An Interview with Nicola Piovani by Claudio Fuiano
Originally published in Soundtrack Magazine Vol.5/No.19/1986
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor, Luc Van de Ven and Claudio Fuiano
This interview took place at the Forum Recording Studio in Rome, which is the place for recording film music. Nicola Piovani was recording the score for Fellini’s GINGER E FRED (1986) at the time, but he took time off to discuss his career, which spans 16 years and37 films.
Do you score people or situations in the movies you work on?
Film music must follow as closely as possible the story that unfolds, in order to capture the characters’ emotions and the narrative rhythm. In other words, it must track the people and the situations which are so often determined by the leading characters’ actions.
What caused your interest in film music? Did you score a film by design or by accident, or did it evolve from the music you wrote for stage plays?
I began my career by scoring documentaries. Silvano Agosti asked me to score one of his shorts. Bellocchio saw the documentary and liked my music so much that he asked me to provide the music for NEL NOME DEL PADRE. The rest you know. However, my decision to work for the cinema was a conscious decision, not a sheer accident.
In the filmography we published in SCQ/8, there are no TV movies. Do you avoid working for Television, or have you never been asked?
I scored a TV series for Gianfranco Mingozzi, IL TRENO PER ISTAMBUL. KAOS, which I did for the brothers Taviani, is actually a television film in 5 episodes which was first released as a feature film. And these are not by any means the only TV productions I have worked on. I will admit that I am not especially eager to compose music for a TV programme that you know will be watched by most people with other things on their mind: most of them will have the TV switched on while they eat, talk, switch channels all the time, or even fall asleep. TV programmes are not made to be watched constantly with rapt attention, they tend to serve as background to other domestic activities. It’s only natural that one prefers to work for the cinema, where a film has been adapted in order to be followed with concentration, and with a minimum of respect for one’s work.
In 1977 you scored your first Dutch/Algerian coproduction, SOLEIL DES HYÈNES. Since then you’ve gone on to score HET MEISJE MET HET RODE HAAR and DE SCHORPIOENFOR a Dutch film director. How come? Will you do any more pictures in that country?
Well, director Ridha Behi phoned me while he was shooting a French/Dutch/Algerian coproduction called ACH CHAMS WADHDHIBA. I read the screenplay and liked the story, and he offered me the assignment. It was an interesting film, we got along well, and the Dutch co-producers later got in touch with me again for HET MEISJE MET HET RODE HAAR and DE SCHORPIOEN, both by a talented director, Ben Verbong. I hope to work for him again.
Many collectors have been asking for a soundtrack album from DE SCHORPIOEN, but the music has never been recorded. Have you never had an impulse to go to a record company yourself and ask them to release a recording with your music?
Whether there will be a record or not is decided by music publishers and record producers who assess the potential market of a particular film.
You’ve scored many films for director Marco Bellocchio: NEL NOME DEL PADRE, SBATTI IL MOSTRO IN PRIMA PAGINA, MATTI DA SLEGARE, MARCIA TRIONFALE, IL GABBIANO, SALTO NEL VUOTO, VACANZE IN VAL TREBBIA, GLI OCCHI, LA BOCCA… What is it like, such an artistic collaboration with one of the best Italian directors?
Working with a great director is always a source of pride and satisfaction. When you are lucky enough to create a kind of ongoing relationship, the way we have been doing for more than ten years, you can improve the interplay between sound and image. I was especially pleased with the results when I did the soundtrack for SALTO NEL VUOTO.
You seem very partial to folklore and traditional popular music… It’s very apparent when you listen to scores like KAOS, FLAVIA, LA MONACA MUSULMANA or IL MARCHESE DEL GRILLO.
When you work on a film, you have to think of what it needs. For example, when farm hands begin dancing in Pirandello’s ‘Giara’, they cannot do it to the sound of 12-tone music; the music accompanying them must take these people’s linguistic roots into account. In a more general way, I’d say that the exact musical approach is an antidote for the increasing “Americanization” of consumer music. Most of the music we tend to hear all around us is cannibalized music, it is the musical language of poor relatives imitating the musical language of their rich relatives. Here I’m not strictly referring to Italian musical tradition, but to the great European tradition which is both cultural and popular.
I believe your best work is LA NOTTE DI SAN LORENZO (aka NIGHT OF THE SHOOTING STARS), which you made for the brothers Taviani. Later you did KAOS for them…
It was a great experience to work on that film with Paolo and Vittorio Taviani.
Mainly you write for a large orchestra or for a small ensemble, you don’t seem to go in for electronics instruments…
I seldom use electronics in my scores. The first time I used them was for SBATTI IL MOSTRO IN PRIMA PAGINA. I wrote the background rhythm for a synthesizer, which was supposed to imitate the sound a printing press makes when newspapers roll off. But in general I prefer working with an orchestra without taking recourse to superimpositions on the soundtrack, or without mixing them in later.
You have scored IL MINESTRONE for director Sergio Citti. But when the same director made SOGNI E BISOGNI for television, he gave the assignment to Francesco De Masi and Dimitri Nicolau…
I can only score one film at a time. When Sergio Citti asked me to score the TV series SOGNI E BISOGNI, I was working on GINGER E FRED. I think that one of the secrets of doing a good job is not to score too many movies.
Is there a chance that some of your unrecorded scores will be put on disc sometime in the future?
I hope so, but as I said, that is not for me to decide. It depends upon how record labels feel about it.
You have scored various film genres: thrillers (IL PROFUMO DELLA SIGNORA IN NERO), comedies (IL MINESTRONE), period films (IL MARCHESE DEL GRILLO), political films (MARCIA TRIONFALE)… What’s your favourite genre, or is there a kind of movie that you have not been offered yet?
I honestly don’t know. I have not scored any animated features yet, and I think I’d enjoy doing that very much.
What’s the story behind LA TRACE?
Bernard Favre is a very talented director – I believe he’s about to embark on a new film, by the way, with a very interesting subject. I enjoyed recording the score for LA TRACE with a French orchestra, although I am conservative by nature and tend to do all my recording sessions in Rome. I should point out that on the French record album there are some pieces for accordion, played by Marc Perrone, which have been taken directly from the print of the film. If you look at the record sleeve, you may gather that the music was a collaborative effort between Marc Perrone and myself, while in fact I never had the pleasure of meeting him!
Where do you get your musical ideas, and how do you work the out?
When you work for the cinema, you think more like a cinematographer than a musician, since through your music you can enhance the emotions expressed in the film. The better you understand a screenplay, the better you understand the job of a film editor, the better you understand the intentions of the director, the better your work will be, you see. The musical ideas you get, the “inspiration” so to speak, derives naturally from the rhythm of the movie. Don’t forget that a good score can help a film, but a bad score will hurt that picture irreparably, regardless of the fact that the film itself is good or bad.
When you score a film, does the director influence your decisions?
When a working relationship is good, “spotting” the picture, deciding where the music will be used and what kind of form it will take, is a natural process, it’s mutually stimulating. If the relationship between director and composer is bad, it’s better to give up.
Some of your scores have been conducted by Gianfranco Plenizio. Do you prefer to let other people conduct your music?
When I began scoring films, I worked with Gianfranco Plenizio, who is an extraordinary conductor. Later on in my cinematic career I felt the need to control all aspects of my music, from working with orchestrators and music editors to recording my music at the studio. Actually I’d like to leave so many of the problems that are involved in making a soundtrack to others, but I don’t want to take any risks in asking other people to do the orchestrations, to conduct the orchestra, to sit at the moviola, to mix the music with the film, to cut my music to the film, etc.
You scored IL TRENO PER ISTAMBUL for Gianfranco Mingozzi. What sensation did you want to convey musically?
I don’t really know how to answer that. Personally, I dislike travelling by train, because it is very tiring. But I have to take the train a lot, as I’m afraid of flying! I prefer taking the car. I recall that when I did IL TRENO PER ISTAMBUL, which is set aboard a speeding train, I had a lot of problems in mixing the music with the background noises – the clacking rails, etc.
What can you tell us about scoring GINGER E FRED?
Everyone knows how complex and how poetically determined Fellini’s film world is. I tried to score the movie from within, from the director’s viewpoint. We worked hard on that one.
How do you see film music and the cinema?
As a blessing. A film composer has the chance to work outside the area of “consumer” music and dead contemporary music that assaults the ear in the concert hall. Let’s hope to God that this blessing will continue to exist!