El dorado at the edge of the world. Ennio Morricone | Panorama
From the age of silent cinema to the present: classical masterpieces, remakes, the rise of certain genres, our column “Panorama” takes a ride through history and sets its sights on films that were not given enough attention at the time of their release, or, conversely, on discussions that were never brought to light.
Finding writings about Ennio Morricone, who is probably the most important name in film music composition, was harder than I expected. Apart from Stanley Kubrick – who is a bona fide music lover so God knows how they missed each other –, almost every old-new school, eccentric author stepped into his studio in Rome. He won the Oscar at almost 90 years old, although he composed music for more than 400 films. This essay is accompanied by Giuseppe Tornatore’s documentary, Ennio, which is now in cinemas.
a warm foreword
For a few days now, I’ve been listening with such delight, like a kid who has just stolen a candy bar from the Christmas tree, to a piece of music, sometimes dark, sometimes gentle, as if its gloomy wings were shrouded in a cloak of light. I croon it to my son or even find myself hearing it, coming from somewhere in the back of my head. I’ve recently watched Dario Argento’s Animal Trilogy: L’uccello dalle piume di cristallo/ The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970), which is also the director’s debut film, Il gatto a nove code / The Cat o’ Nine Tails (1971), and 4 mosche di velutto grigio / Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971).
The films are so similar in their idiosyncratic craziness, messiness, cacophony of editing and stylistics, especially when it comes to sound, that it’s no wonder many have said they seem one and the same. I slowly started to forget the films, but the soundtrack – oh so superb, repetitive and evocative, with all the instruments, everything all at once – is there, still very fresh, vibrant, haunting. I couldn’t stop thinking, what is really there? Who’s there?
Tornatore’s documentary is packed with prominent figures, from Tornatore himself to Wong Kar Wai, Tarantino, and the Taviani brothers, all there to celebrate Ennio Morricone with a few words. I’m not a big fan of talking heads documentaries, and I should say that Ennio doesn’t try to be anything other than a reverent, eulogizing, exhaustive piece of chronological biography either, but I have to be honest, I don’t know if it bothers me too much. Like any posthumous document, it’s only a conversation opener or, at least, a necessary-evil asterisk. Morricone started as a trumpeter, like his father, he was modest, often showing excessive shyness, always behind maestro Goffredo Petrassi. He got into film scoring out of curiosity. I think he never turned down a project, he was either writing pop music or composing for the likes of Sergio Leone, Pasolini, Brian de Palma, and Carpenter.
In this rather austere world of composers, film scores were long considered low-brow, so, until Leone, Morricone took on a pseudonym, Dan Savio. Rumor has it A Fistful of Dollars fell into his hands after doing several obscure Westerns – and when he was about to close the deal, Morricone took a good look at Leone and recognized him, they had been schoolmates. Until his father’s death, Ennio avoided the trumpet, nor did he include trumpets in his compositions, because his father could no longer play well.
Morricone’s music is unpretentious, far from being formal. He rather leaves a meta-commentary inside the scene and traverses its meaning far and wide, sometimes getting to irony, other times to the hidden beauty of the piece. Cinema has had a very volatile relationship with music throughout its short sound history – so I can’t proceed any further without at least summarizing how it gradually came to that – to a certain auteurism in film music. What else would you call this lively, musical opening credits from Uccellacci e Uccellini (1966), for which Pasolini originally wanted to use a piece by Bach?
just a tiny detour through history
American cultural critic Gilbert Seldes, the first theorist of sound in film, saw it as impossible and unlikely to synchronize image with sound in any other way than artificially, given that the technology of the time for capturing sound was so immobile, thus condemning films to remain static. Although Seldes acknowledged the artistic qualities of sound, he could not foresee the merger of the two. A basic issue of music as background during this period was that music needed to be marked as belonging to a separate realm from the action, so the status of its mood as a kind of commentary would be apparent. The music, Arnheim says, could not be indifferent to the action, but it also had to be sufficiently distinct that it avoided projecting individual elements of synchronism – as when we hear, for instance, the marching music necessary when a troop of soldiers and a military band march through the picture. The accompaniment here assumes the character of a sound that reverberates from within the scene, and it tended to do this during the silent film era as well. Decades later, film music hasn’t undergone many mutations – thus, Aaron Copland identifies a certain lingua franca of music scoring that several film theorists have collected over time – 1. it has a ubiquitous, semi-universal, interchangeable character (a 13th-century Gothic drama and a modern battle of the sexes sounded the same to composers); 2. helps the viewer to read the characters’ minds, to discern their emotions, similarly to the traditional theater music; 3. leitmotif – applied mechanically, like a patch, makes the music seem like a patchwork, and if there is no stylistic unity or it’s overdone, it becomes tiresome; 4. mickey-mousing – it can easily become manipulative, if, say, the actor can’t even raise an eyebrow without the music augmenting their gesture; 5. invisibility – if the audience is aware of the music, it completely loses its purpose, i.e. to provide a neutral, soft background filler. In general, film music struggles between two extremes – it’s either neutral, mimetic, as if it’s not even there, or as Claudia Gorbman called it in 1987, “unheard”, or it comes as a counterpoint, sometimes jarring, sometimes softer. These are just some of its features – and they all show a rather illustrative nature of the music. Morricone skips all of the above, reinvents them: his music is neither demiurgic nor ubiquitous, it’s at most on par with the characters. Even his more touching scores are light, floating, like in Cinema Paradiso. Last but not least, his music is very much in-your-face, and that’s because it’s aware of itself.
In the Dollars Trilogy – A Fistful of Dollars (1964), For a Few Dollars More (1965), and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966), Morricone makes extensive use of the musique concrète technique – a 20th-century composition that features non-musical, natural sounds (the chirping of a bird, the sound of water, an animal moaning), as well as mechanical sounds (a train entering the station, a door creaking) – I used examples that can only be found in these films, so diegetic sounds, to which Morricone gave a certain musicality. The prologue of Once Upon a Time in the West is accompanied exclusively by such a soundtrack – it’s the Wild West, a bunch of characters are waiting for a massacre at the train station. Several things can be heard, one louder than the other: a swarming fly, water dripping incessantly right on the hat of a character, a metallic screeching sound, which is synonymous with the sound of emptiness; out of the blue, along with the train, a harmonica is heard, played by the very man waiting at the station. It’s a meticulous, dissonant, and even playful composition. The same technique is behind that “wah wah wah”, resembling the howling of a coyote, in the main theme of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. The song starts slow but gets fast-paced and absurd, like an el dorado at the edge of the world. Morricone adds a plethora of instruments – from the human voice to bells, cans and typewriters. Another technique used is exactly the patchwork I mentioned earlier – in Once Upon a Time in the West, the theme music for Claudia Cardinale’s character is gentle and harmonious, a counterpoint to the heavy metal that starts playing when the men appear in the frame. All the main themes in the Leone-Morricone Westerns are quite masculine (albeit slightly melodious, as they also feature the pan flute), literal embodiments of galloping on horses, whistling, and so on. Despite the strange fact that until then there had been no such thing in Westerns, not even in cinema per se, this music is extremely lively and playful, paradoxical in the very paradoxes of the worlds it represents. Cut to, let’s take the main theme of The Hateful Eight (dir. Quentin Tarantino, 2015), with which Morricone tried to avenge his previous Westerns: what did he actually do? He took Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms and turned it into a real inn-refugee huis-clos opera – far from the musique concrète of those years or the instruments used in the past – here the choir and orchestra take center stage.
Il gatto a nove code: “THE PICTURE THAT OUT-PSYCHOED PSYCHO!”
That’s pretty much what the poster for Dario Argento’s second film advertises (at the bottom of it, it also says that it’s nine times more suspenseful than Psycho!) – I’ve gone nuts trying to find who wrote this marvelous bombastic outline that sums up with hyperbolic accuracy a downright crazy film. I finally came to the conclusion that it couldn’t have been anyone else but Argento himself. Anyway, the observation gets more meta than this: Argento is a big Hitchcock fan, and the Animal Trilogy is, by all accounts, an homage to Psycho, which extends beyond the thematic universe. Morricone brings Bernard Herrmann, Hitchcock’s composer, in several key moments in the film, especially in the stalking scenes. Where Argento doesn’t really get the suspense right, because he’s more of a stylist interested in chaotic angles (for example, he shoots some electrical wires from a subjective angle), Morricone steps in. The music of these movies frozen in the history of cinema is a masterpiece and quite different from what Morricone has done throughout his career in film scoring, but it’s the very heart of his avant-garde musical group Gruppo di Improvvisazione Nuova Consonanza: percussion, guitars, dissonant voices, piano, howls, erotic-masochistic moans (the key sound of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage‘s score), polyphony, saxophone, theme overlapping, rock’n’roll, this eclectic and experimental mixture would later come to define the entire giallo genre (Goblin, Argento’s later collaborator, would later take giallo into an electronic, synthetic area), and Morricone would often collaborate with both Lucio Fulci and Mario Bava, other authors of the genre.
There is one point that the documentary doesn’t articulate very clearly, and which prompted writing this essay – Morricone’s auteur status and what constitutes the collaboration between a director and a composer. In Morricone’s case, which is a rare one, he changed his way of working depending on the author in front of him. Unlike other composers who stick with certain authors at some point (Fellini with Rota, Hitchcock with Herrmann, Lynch with Badalamenti), Morricone was a free bird; judging by the films he scored, it’s an absolute mystery what his tastes actually were. It’s also amazing to think that, although he spent a good part of his life writing music for Westerns, he was never too thrilled about it.
James Buhler, Theories of the Soundtrack, Oxford University Press, 2019
Daniel Goldmark/Lawrence Kramer/Richard Leppert, Beyond the Soundtrack: Representing Music in Cinema, University of California Press, 2007