Ennio Morricone and Il Gruppo, 1978.

Music, News & Commentary

Ennio Morricone: Film Composer and Sonic Explorer

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Italian composer and musician Ennio Morricone died at the age of 91 on Monday July 6, 2020. For more than 80 years of his life ‘Maestro’ Morricone scored music, for over 500 films and TV shows, and some 100 concert works. He was a versatile songwriter, arranger, conductor, musician and improviser.

There are few film music composers with the impact of Ennio Morricone. Most people would recognise the signature whistling, strange vocalising and galloping rhythms he made characteristic of the many ‘spaghetti westerns’ he composed music for, even if they haven’t seen the films. This is all the more extraordinary because Morricone film signatures are not like the others – they are built on experimentalism and improvisation. The sparse ocarina/voice/brass call and response that open Sergio Leone’s film The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966) are hardly comparable with the orchestral bombast of a John Williams or Hans Zimmer score.

He began his life as a musical prodigy, starting his formal studies in trumpet, composition and choral music at the Conservatorio di Musica Santa Cecilia in Rome when he was 12. His albums eventually sold over 70 million copies, and he would compose for over 20 films in a single year early in his career.

While Morricone is best known as a composer, his status as a musician and improviser is important. This meant he recognised talent in other performers, and understood how important ‘making music in the moment’ was to its vitality and energy. This appreciation contributed significantly to his film music. In his music for Sergio Leone’s films, he featured George Zamfir’s pan flute in Once Upon A Time in America (1984), and Alessandro Alessandroni’s guitar playing, whistling and wordless choir ideas.

The musicians from the experimental composers collective he belonged to, ‘Gruppo di Improvvisazione Nuova Consonanza‘ (aka ‘Il Gruppo’) often featured too, as a group in films such as Enzo Gastellari’s Gli Occhi Freddi Della Paura (1970) but as individuals across other films. The group performed Italian composers such as Luigi Nono and Giacinto Scelsi, as well as improvisations inspired by them, and their influence can be heard in Morricone’s work.

Morricone was interested in the sound of instruments, known as their timbre, and this can be seen in the improvisatory elements he included in the soundtracks. The free and exploratory double bass is presented  through a magnified lens in Dario Argento’s  Il Gatto a Nove Code (1971), set against a sparse landscape of instruments that include shimmering string and harpsichord textures. Morricone himself would use mouthpiece detached from his trumpet to explore new sounds in ‘Il Gruppo’. This improvisational background led him to occasionally co-compose soundtracks, often with a colleague from his Conservatorio days, Bruno Nicolai, in films such as Alberto De Martino’s L’Antichristo (1974).

While Morricone also composed works intended solely for concert performances, which he called ‘absolute music’, his most important contributions were the in-between parts of his film scores. The ‘suites’ composers often make from full film soundtracks, designed for live orchestral performance opportunities, often leave out the more experimental musical journeys.

In Morricone’s case, this has been rectified with more recent re-released soundtracks, often characterised by a jaunty or popular title track followed by a wealth of musical explorations. Sergio Sollima’s action thriller Revolver (1973) starts with a pop number that is followed by a longer, radically different track that is an evolving angular piece exploring the limits of Morricone’s famous syncopations.

While Morricone also composed works intended solely for concert performances, which he called ‘absolute music’, his most important contributions were the in-between parts of his film scores.

Polystylistic combinations are another signature of Morricone’s film music, often featuring small rock bands within orchestral settings. He accomplished this in many ways, from combining electric basses and guitars with their acoustic counterparts combining a psychedelic beat with lush romantic strings, or transporting human voices out of song and into a more orchestral settings, in addition to combining improvisations with composed parts.

The screeching vocals in Sergio Corbucci’s’ Navajo Joe (1966) soundtrack introduce a rich tapestry of deep percussion, soaring strings, the characteristic broken piano chords and guitar twang, providing an example of music that defies any real stylistic categorisation. Electronics were sometimes used to expand upon the possibilities of acoustic instruments, ranging from complimentary effects in films such as Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) to more complete engagements with electronic instruments, as in the John Carpenter film, The Thing (1982).

Morricone was a skilled orchestrator, but also a skilled melodist: and it is the mix of these things that makes his music so magical. The soprano saxophone leading the opening theme in Guiseppe Tornatore’s Nuovo Cinema Paradiso (1988) and the oboe solo in Roland Joffé’s The Mission (1986) are examples of how carefully the choice of instrument plays into Morricone’s melodic thinking. This skill is also evidenced in Morricone’s songwriting in and out of films, as seen in Italian songs such as Se Telefonando (1966) for Italian pop star Mina, and his collaboration with Joan Baez on the title track for Giuiliano Montaldo’s Sacco and Vanzetti (1971). He would often develop melodic themes across different works, with variations of melodies appearing in films ten or more years apart.

Morricone’s music made films great. Leone would play it on the set of the film, resulting in this music leading both the cinematography and subsequent editing; evidenced beautifully in the early scenes of  Once Upon A Time in the West (1976), a true film music masterpiece.

Morricone’s contributions were recognised in his lifetime: the exposure films brought to his music being one of the benefits of that industry. Musicians also acknowledged his importance in a variety of ways, notably John Zorn’s radical reworkings on The Big Gundown (1986), and a compilation of more obscure tracks entitled Crime and Dissonance (2005) on Mike Patton’s Ipecac label. After a series of nominations and some smaller awards, he finally won an Oscar in 2016 for his work on Quentin Tarantino’s homage to Leone, The Hateful Eight (2015). A strange moment, where recognition comes late in the cycle of influence, highlighting the extent of Morricone’s impact on the film music genre.

Morricone was a skilled orchestrator, but also a skilled melodist: and it is the mix of these things that makes his music so magical.

As you might expect with such a prolific artist, not every Morricone work is a masterpiece. Working in the film industry sometimes requires the creation of music for a film where the deadline is short and parameters fixed. Yet Morricone’s work is distinguished by just how good his best works are. He understood that music is its own abstract art form, and that it complements the art of film, while retaining its own power beyond any association bestowed upon it. His musical legacy demonstrates this now and into the future.

Dedicated to Antonello Scuderi.

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