An Interview with Francesco De Masi by John Mansell © 2002
Born in 1930 in Naples, Italy, Francesco De Masi studied composition at San Pietro a Maiella in Naples under the guidance of Achille Longo, who was also his uncle. De Masi got interested in film music when Longo was asked to compose a soundtrack for a film, and he asked De Masi to be his assistant. Although Francesco De Masi is a gifted and highly original composer, and has scored in excess of 200 motion pictures, the composer has never really received the recognition that he deserves outside of Italy. He has placed his unmistakable musical signature upon these films and although his music for film is not as grandiose or nearly as operatic as that of fellow Italian composers Ennio Morricone and Bruno Nicolai, it has the ability to enhance, support and perfectly compliment the action on screen, without being overpowering or intrusive. De Masi died of cancer at the age of 75.
It was whilst still studying that you first became involved with film music?
I was still busy studying in Naples, when I became very attracted to the idea of writing music for the cinema. My teacher Achille Lango, who was also my uncle, was asked to compose the soundtrack for a film and asked me to go to Rome with him to act as his assistant. It was while I was assisting him on this project that I made up my mind to make a career out of writing for film. So I left Naples and moved to Rome and in 1951 I scored my first film; this was not a feature but a documentary which was entitled FIAT PANIS.
During the following seven years you worked on numerous documentaries.
I remember one series of films in particular. I went on location to Argentina for this and stayed there for about eight months or so with the crew and managed to collect documentation etc. on local music. This was very useful and assisted me a great deal when it came to composing the soundtrack. The film that I initially worked on for this series was entitled, DAGLI APPENNINI ALLE ANDE which was directed by Folco Quilici. They were all about Polynesia.
Like many composers in Italy during the ‘60s you were busy scoring westerns. You were responsible for many soundtracks for these spaghetti sagebrush sagas. One in particular earned you recognition outside of your native country. This was ARIZONA COLT which contained the theme song THE MAN FROM NOWHERE.
I composed the theme and also some of the score for ARIZONA COLT with Alessandro Alessandroni. This was the first time that I had collaborated with him and thankfully this collaboration continued on other film scores and developed into a great friendship. Working with a musician such as Alessandro is always interesting and most certainly always stimulating.
How much time did you get to score westerns that were being produced at that time – taking ARIZONA COLT as an example?
I can only say not long enough time. It is always the same when scoring pictures. The directors want the score ready before you have started and that is the same for each genre, not just westerns. I think that I took three weeks to complete the music for ARIZONA COLT.
Record companies have recently been re-issuing a number of older soundtracks on compact disc. Do you think there is enough of your music available to collectors?
There have been many records released and also many that have been re-released but having written the music for 211 feature films and hundreds of documentaries, I am sure that not all of my works have been made available. There are a number of jazz scores that feature excellent soloists and there are some television scores that I think would also be of interest.
Many of your scores contain title songs. Was this something that you were keen to include or did you receive instructions from the director or producers of certain movies to have a song on the score?
I think that having a song on the soundtrack makes it easier for the music to be identified, especially the theme, and this is particularly true with westerns.
You have been involved with music for the cinema for half a century and have worked on many types of movies. Are you more at home working on one particular genre of film?
Let us say that I am allergic to stupid and vulgar films. I don’t really have preferences for any genre. On the contrary, I think it’s interesting to find, each time, the best solutions to any requirement arising from the different genres of film.
Your scores for the cinema are instantly recognizable. Do you orchestrate your own work all of the time or have you used orchestrators or arrangers at times?
I normally take care of the orchestration of my own scores. I am used to writing in a very big way, almost a complete score at first in rough version. Sometimes due to the lack of time I may use an orchestrator but he has to only do a final draft of all of my indications on the rough version.
During your time within the film industry you must have seen a lot of changes and many new composers appearing on the scene. What do you think of the new generation of film music composers working in Italy at this time?
Excluding very few cases of well prepared young composers, the line up of new composers that are working on films is a little distressing. Most of them lack a good technical knowledge and they are also lacking in the techniques of the actual scoring of motion pictures – these people are just improvising the job. They have little experience and have little or no imagination and lack the courage that is required to work on films. They seem to be reluctant to experiment or try something new.
As well as your film music you are very interested in classical music. You teach at the Santa Cecilia Conservatory in Rome and are also the permanent conductor of the Conservatory’s orchestra.
I have recently been doing a tour of the United States with the orchestra from the Santa Cecilia Conservatory. We also performed in Canada. I acted as musical director for opera and symphonic music. I also compose chamber and symphonic music for concert hall performance and have recorded some of this on EDI-PAN records, which is a label that was founded by the late Bruno Nicolai and is now operated by his family. Some of my classical compositions have also been released on the Pentaflowers label.
So have you been influenced by any composers in particular, in the way that you compose music?
I think that anyone who says that they have not been influenced by the music of others, is obviously not being truthful, or they are a genius. I have been influenced by many composers, from Palestrina to Stockhausen, everyone has stimulated me. I was always interested in the harmonic world of Ravel, in the theme construction of Shostakovich and also the counterpoint of Hindemith. These I would say are the main influences for my symphonic music. My jazz influences would, I think, be the likes of Stan Kenton and later by all his followers of the California school. I must admit though, that the encounter that I had with the great composer of film scores, Angelo Francesco Lavagnino was a crucial part of my musical education, and also a very important lesson in the actual technical aspects of scoring film. I studied with him at the Accademia Chigiana of Sienna and went on to be his assistant for a number of years. He taught me all of the necessary elements of the job, from the initial setting to the development, all with absolute accuracy. Which is in my opinion the only way to obtain good results.
And do you still write music for the cinema?
I do, but only if the film is good, or the conditions are correct. It has to be this way for me to be able to produce a score that is good for the production. By this I mean that I am not interested in working with inadequate means, such as keyboards, synthesizers, computers and so on, unless of course they are being used as part of a real orchestra.
What is your opinion of synthesizers?
I am of the opinion that music should come from within, and not produced by artificial means. So this is why I do not really like electronic devices. The sound that is created by a full orchestra is the best way to hear music. Likewise I never use a keyboard to put together my musical ideas; I prefer to imagine the music without any sound suggestion.
Have you ever written under a pseudonym for any film score and have you ever refused a project for any reason?
In unpleasant situations, I always refused to be compromised. For example the films that were typical of the 1970s based on striptease shows and various vulgar situations. I turned them down. Unfortunately due to publishing agreements I could not prevent some films being scored with my pre-existing music. In some cases I would insist that my name be changed to Frank Mason.
You said you have recently been touring America and Canada giving concerts of classical music. Have you ever considered giving concerts of your film music?
I have given some concerts in Italy where I have included in the programme some of my music from films but I have never given a concert that is just film music. I am aware that other composers have performed some of my compositions within a programme of a concert that they are giving. I think in Sorrento, a concert is held regularly, and my music for the cinema has been played at this.
Do you like to work in any particular order when scoring a film?
Firstly I think that it is very important for a composer to be involved with a film as early as possible. Better to have a script and work to this – it gives the composer an insight into what is happening and also enables him to work out where music might be required. This happens very rarely. Most of the movies that I have scored I have begun during the principal photography stage, or even when the film is finished in its rough cut stage. When I see a film for the first time its quite an emotional experience. It’s at this time that I receive most of my ideas and also suggestions from the film’s director or producer, that will later help me to realize the complete score. As to the order in which I score a project, I do try and write the main theme first, this assists me when writing the remainder of the soundtrack. I find that if I have the principal theme plus maybe a few other pieces that are for the film’s main characters, I can then proceed with the remainder of the score. I go ahead in chronological order, so that the score follows the development of the film.
You have also conducted a number of scores for other composers and a few years ago, directed the music for MAKING THE GRADE, which had music composed by Basil Poledouris. How did you got involved with that project?
The collaboration with Poledouris on this soundtrack came from the fact that the score was being recorded in Rome. Because of economics, it is much cheaper to record in Italy as opposed to having the score recorded in America. For some reason Basil was unable to conduct himself so the contractor, a good friend of mine called Donato Salone, asked me to conduct the orchestra. I have very nice recollections of working with Basil, and I consider him to be an excellent composer.