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MOVIE MUSIC & MORRICONE
TUNES, NOISE & MELODY
by Harlan Kennedy
If the patron saint of music in general is Saint Cecilia, the patron saint of film music is surely the Emperor Nero. With Rome blazing around him and homes and people crisping by the minute, he decided against calling the fire brigade. "Poppaea," he said, turning to his wife, "bring me my fiddle." The rest is history. Or at least waterproof legend.
A film composer needs the same mixture of sangfroid and creative delirium as the late Roman emperor. He's usually brought in when a movie is at its highest pitch of agonized self-appraisal. It's finished and cut; it's cost everyone blood and tears. Now it's ready to go before the people. Please, Mr. Maestro, make it sound pretty – it's too late to do anything about how it looks. So enter Max Steiner or Bernard Herrmann, Henry Mancini or Maurice Jarre, John Williams or Ennio Morricone. They must fiddle gloriously while the last production bridges are burned.
Far from being a phenomenon of post-Jolson cinema, this Nero Syndrome has been with us since film began. Specially composed movie music was written as long ago as 1906, when one Romolo Bacchini wrote scores for two Italian pix, Malia dell'Oro and Pierrot Innamorato. But there's a difference between the function of music in "silent" cinema and that in sound cinema.
If a group of deaf extraterrestrials had landed on Earth before 1927, year of The Jazz Singer, they could have understood everything a movie told them, given a modest facility with intertitles.
If the same deaf aliens had landed on Earth any time in the past 60 years, they would scarcely know what a movie was telling them. It's not just that the dialogue has leaped from title-cards to sound track. It's that movie music has become woven into the fabric of a film. Try to tear the music from Psycho or Jaws, from The Godfather or The Mission, and you tear half the film, or its carefully gauged emotional effect, with it.
We are a world away from the generalized noises made in front of silent films by piano, organ or, in the grander show houses, 100-piece orchestras. Most movie-theater musicians back then used the notorious cue sheets. They thumped out identical chase music from film to film, never mind if it was Intolerance or The Perils of Pauline, and identical love music, never mind if it was Greed or Tillie's Punctured Romance. And even when special scores were composed to accompany special movies, like Joseph Carl Briel's for The Birth of a Nation, or when synchronized scores were actually attached to disks (Hugo Riesenfeld's for Lang's Siegfried for a New York screening in 1925), the aim and effect was a generalized underscoring of mood, ancillary rather than symbiotic. The movie could still survive its journey to the local flea-pit, where it would have to be shown with the indifferent accompaniment of a piano, an organ or nothing at all.
Movie scholars who witter on today about how nothing has changed in the grammar of cinema since D.W. Griffith always neglect music. Yes, D.W. perfected the close-up, cross-cutting, etc., etc. But the Grand Old Man never foresaw a day when, rather than washing thinly disguised classical favorites over a movie (as Breil did with his Birth of a Nation score) or playing music on the set to get his actors in the mood (as Griffith pioneeringly did on Judith of Bethulia), a filmmaker or composer would stitch elaborately prepared noises into every seam of a picture.
The use of music in movies has changed more than anything else connected with the seventh art. In the silent era, it was applied like a poultice: It was good for the patient, it could affect his health and temperature, but it could also be removed at will. Today music is injected intravenously: It courses through a film's veins and becomes part of its blood and lymph system. The Psycho shower scene without Herrmann's screeching strings would no longer be the Psycho shower scene. (It might be interesting, but it would be totally different.) In The Godfather, the queasy, mellifluous ambiguity of the story is evoked and defined by the opening bars of Nino Rota's music. John Barry's theme for the Bond movies is now bonded almost molecularly to the series, just as Elmer Bernstein's music injected magnificence into The Magnificent Seven. And John Williams' score for Star Wars, as well as being one of the bestselling film scores of all time, punches out a lunging theme that now seems inseparabe from the comic-strip-come-to-life style of Lucas' film. And pacemaker for a whole slew of popular entertainments ever since.
Like Nero, the film composer has both the easiest job and the one whose results many people best remember. If Williams was the emperor of movie music in the '70s and early '80s, the mantle has probably fallen today on Ennio Morricone. He has three unbeatable advantages as a composer. First, he's a compatriot of Nero's and lives in the very city whose burning timbers the royal one once strummed over. Second, he works harder than Nero, rising at five, putting in nine hours a day and answering to a career roll call of more than 100 films. Third, his sound is unlike anything produced either by the martial inspirationalism of the American school (Williams, Jerry Goldsmith) or by the swoony melodic style of the French school (Maurice Jarre, Georges Delerue).
Indeed, it's hard to define the Morricone style at all. Eclectic is an understatement for music whose mood can encompass the lyrical (The Mission), the bellicose (The Battle of Algiers), the grotesque (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly) or the plaintive (Bertolucci's Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man). And his equally eclectic instrumentation leaves no sonic source untapped, from the routine repertoire of brass, strings and percussion to the screams, bells and whistles of Leone's Dollar trilogy or the weird scratching and plumbing noises for Petri's Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion.
Morricone, in short, is a postmodernist. Every acoustic gewgaw is grist to his mill; every period of musical history may be ransacked for inspiration. No wonder that in the 1990s, at the peak of his form, he's become musical general in the Italian invasion of American cinema. While Giorgio Armani takes over the costume department, Vittorio Storaro requisitions the lights and directors like De Palma and Scorsese move in on the top-budget gangster pix, Morricone is there to supplant yesterday's symphonic sound à la Williams with something part Mediterranean, part atavistic, part unplaceable.
The good news about Morricone is that his scores, unlike Williams', never seem interchangeable. (Can you tell Superman from Star Wars after a couple of drinks?) The Mission's gently fluting grandeur is a hemisphere away from the big-city dissonance of The Untouchables, and neither of these seems to inhabit the same planet as the primeval howls and chirrups of Once Upon a Time in the West.
The bad news is that Morricone can sometimes seem punch-drunk on his own prolixity. Instruments war with each other in the maestro's nonstop battle for sonic surprise and incongruity. You give up trying to count the number of Morricone scores in which a legato melody is overlaid with adversarial squeaks or stabs from brass or percussion. And there are even films where one might fantasize that Signore Ennio had sent the wrong sheet music to the wrong filmmaker. Why all that elegiac sub-Nino Rota Muzak in David Leland's thick-eared Scottish gangster pic The Big Man?
But then, in the heavy industry that film music has become today, what can a successful composer do? Having graduated from being a mere decorator, he's now expected to take on tasks akin to those of a builder-plasterer. A finished movie moves toward its maestro, baring its cracks and fissures like a saint's stigmata and saying, Fill me in. The composer-plasterer takes one look, gathers his orchestra and sets to work.
Indeed, forget building metaphors. The most appropriate image for a beleaguered melodist slaving away before a click track, as he provides truncated surges of inspiration, might be coitus interruptus. Film music must constantly rouse itself only to be cut off. The next scene, the jump-cut – sorry, maestro, we've had enough of the habanera, this is where we cut straight to the saraband.
Some movies confront the absurdist fragmentation inherent in film music head-on. Instead of hiring a composer to create the rags and riches that are a film score, they reach into their record collections. Martin Scorsese's GoodFellas is the apotheosis of the "golden oldies" approach to film music. How many bits of pop and rock songs are featured in this movie? About a million? But it works. It's music as social history: sonic time-capsules exploding scene by scene as we recognize the chart-toppers we grew up with and the eras they textured and defined.
This, too, is postmodernism. It's film music as a playful invocation of history and bygone culture, streamlined by a modern sensibility. If Morricone has achieved anything single-handedly as a film composer, it's the perfection of a fusion between the classical composing methods of the Steiners or Korngolds and the eclecticism that has informed music culture since the 1960s and that is typified by the pile-on-the-pop-songs brand of movie score. (How appropriate to an age of fragmentation, borrowing and bricolage that music's main new instrument is called a synthesizer.)
So. Who better to beard on the modern state of movie music- – and his own career – than Morricone? Il Maestro was working on a score for Zeffirelli's Hamlet, starring Mel Gibson and Glenn Close, when we contacted him in Italy recently. We already knew the salient details of the Maestro's career and life-style. Gets up at five. Locks his room against invading children. Keeps bars of stolen hotel soap in secret desk drawer. Started writing music at age six. Holds a degree in music composition. Plays with the improvization music group Nuova Consonanza. Has composed a small amount of nonfilm music, including a ballet called Requiem for a Destiny. Composed his first film score in 1961 (Luciano Salce's The Fascist). Came to fame with the Dollar trilogy, though his theme for The Good, the Bad and the Ugly topped the American charts only after being hijacked and rearranged by another composer. (Don't mention the name Hugo Montenegro to Morricone.) Was nominated thrice for Oscars, for Days of Heaven, The Mission and The Untouchables. Didn't get them. Regrets not having written the scores for A Clockwork Orange and Angel Heart. Is one of the most published film composers in the world.
All this, plus tributes from filmmakers he's worked for, including the late Sergio Leone, who once gave me a happy description of the mutual leg-pulling involved in a Leone-Morricone collaboration. "I always get him to come over to my house and play on an out-of-tune piano. It keeps him alert. And if a score is good, it must learn to rise above a bad instrument!" Eccola! And so to the Maestro himself.
What is the purpose of film music? Is it to add texture and emphasis to moods that are already there? Or does it create them or the expectation of them?
Music in a film must not add emphasis but must give more body and depth to the story, to the characters, to the language that the director has chosen. It must, therefore, say all that the dialogue, images, effects, etc., cannot say.
"Each composer has a musical calligraphy" you have said. How would you characterize your own? Is there a Morricone signature recognizable in all your 100-plus works?
I can't classify myself. Others must do it. Others, if they wish, can analyze my works [my scores]. I will add that my scores have always, and will always be, written by me. I have never needed collaborators to write for me. On the contrary, this revolts me. The great classic musicians in the history of musical composition have never had such need. This habit of not writing one's own music is a negative practice of composers who are lazy, or incapable, or who take on too much work. In my opinion, it is an immoral system because it takes advantage of creative qualities of others for one's own exclusive purposes. I understand this only for music and songs. But I would also write those by myself.
How much of your music is built around little-known instruments or nonorchestral sounds? For example, the screams, bells, whips and whistles in the Dollar trilogy. Why is it important to you to go beyond orthodox instrumentation? And how did it first occur to you?
You are only referring to the Western films. Some of Leone's Westerns (but also those of other directors) have need of underlining a character's quirks. I do only what I think is correct. For the rest, a composer has the obligation to "invent and capture" noises, the musical sounds of life.
"The pain and joy inside a character," you have said, "is what my music is about." How much are the characters the focal point for you in composing all your film music?
I've already answered that in your first question.
What is the difference between working for American directors and working for Italian/ European ones?
I don't find a difference, but I am referring to the best American directors and the best European ones.
How much can a composer's credit-title music influence the way an audience approaches a whole film?
That's an unusual question, and I don't know how to respond to it. From my experience, I would say that the style and the language of the credit titles must match the style of the rest of the music.
Can that credit-title music color the approach in a different way from the one the director might have planned? For instance, your music for Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion is humourous, mischievous, more comical than the film itself.
I don't believe that the music for Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion is humourous, mischievous or comical; it's only grotesque.
Is your film music influenced by other film music? For instance, were you aware of drawing on the Biblical-epic tradition of Miklós Rozsa and company when composing for Moses: The Lawgiver?
The composer, with his personality and style, must always prevail above all influences. For Moses, I assure you, I listened to no one else's music. I took into account the historical music of that period, and I tried to make it comprehensible for the present.
How much do directors collaborate with you, and how much do they give you a free hand?
Directors, especially those who know me, let me propose ideas and solutions, which we can then discuss together. I only record with the orchestra after having the consent of the director.
You have said that you have a style for depicting individual characters in a film. How do you arrive at the right sound for the right character: the wailing harmonica for Charles Bronson in Once Upon a Time in the West, the oboe theme for Jeremy Irons in The Mission, the panpipe for Cockeye in Once Upon a Time in America?
I don't remember saying anything like that. For the three films that you mentioned, it was the case (but not the only case) that the sounds – harmonica, oboe, panpipe flute – arose from the story.
How much archaeological/anthropological musical research do you do – into tribal music, for instance, for The Mission?
For The Mission I studied the musical practices of South America in the 17th century.
As well as being one of the world's best-known and most-published film composers, you are almost certainly its most prolific. Why do you work so hard?
I don't believe that I do work hard. I don't believe that I work too much. Think of J.S. Bach, think of W. Mozart and of many others. Their music was their life. Without being as great as they, the same is true for me. I'm not tired of writing music. It's the only thing that I believe I know how to do.
How have you approached the music for Hamlet?
For the moment, I don't want to talk about the music for Zeffirelli's Hamlet. However, together with Franco, we have decided on an archaic and naturalistic behavior.
At what point do you become involved in a film project?
I accept a new film project when I feel completely involved and responsible. I'll give you an example: After having seen The Mission the first time without music, I liked it and it moved me to such a point that I thought of not writing the music for it. Roland Joffé, Fernando Ghia and David Puttnam are my witnesses. But they later convinced me to write the sound track.
What are your forthcoming projects?
I don't want to talk of my next projects for fear of bringing on bad luck. It will probably be a beautiful surprise.
Harlan Kennedy wishes to acknowledge the help given him by General Music of Rome and Enrico De Melis.
COURTESY T.P. MOVIE NEWS.
THIS ARTICLE APPEARED IN THE FEBRUARY 1991 ISSUE OF FILM COMMENT.
©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved