MORRICONE LEAVES US WITH SCORES OF SCORES OF FILM SCORES AND MORE
by David James
Italian film composer Ennio Morricone, who died on July 6, was one of the few in the genre whose music went beyond being merely supportive. Only perhaps Henry Mancini and Lalo Schifrin produced such distinctive outputs and they lacked the adventurousness of Morricone, who combined a compelling lyricism with a panoply of different textures.
Mostly he used orchestral variations, but he also found ways of exploring the porous barrier between music as organised sound and life as random sounds. In the last scene of The Battle of Algiers, the dissolving of the shrieking mob into the pulsating drums, two parallel types of percussion, is a fine example of how Morricone was able to extend beyond the artifice of music, to point to the sonic pulse of the corporeal. To perhaps a greater extent than any other composer, his music has blood beating in its veins.
Morricone wrote over 400 scores for film, and over 100 classical pieces. The list of the great film scores is long: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, The Mission, Once Upon a Time in America, Nostromo. The parade of memorable pieces and songs is similarly impressive, such as the magisterial Gabriel’s Oboe from The Mission, Se Telefonando, Chi Mai or the off-balance Ballad of Sacco and Vanzetti, sung by Joan Baez.
It is Morricone’s melodic pieces that are the most enduring
Morricone began young, composing his first work at the age of six. He was influenced by jazz (he was a jazz trumpeter) and explored the use of improvisation in classical contexts.
He was a member of Gruppo di Improvvisazione Nuova Consonanza, an ensemble that worked on the experimental fringes in an effort to explore a “new consonance” based on avant-garde improvisation. This perhaps accounts for the looseness in his writing, which is never oppressed or limited by a sense of structure, although melodically it rarely arises to the formal elegance of someone like Mancini. That involvement with the Gruppo is certainly the reason for his aggressive use of “noise techniques” and “anti-musical” systems.
Many of Morricone’s sound effects on film have dated. Adventurous at the time, these orchestral devices have been overtaken in modern film music by the enormous palette offered by synthesisers and digital sampling. On a computer, composers now routinely produce for their effects sounds that do not exist in the natural world and that cannot be produced by musical instruments.
If Morricone made a great effort to get beyond the barriers of what instruments could do, modern composers do not have to make any effort at all: they can just manipulate it on a screen. The results tend to be homogenous – modern sound tracks rarely stand out – but the palate now is virtually unlimited.
It is Morricone’s melodic pieces that are the most enduring. The solo female voice in Jill’s arrival in Once Upon a Time in the West, for instance, possesses a soaring poignance that moves the film far beyond the mundane cowboy images. It is at once the sonic equivalent of the long, high camera shot and a glimpse into the troubled mind of the character (played by Claudia Cardinale).
Then there is this writer’s favourite, the uncommonly beautiful theme from Cinema Paradiso, played while the character watches scenes of famous stars kissing on screen. The song has been covered by many jazz musicians, such as guitarist Pat Metheny and local pianist Joe Chindamo, and for good reason. The melody combines an internal integrity in the use of melodic motifs with a meandering poise that has few equals in Western music.
Usually, composers achieve a rising and falling effect in an immediate way, with dynamics or the direction of the line. But Morricone in this piece does it through a subtle repetition that is far from repetitive, especially when he undermines the melody with jagged underlying rhythms, a musical simile of the graininess of the film images.
Film music is usually subordinate to the images and action; almost never is it in the foreground. At the same time sound effects and music in film have become ubiquitous, turning a lot of acting into something more like mime: characters staring off into the distance while the music does the job of communicating the relevant emotion.
Morricone was different; what he did was never subordinate. He was able to offer, with his music, a perspective from above, a sort of transcendence beyond mere plot and characters. It is an achievement unlikely to be repeated.
David James is a Melbourne writer and musician.