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Morricone Live!

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, Malena, 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 he 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 image!

** 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, 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.

It's inspiring.

Have a nice weekend!

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