Ennio Morricone: The Apologetics of Film Music

A conversation with Ennio Morricone by Gianni Bergamino and Giuseppe Fenzi
Originally published in Soundtrack Magazine Vol.9/Nos.34/1990
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor, Luc Van de Ven

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In December 1988, Teatro Regio of Turin had, as its guest conductor, Ennio Morricone, who directed the symphonic orchestra and chorus in a brief concert of 35 minutes. The concert, titled “Accordamento” (Tuning the Orchestra), had been organized by a private society and therefore was presented for a very selected audience. The opening music was, at first, initially amorphous and abstract, increasing with a magical, vital momentum and finally becoming more and more substantial as the players became more colorful and lively. After this unusual beginning, a suite followed, consisting of excerpts from A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS (Titles), THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY (The Ecstasy of Gold), THE MISSION (Gabriel’s Oboe and In Heaven As It Is On Earth) and others.

With some patience and luck, we were able to contact the composer on his way back from rehearsal. He was very kind, as usual, and invited us to his hotel. There we conducted the following interview, in which he expressed his professionalism, his culture and his musical and artistic modesty. We also noticed that he was more willing to discuss musical theories, having in mind a clear idea of his own I musical position, rather than considering his own particular compositions.

There are two prejudices concerning film music. According to the first, a film composer is limited by specific demands and, particularly, by film producers. Do you agree?
No, I don’t, since this has happened with music throughout history. There is always a customer who commissions a score. For example, it happened to a court musician such as Haydn. When the prince asked him for a particular music, the composer did his best to make it. There has always been a certain kind of commission, within certain limits, of course. All music, actually, is influenced by history. It is the mirror of history, of life, of politics. It is true for film music as well. The result is conditioned, to a certain extent, by the customers needs, but It Is always the result of history; that is, the birth of a composition is always influenced by the experiences of the historical moment.
When painters frescoed churches, like the Cappelle Sistina, they could not paint a curly-haired Christ, so to say. There were some specific needs to be respected. But, notwithstanding, great masterpieces were created. This reasoning may lead a musician to keep one’s distance from the world of film music, but that is not the only reason. First of all, there are amateurs who have made the orchestration, but they didn’t write the music. Some even whistle it – for example, Fred Bongusto, Lucio Dalla… they have written for the cinema as well, they can do everything as far as concerns their job, but they are not able to deal with film music properly. It is not them who writes the music, and that is the real trouble with some kind of compositions.

Is it then the composer who makes the customers influence more or less effective; more or less meaningful?
On one hand, there are some people totally deprived of musical culture who have never studied; they are musical illiterates. On the other hand, there are those who know music well and are able to find a logical compromise, allowing for the customer and for the composers aesthetics at the same time.

Mario Nascimbene, during a recent radio interview, accused, as you do, those who compose without any consistent musical background, but recognized that it is just because of the customer’s “coercion” that film music is considered as a second-rate cultural expression.
He was expressing his own ideas, of course. As far as I am concerned, I don’t agree on what he said about the conditioning one must undergo, since every composer, either of the past or of the present, has always had and still had some sort of conditioning. Bach’s ‘Cantatas’, for example, were to be executed in a church during the following Sunday’s Mass. The music was written to be used and enjoyed. Nowadays, too, if music can’t be used and enjoyed, it is useless. The fact that music was born for a specific purpose seems quite right to me. I think Fred Bongusto will have to accept much more conditioning than me, because he doesn’t possess the technique to react to it and to take his distance from it. You need technique to overcome what you call “coercion”; technique implying study, suffering and toll. If you write a little theme or a song and give it to someone else who will orchestrate it, doing most of the job, well, I don’t think It is ever worth considering.

The second widespread prejudice is that film musk simply moves in the track furrowed by classical music…
That is party true and I can understand why. Quite often, a film composer must accept a musical language which is not up to date. The result depends on the composers particular temperament, and on how the composer is able to assimilate himself in the passage – interpreting a classical technique and language in his own particular style. For example, of the many ways one can express oneself in music, I may chose to use a dodecaphonic and serial technique (12-tone method of composition) and apply it to catchy, tonal music. In this way I bear the customer’s burden and his Imposition but I have been able to create something which is in unison with the technical needs of modern music and its exigencies of language and composition.

So you are saying that prejudices against film music can only be overcome by the composer’s personality?
It always depends on the Individual. You can’t generalize.

It seems that a lot of these prejudices are characteristic of Italian film critics.
Criticism about film scores doesn’t really exist. Serious musical criticism, that which deals with classical music concerts, for example, is not interested in our kind of music.

There are a few critics who write about film music. I’d like to mention Roberto Pugliese, who has written with authority for ‘Discoteca Alta FedeIta’ magazine, and now writes for Segnocinema. Pugliese does not belong to the critical world which prejudices itself against film music.
Well, if you had mentioned Ermando Comuzio, I would have told you to exclude him, because even if he writes about film music, he isn’t very accurate! Maybe Pugliese is different, but I don’t know him. We need historians of film music. I don’t think there are any, at the moment.

The other critics, the “serious” ones, make use of prejudices as an excuse not to take our subject matter into account.
You are quite right.

What about the general lack of Information regarding film music, among moviegoers?
Actually, people are little concerned with the musical element if they are watching a film, except when music is well-mixed, or when it is particularly emphasized, as in Sergio Leone’s films, for example, and a few others, where the music is really listened to. Many times, even if the music is really good, it is unfortunately left in the background, so the audience won’t notice it.

What about soundtrack records? Big companies only import successful film music for the Italian shops, while small labels, such as Rome’s Intermezzo, work for foreign markets only.
No, they only work for collectors. For example, they press 500 copies, which are sold in advance. It isn’t a real record company; it exists to meet a demand among collectors. But one can understand why record companies don’t take any risks, because releasing a record costs a lot.

1417booklet.inddWe admired your work for Roman Polansky’s FRANTIC, in particularly the scene on the rooftops where your music, with that roguish Parisian waltz contrasts sharply with the dramatic, almost tragic situation the character is in. How did you get the idea of using this almost psychological contrast?
The psychological contrast is only in that one scene, the rest of the music is not in direct opposition to the scene; and even in that one, the waltz is heard fragmentarily. It isn’t continuous. It appears from time to time, like an ironic smile; that strange accordion on the roofs.

Which makes the scene more moving, since it emphasizes the character’s tragic situation.
Yes, the protagonist’s situation is hopeless, but we tried to lighten the drama.

Was that the director’s particular request?
No, I had the idea. I told him and he accepted it.

How do you judge your first experience with such a clever and tormented director as Polanski?
It was a very good experience, and I did not find him tormented. He asked me nothing in particular. I made suggestions which he accepted. The music, as I said, is scarce. I think the music might have been more elaborate. Anyway, when the music is present and we listen to it carefully, it really conveys a sense of anguish.

In SECRET OF THE SAHARA, even with a plot like the Indiana Jones films, your music avoids every reference to John Williams’ music.
Since I haven’t seen those films, I could help avoiding any reference, but I would have avoided it even had I known them.

Were you asked for any special kind of music when scoring this TV movie?
No, I wasn’t. Directors usually trust me, and they don’t express particular demand. I suggest ideas which are accepted or not; I always need the directors consent.

Do you always orchestrate your own scores?
Yes. If somebody doesn’t orchestrate his scores, it means either that he is a lazy man, or that he does not know anything about it! The one who has his score orchestrated is not the real composer of the music; the real composer is the one who orchestrates. The great musicians of the past did not have anyone to orchestrate their music. I can’t understand why, nowadays, musicians need that. I think it is immoral!

In John Carpenter’s THE THING, there are some musical pieces which don’t seem to be yours, and which don’t appear on the record, either. They remind us of Carpenter’s type of electronic music.
Those pieces are all mine. With Carpenter, I had only a few contacts, so I agreed on making different kinds of music for him. After the recording, he would choose those pieces that best suited his concept of the film score. Actually, the synthesizer pieces are quite different from his music; the only likeness is the use of the synthesizer, which I had to use because I didn’t have a previous association with him. I had to take into account what he had already done before.

Your collaboration with Dario Argento ceased abruptly after three films.
Well, not really abruptly.

I said that because Dario Argento switched to a more commercial kind of music, which is certainly less adequate. What do you think about Argento’s subsequent soundtracks?
I have never heard them. I haven’t seen his other films, either.

What’s your opinion on the prevalence of electronic music in film scores?
First of all, there is a difference between what you are speaking of and real electronic music. I define electronic music as one which exploits the combined possibilities of sound waves, amalgamated into various combinations, to produce music. Real electronic music doesn’t make use of the classical scale, which has been the foundation of musical compositions for centuries. When synthesizers imitate a traditional instrumental sound, that’s not electronic music.

What do you think of the present popularity of synthesizers?
I think it is necessary to save money, since an orchestra costs much more.

Does it also save time?
I wouldn’t say that. It depends on the person who uses the synthesizer; sometimes it helps save time. But certainly it is possible to save a lot of money. In Rome, for Instance, a recording costs 200,000 lira (about U.S. $150) an hour for each musician. The money is not for him only, of course – a great part of it is spent on taxes. A decent string orchestra, say with 30 or 40 musicians, for one 3-hour shift, might cost $8,000,000 lira (about $5,950). That’s for about six minutes of music eventually recorded. Therefore, just imagine how high the costs are!

Translated from Italian by Mario Zargani

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