Ennio Morricone: A Fistful Of Dynamite

Legendary composer Ennio Morricone returns with the bold Morricone 60

From his roots in the avant-garde scene of his native Italy to the nouvelle, nontraditional symphony he composed for his most famous recent film score for Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, composer, orchestrator and conductor Ennio Morricone loves to experiment.

These testing grounds might not include the early fuzz-tones, primitive rhythms, oddly tuned chorales or nature’s roars as did his earliest works. At the request of Italian “spaghetti-Western” (yes, Morricone supposedly loathes the phrase) director Sergio Leone, the composer engaged audiences with dusty, prickly scores for modern horse operas such as 1964’s A Fistful Of Dollars, 1965’s For A Few Dollars More, 1966’s The Good, The Bad And The Ugly and 1968’s Once Upon A Time In The West. Still, experimenting is his right and duty, even now as he manipulates the contours, luster and grand sweep of his best-known cinematic moments on his new album, Morricone 60, meant to signal both 600 compositions and 60 years in the biz.

“It is always difficult thinking about composing for a film while at the same time trying to find a compromise between that which can be, something that must be and something that should be understood and felt by an audience,” says the 88-year-old Italian known as “Il Maestro” through an interpreter from his apartment in Rome, his longtime home. Considering notions of experimentation, Morricone—who started out as a trumpeter along with spending time in Italy’s premier conceptual ensemble, Gruppo di Improvvisazione Nuova Consonanza—remarks that he’s always looking to turn sound on its head. “I compose a piece of music that is interesting to me, that is relevant, contemporary and challenging because I do not wish to bore my audience,” he says. “Or me, for that matter. I want to feed my audience music that has dignity.”

And for the record, “No, I have not played the trumpet in nearly 50 years,” he laughs.

Talking about his initial, often dissonant influences in 20th-century composers Boulez, Stockhausen and Luigi Nono and the use of the “sounds of reality” to give his “instrumental music meaning,” that forum had to find its own form, its own shape, in his recollection. “Which was imminent; not all contemporary music had this, the sounds of reality, at the time,” he says. “But I used this to make a point, a sort of short circuit.”

Hence, the sweeping orchestration and noisy elements of scores for Leone, his baroque “giallo” (horror) for Dario Argento and Alberto De Martino; then a run of internationally famed directors from Bernardo Bertolucci, Lina Wertmüller and Pedro Almodóvar to Hollywood-Americans such as Brian De Palma, Mike Nichols, Barry Levinson, Warren Beatty and Oliver Stone.

Ask if he has heard or felt a difference in what he has written for Hollywood (he never even thought about moving to America, let alone learning to speak the language) as opposed to Mediterranean or European directors, he claims he never noticed. “It was always up to me to propose that which would solve a problem; that would fit a mood, a scene,” he says. “There are so many options. That is why it is difficult to strike the perfect balance no matter who the director is or where he is from.” More important for Morricone is that the music he’s composed—past or present such as those for new films (A Rose In Winter, La Corrispondenza) or those in pre-production (Aline & Wolfe)—must be able to exist outside the realm of cinema. “From the very beginning of the process, when I start writing a composition for a film, I write all music as independent and stand alone. If the music is audacious and powerful enough for a film, it must also have a life free from its images.”

This is why Morricone 60, recorded anew with longtime collaborators the Czech National Orchestra, is so powerful. Not because they conjure images of boots of Spanish leather and gunfire, but because their mood and colors do so on their own. The best example of that power comes in Morricone 60’s re-envisioning of the noisily classic “Main Theme” from The Good, The Bad And The Ugly. Devoid of its usual gut-shot yipping howls and twangy guitars, the new version is rich with deeper bassoon and brass arrangements to maintain its sand-swept majesty. “The new album was meant to mirror what had come before,” he says. “Maybe this time, though, I did not have the original instrumentation available. So I change to whatever I see fit. I decide right there and then.”

Spoken like a true sonic adventurer.

—A.D. Amorosi