By deferring cadential resolution, pedal points and ostinatos create a sense of heightened expectancy that beautifully matches the viewer’s anticipation of a scene’s outcome.  They also, not coincidentally, create a feeling of “dynamic immobility” quite similar to that Morricone sometimes sought in his concert music.

Morricone describes his style as firmly rooted in the Second School of Vienna, derived from Webern’s serialist technique and ordering all musical parameters of timbre, pitch, duration, dynamics, and the like according to strict rules of combination and variation.

In other instances, Morricone’s desire to provide appropriate music led him to create multiple versions of individual cues or themes from which a director could select the ones they liked the best. During the making of The Untouchables, Brian De Palma requested a musical theme that would reflect the “Police’s Triumph.”  Morricone prepared three pieces which were then sent off to the director. De Palma did not like any of them. He sent three more pieces, but De Palma rejected these as well. Morricone then sent three more pieces along with a note that explained, of the nine proposals, number six was by far the worst—that is, the most bombastic and overblown in its projection of triumph. Says Morricone, “Guess which one he chose?” (76)

This anecdote is particularly telling for a number of reasons, not the least being that it confirms that De Palma, for all his consummate skill as a director, has never had a taste for subtlety. For one thing, it shows how willing Morricone is to subordinate his own aesthetic principles to the desire of his directors and the needs of the film. For another, it also underlines how prolific Morricone was in terms of his ability to create film music of such consistently high quality. The composer encountered these types of situations throughout his career, which as I noted earlier involved work on more than four hundred films. To think that there are reams of paper and stacks of recordings that contain hours and hours of unused themes and alternate takes as part of Morricone’s output. For me, at least, that idea is truly staggering.

Toward the end of the book, De Rosa and Morricone discuss the sacral qualities of his music. To some extent, these can be traced to his frequent use of choruses in his film and concert music, something that links his work with other liturgical forms, such as cantatas, motets, oratorios, and requiems.  These sacral elements also derive from some of the composers who influenced Morricone’s work, such as Bach and Palestrina. Although he casts his work as post-Webernian, Morricone acknowledges that much of Western music history derives from Gregorian chant.  As he puts it, “Without cantus firmus, descant, and fauxbordon, we would never have had polyphony, counterpoint, and harmony.” Still, both De Rosa and Morricone seem to acknowledge that such influences cannot completely account for the sense of otherworldly beauty that so many listeners and critics have found in his work. To this, Morricone offers a partial, somewhat offhand explanation in describing his personal favorite of the five cantatas that he wrote.

Starting with its title, Vuoto d’anima piena presents itself as an apparent contrast, a contradiction in terms, which nevertheless embodies human experience and its continuous oscillations between desperation and joy, horror and beauty, its lows and highs. All of this acquires a meaning as it projects toward a search, toward a mystery.  The encounter with God?  Self-awareness?  Identification?  An illumination? The descent into hell? Perdition? Everyone can call it what they wish. But it is precisely this notion of “mystery,” with all the doubts and contrasts it entails, that is key to me. The stimulus to keep on searching lies within it.

For anyone interested in a glimpse of one of the greatest musical minds of the 20th century—and the divine spark that ignited his remarkable career—Ennio Morricone: In His Own Words is an excellent place to start.

[i]  Todd Decker, Hymns for the Fallen: Combat Movie Music and Sound After Vietnam, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2017).

Jeff Smith

Jeff Smith is a professor in the Department of Communication Arts and Director of the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater research. He is the author of two books (The Sounds of Commerce: Marketing Popular Film Music and Film Criticism, the Cold War, and the Blacklist: Reading the Hollywood Reds) and the co-author, along with David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson, of the 11th and 12th editions of Film Art: An Introduction. Smith has also published more than two dozen book chapters and journal articles on various aspects of film sound and film music, and is a frequent contributor to the "Observations on Film Art" series on the Criterion Channel.

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