Ennio Morricone is probably the most famous film composer of the twentieth–century, and is undeniably one of the most electic and prolific. Morricone’s palette is spectacularly diverse: from classical, jazz, pop, prog, electronic, and avant–garde, he has produced music of every flavour for almost every imaginable kind of movie.
The iconic whistling and twanging guitars are just a few elements of the sound that has come to typify the Spaghetti Western, and are the result of Morricone’s long–time collaboration with former schoolmate, director Sergio Leone. For many, the soundtracks Morricone produced in this period are considered to be among the best and most innovative ever made. In this case, necessity proved to be the mother of invention, as budget strictures limited Morricone’s access to a full orchestra. Instead, Morricone turned to unusual instruments and unique arrangements to produce breathtakingly distinctive sounds that came to typify his partnership with Leone, and subsequently, the genre as a whole. It is impossible to imagine a Spaghetti Western without the taut, tension inducing twangings of mouth harps, eerily lonely whistlings, ghostly arias, and the low, ominous rumblings of electric guitars that echoed the rock ’n’ roll sound so popular at the time. This is Morricone’s legacy, and this alone would have been enough to cement him firmly as a film composer of truly exceptional talent and vision.
Morricone however, always prolific, always pushing his own boundaries, began to work with directors such as Mario Bava and Dario Argento on a succession of ’Giallo’ pictures — an Italian brand of the thriller genre that takes it’s name [Giallo: Yellow] from the trademark yellow backgrounds of Italian mystery/crime pulp fiction. The soundtracks he produced for these films are of an entirely different flavour altogether: Gialli films are united by their preoccupation with strong psychological themes of madness, alienation, and paranoia, and the scores produced by Morricone enhanced these features to spinetingling effect: jarring, psychedelic, and dissonant, they continue to be coveted by record collectors the world over.
Hugely influential, Morricone’s work has been sampled by artists such as Jay Z, The Orb, and The Ecstacy of Gold, taken from his soundtrack for The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, has been used by Metallica to open their concerts since 1983. In a career spanning over fifty years, Morricone has sold more that fifty million records worldwide and has scored more than 500 films and television shows. He is one of the only composers to have ever recieved the honorary Oscar since the award’s introduction in 1928.
This interview with Morricone was conducted on the eve of his 75th birthday concert at the Royal Albert Hall in 2003 by Filmic co–creator Phil Johnson for the Independent on Sunday:
How did you become a film composer?
Almost by chance. I had just finished my studies at the conservatory in Rome and I needed to work, so I started arranging songs and records and working for TV and radio. After a while Luciano Salce called me for the film Il federale, as I had already worked with him. I composed the music for the film, and that started my career as a composer of film scores. I must say that working for cinema has been a precious experience because it gave me the chance to experiment with my ideas, to listen to them performed by an orchestra and then use them for a precise aim, ie: the film. Generally speaking, I think that a good composer for film must have a complete knowledge of composition and orchestration techniques, but also a wide knowledge of musical styles and languages.
Some composers find writing for the cinema frustrating. What is your view?
Composing film scores means that the composer must adapt his ideas to the film, the director and the audience. This, of course, limits the composer’s freedom, but nevertheless the composer can, and must, find his own freedom within these bounds. He must find a simple reason why he chooses every single note and sound. That is the only way of defending one’s identity as a composer and creating a personal style.
Favourite genre: sword and sandals, western, or political thriller?
I don’t have a favourite genre. On the contrary, I believe that a film music composer should compose all kinds of music for all films. I have tried to widen my experiences and in all kinds of music, from ethnic to classic, but I have also tried to keep my personal viewpoint and style for every genre.
Of all the films you have worked on, what is your favourite score and why?
I was asked this question many times, but I never replied, because there is no music that I love more than the rest. Every time I have composed music for film I always did it giving everything, total creativity. There are, of course, better scores, but I can’t say which ones.
Once upon a time in the UK — how does it grab you?
I have worked in the UK many times. Maybe the most important experience was scoring the music for The Mission. Furthermore, I held two concerts at the Barbican in 2001, where I conducted my music [both film music and “pure” music. That was an extraordinary experience. I love the English audience and the English musicians, they are wonderful. To go back to London, at the Royal Albert Hall, on my birthday, is a very strong emotion.