Saturday, February 24, 2007

Unsung Giants of Modern Music (V): Ennio Morricone

In light of his Lifetime Achievement award this Sunday at the Oscars, I felt it a fine opportunity to finally discuss Ennio Morricone here. I have spoken of him briefly but, as one of the most important, not to mention prolific, composers of the 20th Century, one can never say too much. Given, however, that he is being given this award, can he actually be called an unsung hero? This award is recompense from the academy for being forgotten about over forty years and, while everybody is familiar with his Western scores, there are other themes in his body of work that are often used, that everyone knows, that remain uncredited to the person who created them. That, and the fact that he's my favorite 20th century composer, means that he's in.

Born in Rome in 1928, Morricone entered conservatory at ten to study trumpet and composition. While his ambitions had always been in classical music, he was given the opportunity to write arrangements for popular songs and, after some moderate success, he never really looked back. He has continued writing more traditional classical music over the years, but never that seriously. His knowledge of classical forms and popular styles made him a natural and, after popular success in pop arrangement and critical acclaim writing theater music, was hired in 1961 to score his first film, Il Federale, directed by Luciano Salce, a comedy about a Fascist sent to capture an anti-Mussolini professor (sounds fun). He continued to work with Salce for the next three years, scoring films of suspect quality, until Sergio Leone heard Morricone’s arrangement of an American folk song and asked him to score his Western trilogy, starting in 1964 with A Fistful of Dollars and continuing with For a Few Dollars More in 1965 and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly in 1966. It was at this early stage in his career that he made his biggest impact. Domestically and abroad, critics and audiences saw Morricone’s score as another character in the film, something that had seldom occurred before, but has become Morricone’s hallmark. As a result of budgetary limitations, there was no access to a full orchestra, which may have been preferred at the time, but forced Morricone to work with odd instruments, singers, and sound effects. What he created changed the face of the Western, if not the entirety of the film music world.

The success of the films and the scores themselves (thank, in no small part, to Hugo Montenegro’s cheesy rendition of the theme to The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly) gave Morricone more work than he could handle. He was hired to do other Westerns in those first few years, solidifying a sound that would be mimicked for years and years, but also got a lot of work in other genres, mostly horror and comedy, both of which benefit from smaller, subtle scoring. The largest success of his early career outside Westerns came in 1966 as well, when he wrote his brilliant score for Gillo Pontecorvo’s Battle of Algiers. Wildly different in tone and style from anything he’d produced to this point, this score showed a rare versatility, something that would serve him where other composers fail. As the success came, so did more work, which he apparently took all of. At this point, Morricone was still attempting, albeit unsuccessfully, to get into the Classical world but, by 1968, a year in which he scored twenty films, the thought of any other work became laughable. The next few years he was a scoring machine, working for every major director in Italy, most notably Pier Paolo Pasolini, who he collaborated with on numerous occasions until Pasolini’s murder in 1975. Hollywood didn’t catch on to him for a long time (they never really did); he wasn’t hired for an American production until 1970 in which he scored Two Mules for Sister Sara (a film which I cannot endorse), most obviously because of Clint Eastwood in the starring role. He has never worked for any length of time for Hollywood, with only exception being his scores for Brian DePalma, who he has worked with three times. The scores he writes for American films are highly lauded, especially in the case of The Mission, which is one of the single most solid film scores ever written, but has never maintained a working relationship with studios in this country. Still, over the years, he has written so many amazing scores in so many varied genres that he has become the most artistically influential composer in the history of film.

Where so many of his contemporaries score a film so that the music reflects the action directly, Morricone writes in a way that often comments on the action--a happy scene may likely have minor chord undertones that can reveal an amount of sadness or irony on the happiness, the theme song for the killer in a horror film is a lullaby—this kind of subtlety does not occur with his contemporaries. Because of the variation of styles and knowledge of instruments that he has, a wealth of depth is opened to him that others can’t compete with. To combine folk music with free jazz and music concrete for a beautiful overture to an international spy thriller is an extraordinary thing.

On top of his prowess as a technical composer, Morricone’s music is decidedly romantic; he uses broad strokes to elicit particular emotions in a rare way that does not feel like manipulation, that feels organic, such that the emotional power of the music stands separate from the film it belongs with. The first time I heard the soundtrack to Dario Argento’s The Stendahl Syndrome was months before I saw the film. I was entering it into the now-defunct Schwann Opus Classical Music Guide as part of my mission was to include all the film scores I could get my hands on, a class of music that had been forgotten about for much of the history of that book. I started listening to the album to hear what I was entering. A squealing violin, a minimal harpsichord, and a soprano singing nonsense greeted my ears. The tension built quickly, and by the end of the seven minute theme, when all of a sudden a group of trumpets blare out like a herd of dying elephants and whispering voices have an incoherent conversation, I had to turn the album off and get up to walk around. There is an economy to this score, as well as many others, which use a minimalist approach to gain the maximum emotional effect; an effect that is much more difficult to achieve with a full orchestra anymore.

Now, at 79 years old, Morricone has not slowed down his output very much. He has scored around twenty five films in the last ten years which, while not the kind of output that he had in the ‘70s, is still significant, and he remains far more prolific than his much younger contemporaries. And still, to this day, he does not get bogged down in one style or another. If anything, his palette has only gotten broader over the years. Yet, for all the variation in his music over the years, there is a style that is distinctly Morricone that stretches through hundreds of scores and every genre under the sun. The world of film owes him a great debt, and there is nobody currently working who is prepared to take the reigns when The Maestro inevitably passes on. He is as deserving of this award as anyone has ever been. As I said before, after 500+ scores over half a century, some of which have changed the face of film music and have been massively influential on popular music, his five nominations and zero wins at the Oscars is ridiculous, especially while others are nominated for nearly every score they write, no matter how redundant the material has become. The Academy has this award around to right perceived wrongs, and I think it’s fantastic that they want to acknowledge him in this way. If nothing else, Morricone will get paid a lot of money to score some massive budget piece of trash that will give him a lot more exposure than he’s had in years.