Film Score Friday Special Edition by Lukas Kendall
I have become jaded and cynical due to my interaction, infrequent as
it may be, with many of our great film composers here in Los Angeles. Still,
there is one composer among my absolute favorites whom I have never met,
seen, or spoken to, and would jump at the opportunity to do so. He is a
living legend, a genius, and one of the 20th century's most important musicians.
(And I am not prone to this type of hyperbole.)
I am not alone in this opinion -- last night, the Society of Composers
and Lyricists' Composer-to-Composer presented a seminar with ENNIO MORRICONE,
following a screening of his latest film courtesy of Miramax, Malena.
The event was so well attended at West Hollywood's Pacific Design Center
that it sold out and many had to get in via a wait-list.
Morricone was not present at the beginning of the screening. The film,
is the latest by director Giuseppe Tornatore (Cinema Paradiso, The Legend
of 1900) and it is a touching tale of the unrequited love a teenager
has for a beautiful woman in war-torn Sicily, circa 1943. It is also a
harrowing portrait of the way in which beautiful women are treated by society
-- at turns adored, gossiped about, but scrutinized and ultimately isolated.
Despite this the film is also surprisingly funny and it is aided tremendously
by a masterful score by the Maestro, as he is often and respectfully called,
providing his quintessential beauty as well as irony and humor.
After the screening SCL past-president Richard Bellis introduced Variety
journalist Jon Burlingame to interview the composer. Burlingame in turn
introduced Morricone, who proved to be an engaging stage presence. He was
accompanied by his interpreter (I regret that I only remember her first
name, Vivian, as she did an admirable job throughout the evening) and gave
some opening remarks. (Morricone does not speak any English -- or at least
pretends that he does not.)
I wish everybody on the planet spoke the same language, whatever it
was. Listening to someone via translation is a very trying experience.
Again, Vivian did a great job, and it was helpful to have a woman translator
as her voice did not conflict with Morricone's although their talking often
overlapped. In the past Morricone's interviews, when translated to English,
have always struck me as a bit formal if not occasionally negative, but
this has to be an artifact of the translation and the difficulty in conveying
meanings from language to language. Watching him in person he was very
animated and personable and I would love the opportunity to experience
a dialogue with him without the language barrier -- as Vivian translated,
I could tell that there are many differences in syntax between Italian
and English which caused a start-stop effect as she parsed the proper meaning.
He truly looks like an modest Italian banker who just happens to be one
of our greatest film composers.
Nevertheless Morricone does seem to be a bit of a "musicology wonk"
in that he takes great pride in his background as a classically trained
musician -- for example always doing his own orchestrations. He began by
explaining that he had written an explanation, a type of lecture, of his
views of music in cinema and that he had decided, in order to save time,
that Vivian would read the English translation of the talk. The lecture
lasted 18 minutes and was a scholarly analysis of the "half-truths" and
"half-lies" involved in distinguishing between absolute music and applied
music. Morricone referenced many classical composers and works to effectively
characterize this ambiguities, the end result being that in his film scores
realizes that what he is doing is applied music, but he always remembers
the spirit of absolute music within.
Following the lecture, Burlingame began with the interview questions
which focused initially on Malena. Morricone spoke lovingly of his
relationship with director Tornatore, saying that in many ways the interaction
was even deeper than that which he had with Sergio Leone, who was perhaps
a little more rigid in his feedback to the composer. Something fans should
realize is that Morricone is unlike virtually any American composer in
that he tends to compose complete thematic material away from the picture
-- in many cases before the movie is even shot -- and then applies it to
the picture for the actual scoring.
In the case of Malena, apparently all of the themes were written
prior to filming except one, the comedic theme (if I remember the interview
correctly) which was composed later when the filmmakers realized that humor
was a bigger part of the picture than they previously anticipated. Morricone
revealed something jaw-dropping in its simplicity, but it is a technique
he has often used: his theme for Malena herself consists of only three
pitches, in different sequences and with different, and sometimes unusual,
harmonization. (He even sang the theme which was a thrill -- later he would
make the coyote noise from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.) Morricone
proved to more than interested and adept in analyzing his musical approach
and this was a great thrill -- some composers are very articulate in this
regard (even when their music is no good!) and others, who write brilliant
music, and who are named Jerry Goldsmith, are nearly helpless in explaining
the technical nuts and bolts of their craft. So to have an absolute master
of his craft explain salient points of the emotional content behind different
techniques was greatly rewarding.
Among the other topics asked and answered:
** When asked about whether he wrote with emotional vs. intellectual
responses to the film, Morricone reacted energetically to the question
and answered that he writes themes emotionally, and then relies on his
intellect when scoring them to the picture itself.
** On how he chooses the films he scores, oh, this was a very difficult
question! Apparently Morricone feels that he wants to score every film
once he has seen it, because he loves the challenge of making it better.
He admits he has scored many bad films, but when asked in a follow-up question
how many bad films he thinks he has scored, he replied, "I have never tried
to count them!" There was more on Morricone's methodology of accepting
assignments that already escapes me, unfortunately, partially because things
did get a bit jumbled in the translation. He did say that he never scored
a film intending it to be a bad film, but added something sarcastic that
at this point in his career, were he to do a bad film, he would write music
exactly at that low level.
** Morricone often uses wordless voices -- especially that of Edda Dell'Orso
-- because the human body itself is so expressive as an instrument, and
it is emotional to the point where words are not necessary. (This is where
he made the coyote sounds.)
** The Maestro was asked about What Dreams May Come -- for which
his score was replaced by one by Michael Kamen -- and the fact that this
and other scores of his are now circulating on various fan and pirate edition
CDs. He ducked the piracy issue (or perhaps it was not fully presented
to him in the translation) but did talk about the experience on What
Dreams May Come, a film he adored and felt he gave the director, Vincent
Ward, exactly what he asked for. He suspected that the director made a
film too far-out for the production company and acknowledged that the filmmakers
felt his unused score was too heavy, although he had intended to do something
that was paradoxically "light," in response to the beautiful images. He
also suspected that perhaps the film's mix had been too dense or too loud,
and that had caused his "light" music to become "heavy." He concluded his
answer by saying that it was legitimate if the director decided he wanted
something else, but that it would have been a sign of respect had HE (i.e.
Morricone -- and he got very emphatic at this point) been the one to rewrite
it. (At this point the audience full of composers and fans applauded.)
** He stated again how he does his own orchestrations because they are
so much the fabric of the music. He said no composer ever of any importance
(this is not the exact quote, but the gist of the expression) has not done
his own orchestrations. I almost shouted out "Gershwin!"
** About The Mission, Morricone wrote one theme based on the
random key-tapping that Jeremy Irons had "performed" on screen on oboe.
He felt obligated to write a theme that would correspond to the visual
** Finally, Morricone was asked a bit about what a day of his life was
like. "Oh, my private life?" he replied but did answer the question. He
has a firm regimen of an early rise at 5AM, breakfast, working from 8 or
9AM, stopping for lunch, and then working through to the evening. He retires
early unless he is involved in a social activity, in which case he will
not rise then next morning at 5 -- rather 6! He attends concerts on Sunday
and tries to keep up with new music, whatever the genre. He appreciates
rock music but feels it is much more tied to the "instrument of the performer"
and admires those rock musicians who have been so successful. And he also
introduced his wife, Maria Morricone, in the audience, and mentioned that
he has four children.
I did not take any notes during the lecture although our managing editor,
Tim Curran, did, and furthermore the SCL will hopefully provide a CD of
the talk via their website at a later date, www.filmscore.org.
It was definitely recorded and videotaped. The above is just my recollections
and my impressions of this special evening. I have to admit that Morricone's
prepared lecture was a bit of a haul to get through and the entire seminar
had a "so near, yet so far" quality due to the language barrier. But it
was deeply rewarding to be in the presence of such a legendary musician
whose reputation extends so far into the film and film music worlds. Perhaps
more than any other film composer in history, the bulk of Morricone's career
has been based on "grown up" subject matter and writing sophisticated,
emotional music that is appreciated by cineastes and pop culture buffs
alike. He scores grown-up movies with richly thematic and "pure" music
-- Malena the latest, wonderful example -- and he is the master of that
particular domain. It was not a coincidence that composers like Christopher
Young, Dan Licht, Jay Chattaway, Charles Bernstein and dozens upon dozens
more came out to hear what he had to say. (Additionally, director Tornatore
himself was in attendence, along with legendary film produced David Brown
and certain other people involved with the making of Malena.)
He's Morricone. He's the Man. The Maestro. Watching this average-sized,
handsome if slightly nerdy Italian gentleman talk about borderline-boring
theoretical aspects of music history, you realize that this man has written
hundreds of great movie themes and can seemingly produce new ones at the
drop of the hat -- when most composers would give their left arms to do
a single cue that meant anything. PLUS he had can talk about it.
Have a nice weekend!