Maestro! Film Composers (and One Director) Speak About Ennio Morricone's Impact
(As told to John Wheeler, Scott Foundas, Randall Roberts and Erica Zora Wrightson)
Morricone is a freak of nature of sorts to begin with. One thing that makes him unique among film composers — be they European or American — is that he is one of the, if not the, most prolific film composer alive today. The enormity of his output — the amount of music that he has written — is almost incomprehensible. That unto itself is phenomenal because that immediately makes him superhuman amongst those who have to make music at the drop of a hat. Film composers are the most prolific music makers on this planet, and most of us are like losing our minds if we’re doing five or more movies in a year. But with him, if you look at his credits, there were years when he was doing 20, 25 movies, and so that always amazes me and all of us. Now, that’s a tough act to follow.
His contribution among American film composers is that he happened to create a language that could only have been made for someone working in Europe, but he did it in such a way that, unlike a lot of other scores that are written for European films, he communicated in a language we got immediately. When I say “we,” I mean American composers but also and more importantly the world at large here in America. I’ve heard he struggles with speaking English, yet you listen to his scores and you wouldn’t know that. I think his music always illuminates what’s going on dramatically in a manner that could have fooled most of us into believing that he understood exactly what was being said and going on.
Memorable tunesmith, you better believe it. This guy could knock off tunes like you or I could piss in a bucket. But he hates being considered a film composer. Rather, he’d like to think of himself as a concert composer first and foremost, who happens to have gotten himself sidetracked in this movie thing. So if you talk to him about his favorite work, I suspect the very last thing that would come out of his mouth would be The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, which, of course, to most Americans is the first thing that would come out of their mouths when they’re talking about the impact of his work. I’ve heard a lot of the work he did with this improvisational group of Italian composers and performers, a series of CDs that were put out in the ’60s and ’70s. Amazing stuff. But let’s face it, probability states that he’ll be remembered for his film music because there’s so many films that he’s scored. He’s done more than 300 movies, right? There aren’t many composers who have gotten to 300. Two hundred, yeah, but 300, forget about it. It’s going to be impossible in the year 2727 not to come across at least 100 of the movies he’s scored, even after most of the films from this last century have long since been forgotten.
A professor of film scoring at USC’s Thornton School of Music, Young has composed for such blockbuster films as The Grudge and Spider-Man 3 .
When I think of Morricone, more than his using a specific instrument or a specific sound, it’s his way of approaching music that sticks out. He would take nontraditional, nonorchestral sounds and combine them in a musical way and create new, sonic templates from found sounds, whether it’s the reverb of an amp or the ticking of a clock or human whistling. It was an entirely new approach.
He’s definitely influenced our whole business in maybe even more subtle, unconscious ways. The notion of sampling and recording and manipulating sounds, which so many composers do now, can be attributed to what he does. I think also his gift for simplicity, keeping things as simple as possible to have the maximum effect. And melody.
A lot of his music is classic and recognized not just by film-music fans but by the general public at large and I think one of the reasons it transcends the film barrier is the fact that he’s able to approach music in a new way and say something new. I think it’s already made its mark and it’s not something that will be forgotten.
An Academy Award nominee for his 3:10 to Yuma score, Marco Beltrami composed for this year’s Knowing and Kathryn Bigelow’s acclaimed The Hurt Locker.
My favorite composers when I was a kid were Morricone and Nino Rota, although I didn’t exactly know who they were then — films like Satyricon and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly had such outstanding soundtracks. It was the kind of music that was so powerful you could listen to it without a film running. It was compelling on its own, which isn’t always the sign of a good score. But they were able to win on two levels at once, by being able to make it both a good score and good stand-alone music.
[Last year I was at a party, and] my friend goes, “I’ve got a surprise for you.” It was this little old guy who was sitting there eating and wasn’t really talking to anybody, because he was Italian. “He is the man [Alessandro Alessandroni] who whistled on the Ennio Morricone albums. He is going to do a little concert.” He sat down and played acoustic guitar by himself and whistled some of his biggest hits, you know, like The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. It was just astounding.
A founding member of Devo and an acclaimed visual artist, Mark Mothersbaugh has scored dozens of films, video games and TV shows, including The Royal Tenenbaums, Rushmore, Pee-wee’s Playhouse, Rugrats, Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs and Nick & Norah’s Ultimate Playlist.
I was, like a lot of people, a huge fan of his work over the years, and I approached him a couple of times prior to Bugsy, but the scheduling didn’t work out. I thought he would be good, because Bugsy has a romantic aspect to it, but it’s kind of a dark, neurotic romance at best, and in his writing there is this kind of understanding of psychology and behavior, so it’s not just a pretty melody. It’s at times dark and edgy, which seemed to apply to what Bugsy should be. The music underlined Bugsy’s slightly psychotic nature, and I found that he really got that, so even in a scene that’s sort of romantic, it always has a real edge and a darkness about it. There’s a strained quality at the same time there’s a melodic nature.
On Disclosure, we were working in the world of computers, and he began to construct aspects of the score, thinking of computer sounds. There was one scene where I was listening to the music as they were on the stage scoring it. And I remember thinking, “Something’s not right about this.” Then, with the translator, we were going back and forth — you know how Italians can get when they’re very emotional about something. Finally, somehow I said something that clicked and Morricone, went, “Ah,” as if somehow he had misunderstood my intention for the scene. So he said through the translator, “Let’s put this aside and I’ll do a new piece.” That evening, we all had dinner, and then he excused himself because he had to go back to write that piece. The next morning, in comes this sheet music for 82 musicians — a three-and-a-half minute piece — and it was extraordinary. Here was a piece that didn’t exist 24 hours earlier, and Morricone doesn’t just write the melody and someone else does the orchestration — he hears everything simultaneously. Between dinner and the next morning, he suddenly wrote this three-and-half-minutes of music for 82 instruments, and it was just fantastic.
I remember, one day I was at his studio and I looked around and I didn’t see a piano. So I said something like, “What instrument do you work off of?” And he didn’t understand, and I said, “How do you write?” And this is what floored me: There is no instrument that he plays. He just hears it and writes it out. I thought, “My God, he is a genius.”
Besides Bugsy and Disclosure, Barry Levinson has directed such films asRain Man, Good Morning, Vietnam and Diner.
Morricone came with a new musical language for western films. His innovation was to bring instruments and sounds and rhythms. For instance, the American and European composers who lived in Hollywood and were writing music for westerns — Alex North and the other great masters — they were using a symphonic sound. But Morricone really incorporated American-Indian music. I think he was probably attracted by the sounds of the Indian, and created sounds based on the indigenous people of the West. Beyond film music, he has been very much involved in the avant-garde music of the 20th century. Not too many people know about it, but I’ve heard that music, and it’s fantastic.
The multiple Oscar–nominated Lalo Schifrin is best known for the Mission: Impossible theme and his score to Cool Hand Luke.
There’s a habit among film composers to write rather short melodies, kind of like pop songs tend to have. But Morricone writes long melodies, these themes that just keep evolving and evolving. An example would be from The Mission, often cited as one of the most extraordinary film scores ever written. There’s a track called “Gabriel’s Oboe,” it’s one of those themes — it doesn’t repeat for ages, it just keeps evolving and changing and emerging. There have been times when I’ve very deliberately written a long melody myself because it’s such an unusual and beautiful way of composing, and I can’t really think of anybody else who writes that way.
It’s an attitude, it’s a spirit, it’s the manner of his arrangements, it’s the human emotion that comes through his music, that’s the thing that really counts.
A frequent collaborator with Sideways director Alexander Payne, Rolfe Kent has also composed scores for Wedding Crashers, About Schmidt, Legally Blonde and, most recently, Ghosts of Girlfriends Past.
He’s one of those guys who you almost can’t figure out what he’s doing musically, and it’s amazing in that way. He kind of broke the mold of what was known as a film score. He completely ignored the typical borders of what composers were observing at the time.
When he was rising in the ranks, he was using more eclectic instruments and bringing in a lot of jazz influence and all sorts of instruments from around the world, which especially at the time were completely out of the box. The standard at the time was a large orchestra playing traditional, classical film music. He could do that, certainly, and his orchestral work is beautiful, but he was able to change the game in a way that really influenced how music was to be.
In the score for John Carpenter’s The Thing, for instance, there’s a scene where they discover this ship buried in the snow, and it’s just so eerie, the use of strings, but it’s somehow beautiful. That taught me that if I was doing a film that had a certain level of darkness or a certain level of angst or terror, you could actually write beautiful music that would make the moment seem more eerie. It’s almost like he scored things sometimes as a romance in a way even though what you see onscreen is very jarring.
Something he says that I always tried to take to heart was that so much of his music was a silent bit, the parts in between the music — knowing when to say nothing is saying as much as when you’re saying something. Often people get scared and they will have a score go every second of the movie; you kind of sit there and you lose all your dynamics and all your range and all your power because you’re just on all the time. Morricone always fought that.
Brian Tyler has scored such films as Fast & Furious and the recently released Law Abiding Citizen.
His style is so wonderful and so European in approach. What I mean by that is that quite often a European-style score will employ one main theme and quite frankly use it almost in every single piece of the movie. It gives the movie its own signature melody and also, if it’s a well-written tune, it can play in a bunch of different circumstances. Truly he created his own sound, very experimental and forward-thinking. The Leone scores will stand the test of time, as quintessential Morricone defining a genre.
Oscar-nominated for The Passion of the Christ, John Debney is better known for family comedies like Hotel for Dogs andRobert Rodriguez’ Spy Kids series.
I grew up in Italy, and back then there were only two, state-owned TV channels. They were constantly playing Italian movies and, of course, the majority of them were scored by Morricone. I remember having dinner with my family on Sunday night and they were playing either A Fistful of Dollars or For A Few Dollars More or The Good, The Bad and the Ugly. The difference between the American and the Italian way of scoring is that in America they have a bigger sound with the orchestra, whereas, while Ennio is able to do whatever he wants, there’s definitely a more intimate type of orchestration.
My most pragmatic link to Ennio’s music happened when I recorded An Italian Story, which is music that I wrote but is definitely an homage to those sounds that really influenced so much my childhood and my present. I went to Rome and I was able to find all these retired session players who had performed on his soundtracks 40 years before — including the whistler, Alessandro Alessandroni, who was also an amazing guitar player. All the screams and shouts and weird noises you hear in many Morricone movies, that’s him.
[Later] I went back to Rome for the Rob Marshall movie Nine, which is coming up in a month or two. That was music they wanted to have the feel of the Italian dolce vita in the ’60s. Again, I went back to the old recording studio and hired the same old musicians who performed with Morricone, and I got them to get some magic into the tape. Another project that is very dear to me is this record that I’m doing with Danger Mouse called Rome. I arranged St. Elsewhere, the debut album for Gnarls Barkley — which is again Danger Mouse — and he was a fan of An Italian Story and he asked me to bring in that kind of vibe. We were listening in the car to a lot of obscure Morricone soundtracks and discussing the sounds. So we went back to Rome and got some very cool singers, some fantastic young guys and they’re singing over music written by me and Danger Mouse but recorded by the same Morricone musicians.
I see his influence now mostly in scores and I think it’s too bad because he’s kind of used in a superficial way. There are a lot of other resources — meaning the way he writes, the way he arranges — that nobody uses. They get from him what is really the least-interesting aspect. He was one of the first guys in Italy to own a Moog that is as big as a washer and dryer, for instance, so he was experimenting in electronic music, which for the most part goes unnoticed. And he was a pioneer in the use of avant-garde music in not only horror movies, but much more mainstream projects. So it’s too bad that in general his admirers don’t go as deep as possible with his material. They’re kind of just scraping the surface of what this man is able to do.
Daniele Luppi composed the 2004 tribute album An Italian Story and will soon release his second CD, Rome. Luppi arranged two Gnarls Barkely CDs and contributed to Rob Marshall’s Nine.
Morricone is a part of everyone’s DNA. His most famous scores are special because of their boldness and simplicity. It takes a special kind of courage to hang a whole score on two notes. At the same time, in movie music those two notes are only as special as the picture they accompany.
One really cool thing about him is that he started as an arranger. He worked for RCA in Italy as an arranger. He did a lot of pop records. He was classically trained, but the nature of the job of being an arranger is you have to interface with many types of music and forms of orchestration. John Williams is another one like Morricone. He was Johnny Williams the jazz arranger before he was a movie composer. Being an arranger and a composer require you to put on many different hats, which is tremendous training for film scoring because you know how the instruments work and what they sound like. You become acquainted with the people who play the instruments, which allows you to understand how they fit together.
Jim Lang scored Nickelodeon’s Hey Arnold! series and has arranged, produced and played on records for many artists, including Smokey Robinson, Steve Wynn, Vince Gill and the Four Tops.
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