Riz Ortolani on Christopher Columbus

An interview with Riz Ortolani by Marco Werba
Originally published in CinemaScore #15, 1986/1987
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor and publisher Randall D. Larson

Riz Ortolani

Born in Pesaro, Italy, in 1931, Riziero Ortolani was the last of six children. His father had a great love of music which he wished to pass on to his children by enrolling them all in the Rossini Conservatoire in Pesaro.
Riziero developed his own passion for conducting, at the same time studying composition and instrumentation. Ortolani is still proud of his transcriptions for band of all nine of Beethoven’s symphonies, and he feels that his youthful experience helped enormously to develop his personal style. Ortolani graduated from the Conservatory when he was only 19 years old, after which he went off to Rome to work as a pianist in a youth complex, eventually being hired as a flautist in an Italian Broadcasting Company orchestra. He was quickly put to work conducting the jazz Symphony Orchestra for a new weekly program called MAGIC EYE, which brought him immediate popularity.
In 1962 Ortolani began his film music career when he collaborated with Nino Oliviero to provide the “easy-listening” pop score to MONDO CANE, which brought him fame and fortune, as well as an Oscar nomination. His motion picture activity was intense thereafter. Though Ortolani’s music remains characterized by light pop jazz music, as in his scores for THE YELLOW ROLLS ROYCE, THE BLISS OF MRS. BLOSSOM, BUONA SERA MRS. CAMPBELL and others which have become popularized on record, his work is far more versatile than this.
Ortolani’s credits include the vigorously dramatic music for Damiani Damiani’s THE OCTOPUS; the classically inspirational music for Zeffirelli’s BROTHER SUN SISTER MOON (the American version featured a different score, adapted from Ortolani’s themes, by Ken Thorne); loud, brash music for crime films like THE VALACHI PAPERS; the dynamic themes for fifteen Italian Westerns including THE GLORY GUYS, DAY OF ANGER and A REASON TO LIFE A REASON TO DIE; and, most recently, the strong symphonic music for the Italian-made TV mini-series, CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS, the success of which may increase Ortolani’s work on American and British projects.
Ortolani is married to the popular Italian singer Katyna Ranieri, who often collaborates with him and takes part in many of his concerts.

There seems a certain similarity of style between BROTHER SUN SISTER MOON and CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS. Your style is therefore related to melodies. Such melodies do not relate to these historical periods, but instead help emphasize the character’s emotions rather than their backgrounds. Do you believe that the melody is the most important element in film scoring?
CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS was a difficult and engaging work. It was useless to research 15th Century period music because I wanted something personal not strictly connected to a particular time. I don’t think there is a similarity between BROTHER SUN SISTER MOON and CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS. I scored the Zeffirelli film with great dedication and love, but it was different since I used the chorus from the “Cappella Sistina” and the orchestration is distinctive. Instead, CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS is Epic: he is a man who crossed the ocean to discover a new Continent. Of course, musically, I probably didn’t say anything new, but I absolutely had to create spectacular excitement.
Not all the composers know how to do a good theme and just feel it. To find the right theme you have to build a melody. You think and think again, then try to write something that works, not just an accidental melody. You start on the piano and, slowly, you begin to build, polish, imagining the effect together with the image. Of course, each one of us has his own personality and approach. If my melodies are more penetrating it is probably because I love Cinema. I am really attracted by it, so it’s natural that I throw myself with enthusiasm into my work.

In CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS, was the decision to compose a lyrical and symphonic song taken by you or by director Lattuada?
It’s not really a song. It’s an idea that helped me find music for the character of Columbus, since no one else ever related him to music. Fortunately I had the good chance to work side by side with Placido Domingo, a good friend of mine. It was wonderful working together. When I first did the score for the TV series I never thought about using a vocal. After I recorded the score I started thinking of some way to help the character of Columbus and I immediately call Placido Domingo. We met in New York; he liked the theme and accepted to record the title song. Lattuada and the producer had nothing to do with it!

Placido Domingo brilliantly performed the title song and the theme is carried in various instrumental versions. Do you have in mind to work together on future projects?
Yes. We started to work on a record project about Italian songs, but with all his engagements he could only prepare six songs. I recently talked to him and we planned to do a concert with the music I did for CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS at the Metropolitan in New York for the benefit night in honor of the Statue of Liberty. But Domingo then had to go to London and the orchestra later was no longer available.

‘Fire on the Ship’ and ‘Pinzon’s Dead’ are both two dramatic compositions reminiscent of Miklos Rozsa’s 1940-50s style. Do you consider yourself a part of that musical school, or of the contemporary way of writing, with electronics and rock music?
I admire Miklos Rozsa, but not only him. All the American composers have taught us all about film scoring: Victor Young and Dimitri Tiomkin are composers that gave to film music a style, even if they were influenced by the classical music of Bartok, Hindemith, Stravinsky. I always admire American film music and composers.
For what concerns ‘Fire on the Ship’, it’s something different because it is downright dodecaphonic and dissonant. ‘Pinzon’s Dead’ is based on an ostinato performed by violas, so both are not related to the 40’s because this kind of music has no relation to a particular historical period. If we listen to most of the American tv soundtracks we can get a hazy notion that they are not related to a specific time. Of course, there are some series in which you have to respect some historical elements – you can’t write a rock piece for Columbus! You have to do music that works with the image and one the audience can relate to.
You can’t play the intellectual. To create your personal music, you do a record by yourself. For a movie, you have to respect the director’s requirements. So if I have to score Christopher Columbus discovering a new land, or disembarking from Spain, I can’t do it with dissonant music, it would hurt the scene. It’s certainly better to do epic and open music with spacious chords that shows the greatness of his discovery. If I underscore it with dissonances I immediately eliminate the feeling of sun, moon, earth and nature. The dissonances must be used when the natives are coming or when there is a battle, to make the scene stronger.

You did the composition, orchestration and conducting of the COLUMBUS score. Do you feel that this work is very personal or even superior to previous compositions?
I insist on doing my own orchestration. I think that every composer must orchestrate his own work; it represents the personality of the composer. There are a lot of composers who assign the orchestration to other people and I don’t understand why. Perhaps they are not equipped to do it!
I really believe orchestration and also conducting are both personal. I always conduct all my music because another director cannot feel it the way I do. When I conduct the orchestra I already know what I want for the entire score. Orchestration is so spontaneous! When I start composing I already imagine the different instrumental colors. I never had to correct something that wasn’t working in the recording studio with the orchestra, never! This is true for my first movie and all the two hundred-odd movies that followed. Every time the effect I wanted had been previously prepared. In the States they are accustomed to orchestrators, so it’s easier to work that way.

How long did you work on the score for CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS?
For the composition itself, I spent a lot of time preparing playbacks for the conqueror’s march, Columbus’ arrival, meeting the natives, sailors at sea. With a few interruptions, I spent almost a year on the music. First, I viewed a videotape of the series and I started thinking about the themes. The first viewing was of little help in deciding that. When everything is over, it looks easy, but at the beginning you don’t know where to start. I believe I created the right music and I would never change it! I think I wrote the best that was in me to help the images.
For the recording session, I spent ten days conducting all the music at the RCA Studios with a big orchestra of 70 or 80 musicians.

Riz Ortolani

Analyzing the thematic material you wrote, I discovered that the theme itself is really a simple one built around perfect fourth and fifth intervals. Do you think that simple themes are the best way to condense the various significances of a movie?
The “simple” theme of fourth and fifth intervals, I must admit, was not so simple to compose. Only after much thought and reflection did the Columbus theme emerge. I didn’t sing it or whistle it like some composers do; it was all a “built” work. Finally I got the theme, with these open and large intervals, in a symphonic frame to express the idea of an open and large land seen through the eyes of a great conqueror and seaman. I felt it vital to give this feeling, this idea of greatness every time Columbus demonstrated his courage and ambition. The theme has an even more heroic part within it. While the horns and violins attack the theme, the trumpets and playing a sort of “appoggiatura” dissonant/consonant (B and C) over a C major chord. Listening to the music, you don’t perceive the dissonance, but it’s there.

You were known in the States during the 60s for the success of the song ‘More’, from the movie MONDO CANE. Are you still recognized for this score?
The song ‘More’ is still today performed by various international artists, and my name is well known in the States. When I was in a New York restaurant some months ago, a young woman approached me, asking if I was Ortolani and congratulating me for all my American soundtracks! It again confirmed my recognition not only in the cinema industry but also among ordinary people, and this, of course, makes me happy. Obviously the merit is for ‘More’. This song was present when President Nixon’s daughter got married, when some people divorced, some others spent beautiful nights and others made love. For a while it was almost an American hymn!

Considering your working relationship with Italian director Pupi Avati and your recent work with Benny Goodman, you must have a deep interest in jazz of the 1940s. Do you prefer to write one kind of music over another? How does the director’s wishes affect what you want to write?
My professional relationship with Pupi Avati is really important to me, and it’s been a long and friendly collaboration. To understand the kind of music he wants I simply step into his shoes and become him. My task is to be able to do any kind of music. The challenge is to be prepared to compose everything from jazz to rock.
If director Damiani needs a certain style because he does investigative movies, I have to follow his way of narrating and transfer it to music. Naturally, the musical approach is personal but always respectful of what the director wants. The theme for Damiani’s THE OCTOPUS was written for an ostinato of strings with a soprano sax that played the melody. If you analyze it you’ll see the theme is built over the ostinato in changing tonality, so it is very complex. It looks easy while you’re listening, but it was not!
As for my work with Benny Goodman, for PHANTOM OF LOVE, it was a great experience. He was a big performer and I had the pleasure of working side-by-side with him. Even more satisfying was that it was the first time he performed for a soundtrack! We played the themes together in his New York apartment, Goodman on the clarinet and me on the piano. We recorded the music in Rome. After he warmed up for an hour on his instrument (something that studio musicians never do), he was ready, with humility, to perform everything I wrote and conducted. He was a great professionalist and I was proud to conduct him.
I love both classical and jazz music. When I write jazz I like to go for the most dissonant jazz possible. I spent some beautiful sessions with Stan Kenton playing the dissonant jazz he loves to include in his orchestra’s repertoire.

I have noticed a strange and mysterious music for Avati’s IMPIEGATI and a really scary score for ZEDER…
IMPIEGATI was a movie a little outside the style of Avati since it underlines the malicious small talk of a group of bank clerks. Since the whole film takes place in the enclosed space of a bank, there was no need for “open music,” and so the score sounds strange and mysterious. ZEDER is all a dissonance! I gave the strings eight different parts played contemporaneously which creates an eerie atmosphere alongside rock and electronic sounds. Most of the time string dissonances are stronger and more effective than trumpet dissonances.

Are Dino Risi and Pupi Avati equally important directors in delineating your personal style, film after film? At what point does a relationship with a director produce the best results, musically?
It’s very important to continue a relationship with a director because, to make him happy, you do your best. You have to understand his goals and help him to meet them. Sometimes directors prefer to change composers instead of pursuing an artistic collaboration. The ideal is to find a director with whom you work constantly, like Fellini/Rota.
To make a director happy is not easy. Even if he doesn’t have a musical background he has the music in his head and he knows what he wants. When he attends the first recording session, he’ll know at once if the music works or not, though he might not know why. In film scoring, friendship is primary but if a director feels the music does not work, he will not hesitate to throw it out.

What are your future projects?
I have a number of projects. I have scores to do for a CBS TV series, and also for Damiani, Pupi Avati and Tinto Brass. There is the possibility of a record to be released in the States, with American singers performing some of my works. As you know, the American market is open and shut at the same time; it’s difficult to get in, but when you succeed it’s easy to continue. I must say that, sometimes, I feel more American than Italian. I spend so much time in the States that, musically, I feel American!
Normally I don’t write music with a strong Italian accent. THE YELLOW ROLLS ROYCE has an Italian flavor for the Naples scenes in which I used the tarantella. But the tarantella was authentic, while the ones scored by most Americans are not! There were also some British marches in other scenes.
Without taking into consideration the difficulty and responsibility the composer encounters with the director, the producer and the orchestra, there is never the certainty that your music will work. Cinema is a machine, a gearing that must never stop, so you always have to create things that work. There is no place for experiments; it can be tried sometimes but not too often!

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