A Conversation with Mario Nascimbene by Ezio Reali and James Marshall
Originally published in Soundtrack Magazine No.24/1980/81
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor, Luc Van de Ven
The first thing your fans would like to know, Maestro, is why your film scores have become so seldom in recent years. Have you become disillusioned with film music, or are there no longer any movies you wish to score?
There are several reasons I’ve not scored many films in recent years. There was and still is a big crisis in both the Italian and English film industries which has resulted in not only fewer pictures, but less of a range of opportunities. Besides that, the style of film scores has changed. Too many amateurs and pseudo-composers are working today. Some are very effective with their electronic instruments, but others… Although there are exceptions, generally I value the film music of today as very poor and cheap.
Going back to your own beginnings, what first made you interested in music? Did you come from a musical family?
Yes, I was born into a very musical and artistic family, and I became interested in music at an early age. I’m of the opinion that the fundamental ability to compose is a gift given to only a special few people, and that I was one of those special few. As for composing for films… this is something I always wanted to do and when the opportunity came along in 1941 (L’AMORE CANTA), I was glad to accept it. Contrary to what you might think, conditions for scoring films during the war in Italy were not all that bad. Quite good, as I recall, good enough for me to learn all the techniques and problems. Then there were the film music classes under Enzo Masetti which were extremely helpful.
Your first ‘Silver Ribbons’ award was for ROME 11 O’CLOCK, a score noted for using a typewriter as the main instrument. What gave you that idea?
Well, the story involved the predicament of some unemployed women typists. So I thought the typewriter was in a sense the principal character of the picture, a sort of menacing personality lurking in the background. Or if you like, the key to the whole psychological situation. But to use just typewriter sounds as background noise would not have been very effective, so I examined ways of conferring on the machine the status of solo instrument. Eventually we had four music professors over from Santa Cecilia playing these “instruments” so really it was more than just a gimmick thing. To highlight the typewriter sounds I toned down the rest of the orchestration, and virtually the only other instruments involved were 5 saxophones, 2 pianos, 4 piccolos and 10 percussion instruments. The only pity was that the music track at the finish was rather underdubbed and this partially reduced the effectiveness.
Was there much opposition to the typewriter idea?
Yes. The writers, Cesare Zavattini in particular, wanted to use little sing-songs, the kind of thing you’d hear in women’s offices. Eventually, I offered a compromise and worked a few adaptations of popular songs into the score. But the director, Giuseppe De Santis, was fortunately in agreement with me and supported the typewriter idea quite enthusiastically.
People now think of you as a composer who mixes sounds and music in his scores. Was ROME 11 O’CLOCK the first occasion?
In one of my very early scores (GHOSTS OF THE SEA, 1948), I used the tick-tocking of a clock. Actually I used that several times. Later on there was a picture I used anvils and bicycle bells (STORY OF A CRIME, 1953) and a heart-beat sound for a film about a coronary casualty (THAT NIGHT, 1957). As a matter of fact, it was my idea to use the toll of a bell and the sound of a bugle at the start of A FAREWELL TO ARMS. My personal philosophy on film-scoring has now become a fairly oft-repeated motto: “No longer are we tied by the inflexible rules of composition and instrumentation laid down by tradition. Now we can exploit to the full those musical possibilities offered by films, both in actual composition and the scoring of the visuals.”
Coming to your great epic scores… THE VIKINGS and SOLOMON AND SHEBA were two spectacular movies that had splendidly recorded sound tracks. Therefore, many of your fans were a little disappointed at the poor recording quality and haphazard selections on the United Artists albums. Why were there no track titles on either album? And how come you are given as conductor on both albums while the screen credits name Franco Ferrara as conductor?
To begin with, I think the whole raison d’être of soundtrack LPs in the 50s was solely to publicise the films. If you like, the album was just another place to stick an advertising poster. So recording quality and good listening order came off second. Both those albums were done wholly without my consultation. Now, in later years I did have a say: the concept of including a verbal explanation of the musical effects in BARABBAS, for instance, was entirely my idea. Why were there no track titles on THE VIKINGS and SOLOMON AND SHEBA? The fact is that many titles were devised to identify the different tracks on those two albums, but I don’t know whether any were actually ever used. As for who conducted, it was for obscure commercial reasons that I was falsely credited as conductor on both discs. Franco Ferrara, of course, actually conducted the scores.
Other Italian film composers have said how much they admired Franco Ferrara. Do you like conducting your own scores or would you rather leave it to someone like Ferrara?
I must say I admired Franco Ferrara with all my heart. He was a great conductor on so many of my scores. With a collaborator like him, why should I ever want to conduct my own scores?
With regard to your most famous score, BARABBAS, some say that Ennio Morricone was your arranger on that film. Did he arrange all the music?
No, he didn’t work on the actual movie at all. I personally arranged my score for BARABBAS. Morricone did only the commercial version of the leitmotiv (heard on the record).
How different is it composing for American pictures compared with Italian?
That’s a question I can answer in very few words. In Hollywood the composer has two months to write the score… in Italy he gets two weeks!
An English magazine once reported that you were having your residence constructed in the shape of a piano.
That’s a foolish notion… and quite untrue. I’ve never lived in a house shaped like a piano!
There seem to be a lot of other rumors going round, too, about films you may have scored or nearly scored, EL CID being the most widely known example. For instance, the Italian encyclopaedia Filmlexicon gives SPARTACUS as one of your scores and even describes your music in the text. Then, the American Film Institute Catalog lists you as composer for JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS with Bernard Herrmann conducting your music! Also, the Japanese journal Screen gives you as composer for IL DECAMERONE NERO, otherwise credited to Luciano Michelini. Can you throw any light on any of this?
I’d like to say straight away that I was never fired from EL CID. The truth is that it was I who broke the agreement because I couldn’t agree with the producer, Samuel Bronston, about the conception of the score. This doesn’t mean to say that Rozsa wrote a bad score – far from it: my three favorite film composers are Rozsa, Alfred Newman and Herrmann… in that order. SPARTACUS, however, was a different situation. Some time after I scored THE VIKINGS, Kirk Douglas called me up and asked me to do SPARTACUS. I would certainly have liked to, but at that time I was very busy in Madrid with SOLOMON AND SHEBA, so I had to turn him down. I was never involved in any way with JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS… in fact I never heard of the film. And I was never involved with IL DECAMERONE NERO either.
There’s also a little confusion about your exact age. You once wrote to an English fan you were born in 1916, but most reference books seem to give 1913. Would you like to put the record straight once and for all?
Certainly, I was born in Milan on November 28, 1913. If I did take a few years off my age at some time, it was purely accidental…
The battle scenes in DOCTOR FAUSTUS used the tracks from SOLOMON AND SHEBA. Did you run out of time on that one?
Not at all. Richard Burton, who directed DOCTOR FAUSTUS, specifically asked for the SOLOMON AND SHEBA music to be used. He seemed to fairly like my music and my approach to film scoring. Years previously I’d done ALEXANDER THE GREAT starring him.
Why did you suddenly become Roberto Rossellini’s first choice composer in place of his brother?
I feel that a long association with a director (in my case with Zurlini, or De Santis is very helpful to both the director and the composer and in time produces optimum results. In 1967 I became Roberto Rossellini’s exclusive composer too, mainly because he very much liked the way I set about scoring his movies and television works. Our collaboration lasted eight years, right up to THE MESSIAH in 1975. He did a few things for television after that (LA CAPPELLA SISTINA, LE CENTRE GEORGES POMPIDOU, LE CENTRE BEAUBORG) before he died, but I wasn’t called in to compose any music. I’ve no idea whether my music was used in those last three programmes, but if it was then it was taken from stock. Nothing was specifically commissioned from me.
You did score an Egyptian movie that Rossellini sponsored, THE NIGHT OF COUNTING THE YEARS. Why did that score seem to be entirely tonalities?
I scored that film using only the ‘mixerama’ – the machine I used for the first time in BARABBAS to create the musical effects. The ‘mixerama’ was a machine I helped to invent, in collaboration with my team of technicians, mainly for the purpose of creating the suoni nuovi (or ‘new sounds’) I was looking for. To fulfil my new musical ideas I needed more than just the conventional instruments of the orchestra. The ‘mixerama’ is a highly original and useful machine that engineers special musical effects through multiple-track synchronization of musical sounds stored on tape. Both orchestral and single instrument sounds are recorded on to twelve sets of magnetic tape and then using the most modern audio techniques, one can manipulate, blend or splinter the sounds into the desired effect. THE NIGHT OF COUNTING THE YEARS had an intense, evocative atmosphere that justified extensive use of the ‘mixerama’. I think I also used the invention rather well in ACTS OF THE APOSTLES.
We noticed you playing a music professor (named Ferrara!) in STORY OF A WOMAN. How did that come about?
The truth is I have a penchant towards acting. I’ve always liked very much to act and I’ve played small parts in other films too. Last year, as you know, I appeared in that television commercial for FERRARELLE SPARKLING WATER. But people are mistaken if they think I wrote the tunes for that commercial… I was only the star!
Are there any other Italian film composers you particularly admire or are friendly with?
There are three colleagues I hold in particular esteem: Ennio Morricone, Egisto Macchi and Piero Piccioni.
Who do you think the greatest composers of all time were?
In my opinion, Mozart and Bach.
One of your fans has a rare non-commercial album you did, QUANDO L’UOMO SCOMPARE. What was that and when did you do it?
QUANDO L’UOMO SCOMPARE was a series of Italian television documentaries I did in 1970.
Which in your opinion was your best score?
It’s difficult to pick favorites out of so many, but I think the three scores I’m most proud of are A FAREWELL TO ARMS, BARABAS and THE ACTS OF THE APOSTLES.
How many scores have you composed altogether?
Including all the documentaries and TV-scores… 302!
This interview took place on June 11, 1980