Music at the Service of the Cinema

by Jon Burlingame and Gary Crowdus

Ennio Morricone occupies a unique place in the history of twentieth-century music. He is without question one of the world’s most successful, and brilliant, composers for film, although he continues to write surprising music for the concert hall as well.

The prolific. Italian-born composer first came to worldwide prominence as a result of his collaboration with director Sergio Leone on a trilogy of Clint Eastwood movies: A Fistful of Dollars (1964), For a Few Dollars More (1965) and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966). His unique approach to those now-classic Westerns—including offbeat vocal effects and orchestrations that ranged from the traditionally symphonic to the bizarre—launched a career that has few, if any, parallels in the history of movie music.

Born in Rome in 1928, Morricone studied composition with Goffre­do Petrassi at the Conservatory of Santa Cecilia. He worked as an arranger from the late Fifties through the mid Sixties, with such performers as Mario Lanza, Paul Anka, Charles Aznavour, and Gianni Morandi. His first film assignment came in 1961 (Il federale, by director Luciano Salce, with whom Morricone had worked in the Italian theater).

In addition to Leone, Morricone began to work with some of the greatest directors of European cinema, among them Pier Paolo Pasolini (Uccellacci e Uccellini, 1965, and Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom, 1975); Mauro Bolognini (L’Assoluto Naturale, 1969, and Metello, 1970); Elio Petri (Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion, 1969); Gillo Pontecorvo (The Battle of Algiers, 1965, and Burn!, 1969); Henri Verneuil (The Sicilian Clan, 1969, and The Burglars, 1971); Giuliano Montaldo (Sacco and Vanzetti, 1971); and Bernardo Bertolucci (1900, 1976).

Morricone remained the composer of choice for Sergio Leone. His scores for the director’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1969), Duck, You Sucker (1971) and Once Upon a Time in America (1984) and, with Leone as producer, My Name Is Nobody (1973), were remarkable for their inventiveness and color.

He wrote more than just Westerns, however. Morricone found scripts for police action films, psychological dramas, comedies, historical epics, and romances piling up at his door. Among the American and British directors who engaged him with high-profile projects were Don Siegel (Two Mules for Sister Sara, 1970), John Boorman (Exorcist II: The Heretic, 1977), Terence Malick (Days of Heaven, 1978), Richard Fleischer (Red Sonja, 1985) and William Friedkin (Rampage, 1987).

Still, despite the huge international recording success of his The Good, the Bad and the Ugly theme, the composer was not widely-known in the United States except to film buffs and an ever-growing audience of soundtrack-album collectors. That long-overdue recognition came with Morricone’s universally admired, orchestral-and-choral score for the Roland Joffe epic The Mission (1986). It brought him one of his four Academy Award nominations for Best Original Score. He had previously been nominated for Malick’s Days of Heaven; later nominations were accorded him for Brian DePalma’s The Untouch­ables (1987) and Barry Levinson’s Bugsy (1991).

Other major Morricone scores since The Mission have included Roman Polanski’s Frantic (1988), DePalma’s Casualties of War (1989), Franco Zeffirelli’s Hamlet (1990), Pedro Almodovar’s Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (1990), Joffe’s City of Joy (1992), Wolfgang Petersen’s In the Line of Fire (1993) and Mike Nichols’s Wolf (1994).

A particular favorite among moviegoers worldwide is Giuseppe Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso (1988), winner of the Best Foreign Film Oscar.

In addition to his estimated four hundred motion picture scores, Morricone has composed equally memorable music for such acclaimed TV miniseries as Moses the lawgiver (1975) and Marco Polo (1982) and a number of television films including Secret of the Sahara (1987). Bryan Forbes’s The Endless Game (1989) and four of the La Piovra films for European television (1985-1990). His “Chi mai,” the theme from Jerzy Kawalerowicz’s Maddalena (1971), became an international hit after its use in the BBC series The Life and Times of David Uoyd George (1981).

Morricone’s four Oscar nominations are but a handful of the awards he has received. The British Academy of Film & Television Arts has honored him four times; he has received a Golden Globe (for The Mission.) and a Grammy (for The Untouchables.), more than two dozen gold albums and five platinum ones; five of the prestigious Nastri d’Argento; four David di Donatello awards; and countless other honors in his native Italy and around the world.

Despite his fame in the film world, however, Morricone has also continued to write and perform music for the concert hall. His more than fifty compositions for the classical field include works for chamber groups, symphony orchestra, solo voice, and choral ensembles. Virgin Records has recorded several of his chamber pieces; he also is one of the prime movers behind the improvisation group Nuova Consonanza.

Morricone was interviewed for Cineaste in two separate sessions: in Los Angeles in March 1994 by Jon Burlingame, when the composer received a Career Achievement Award from The Society for the Preservation of Film Music, and the following month in New York by Cineaste Editor Gary Crowdus. Simultaneous translation was provided, respectively, by Lena Erin and Vivian Treves.

Jon Burlingame

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Cineaste: Critics in this country don’t take film music seriously. Do you consider film music as valid a form as chamber music, symphonic writing, or opera?

Ennio Morricone: Film music is not at the same level as classical or chamber music because those compositions are born naturally from the composer himself. The composition expresses itself without any conditions or limitations. In the cinema, the music is conditioned by the images and by the direction of the director, and therefore is complementary to the film. This does not mean that film music is not worthwhile. It always depends on who’s writing it. It’s not seriously considered because there is a grave infiltration, throughout the entire world, including America, of amateurs and dilettantes, people who do not know music. Therefore, this lowers the level of the profession, and film music is not considered a serious art form.

Cineaste: What control, if any. do you have over the use of your music in a film once you’ve delivered it to the producer or the director. For example, some influential directors contractually negotiate for the right of final cut. Is it not possible for a composer of your international stature and reputation to insist on some level of creative control? For example, how often are you able to participate in the final mix?

Morricone: This is the first time I’ve ever been asked this question. You have to remember that the director is the principal creative force in the making of the film. I have sometimes been involved in the shifting of the music from one point to another in the film—it’s good for the film and it’s good for the music, it makes the music even better. On the other hand, when a respectable director shifts the music, he does it with the musician. I’ve always worked with directors like that. And usually, because most of them were quite musical, they’ve always given me rather logical advice. Many times after I do the recording I’ll give them the same kind of suggestions, that they should shift the music here or there. Since the relationship between a director and a composer is one of faith, of trust, this happens with no trauma.

However, you have to remember what I said at the beginning, OK? The director is the sole author of the complete cinematic work, even if the author of the music is an important collaborator and creator, and one of the few collaborators the director is not able to control completely. Notwithstanding this, I do not believe that the director should accept a contractual clause whereby he is constrained by the composer’s decisions.

Cineaste: How often has the score that you’ve written and recorded been dubbed into the picture to your satisfaction?

Morricone: Almost always. What doesn’t satisfy me is that you don’t always hear the music as much as I would like.

Cineaste: Dots that happen often?

Morricone: Sometimes.

Cineaste: Can you exercise any control over that aspect?

Morricone: I give general opinions to the directors. I tell them that a human being cannot decipher more than two different levels of sound at the same time—I’m not speaking of music. Physically, the brain cannot receive more than two sounds at a time. If a director mixes in the general sound column the dialog and the sound effects as well as the music, the human ear cannot distinguish the music. What one hears is a very confused kind of noise. It would be wonderful if the music had only one more element combined with it. I recommend this to the directors. Not so much for me, but for the clarity of the film, so that the public will understand it. But I can only suggest this to the director. Anything more would seem as if I were thinking only of myself and not of the film.

Cineaste: How do you deal with directors, notably Gillo Pontecorvo. who have some knowledge of music and sometimes want to contribute their own themes?

Morricone: With Pontecorvo, I have a good rapport. Among directors, he is one of my best friends. Therefore, when he says something I don’t like, I tell him very clearly. And I must say that he respects my opinions.

Cineaste: Do you prefer to have detailed discussions with a film’s director about the type of score he may be looking for, or would you prefer simply to be left to your own devices?

Morricone: When a director calls me, he already knows what I can give him. so he recognizes in me a certain homogenity of ideas. I then have to reflect freely on the project so that I can make some proposals to him. After I’ve made my proposals, we have a discussion. He can then add his ideas, or correct mine, and that’s where the discussion takes place. Sometimes our discussion ends right away, because we agree immediately. Sometimes I have to convince the director that 1 don’t like his idea, or he has to convince me that he doesn’t like my idea, and sometimes we find a compromise.

Cineaste: For most films, does an audience need a melody to hear and retain? And, if so, does that limit your creative choices?

Morricone: When it is necessary, it is good to have a melodic theme. But when do we do them? This is the problem. The public and many times even the director demand a melody, especially when there are some very expressive scenes that require it. This does not mean that we cannot do a film without a melody, but the public seems to expect a melodic line every time there is an expression of sentimentality.

Personally, I can do without a melodic theme. In fact, in many cases I have tried to disguise the melodic theme within rests, pauses, and silence, and to encourage the public to identify those sentimental sensations with musical colors instead of a theme. Unfortunately, even though I’ve conducted many experiments along these lines, the public still wants to hear a melody.

Cineaste: Why do you always orchestrate your own scores? Do you believe that composers who do not orchestrate are shortchanging either the music or the film?

Morricone: I don’t want to get into delicate professional questions. However, I will make a simple declaration. Composers in all epochs and all ages, except perhaps this one, for film and other contemporary musical practices, have always written out their own music. I cannot understand why one who calls himself a composer does not finish his own music, and thereby give the final and definitive touch to his composition. This stems from the era of musical theater, where composers hired arrangers to write out the music because either they did not know how, or were too lazy, or because of the excessive workload. Throughout the history of music, no composer has had his score written out by someone else. So why does this occur in film music? I do not understand.

Cineaste: Would you comment on your use of unusual sound choices—such as whistling, vocal or electronic effects—notably in the early films with Sergio Leone?

Morricone: Many believe that those were special effects. They seemed to be right, however, and therefore I put them in. After all, whistling comes out of the human body and is like the voice; it is not a special effect. In fact, it is a sound between the voice and the flute, or perhaps the piccolo. And since it comes out of the body, it is a very natural sound. I do not believe I have used any special kinds of instruments—except, in certain cases, the church organ, which, since nobody else had used it. was probably considered a special effect.

Cineaste: You use the human voice, both solo and in choruses, far more than most composers. Why? Is it a humanizing touch for music that might otherwise seem cool?

Morricone: The human voice is at the disposal of all composers. Why don’t others use it? I love the human voice, because it is an extraordinary instrument. It doesn’t go through a piece of wood or metal, it comes directly out of the body and can be the most expressive and malleable instrument. It can react in many strange ways. First, I used the human voice because I love it; and second, I used it because I had an exceptional voice at my disposal. [He alludes to Edda Dell’Orso, whose remarkable voice can be heard in several of the Leone films and other Morricone scoresed.] And during the period we are referring to, I used that particular voice often because I really liked it. So I became known as someone who uses the human voice all the time. Perhaps it’s true, but everyone can use the voice. It’s at every composer’s disposal.

Cineaste: You have been known to incorporate references to classical works, including Mozart and Beethoven, in some of your scores. Is this a matter of making the music fun, either for you or for your more musically knowledgeable listeners?

Morricone: I have made some very brief references at times. They are only brief references, as if for a moment you become very eccentric, but it’s not as if it was necessary or important to the piece at hand. I wanted to do it because it was fun. And I’ve always done it when I’ve composed a piece in collage form. At a certain point. I just throw in a reference—for example, a bit of Mozart—which is a minute piece of the composition. It works as a whole for the reason that the composition itself is not a homogeneous piece.

Cineaste: It’s said that today you turn down more than half of the film projects offered to you. What criteria do you use in deciding which projects to accept?

Morricone: If I like the director, if I have esteem for him. that helps me to decide. And if it’s a director I’ve worked with before, and worked well with, this is a preference. I never decide after having seen a film, I decide before because professionally it’s not correct to assume a critical position to accept or refuse after having seen the work. Besides, when I see a film it’s not finished yet, so it doesn’t have all of its elements. Therefore, my refusals are really for works that I cannot do simply because I don’t have the time. Since I do all my own orchestrations—I have no help, I don’t want and have never had anybody else’s help—I have very limited time to complete work. Therefore I have to analyze my time.

Cineaste: When choosing your films, is the subject matter also important, or the prospect of solving interesting dramatic problems with music?

Morricone: Both of those considerations are important, but I must also explain that, for me, writing music is a very joyous experience. I love writing music and, therefore, I love this profession. More than anything, the selection is guided by this love to write. In addition, there is the joy of surmounting the difficulties and those requests made by the director. Tackling these requests, even though they are sometimes strange, offers the greatest satisfaction once achieved. One of the pleasures of this profession, in fact, is to address and meet the conditions set by the director.

Cineaste: Once you’ve chosen a project, do you write music based on an emotional reaction to the visuals, or is it more of an intellectual exercise?

Morricone: Both things, absolutely. The composer must let himself go, as a member of the public, not as a critic, and must be guided by his emotions. After this, he intervenes technically and therefore also intellectually, as well as with his artistic abilities. First, however, he must let himself go, and. then, on the wave of letting go, react to the images, and then he responds in a musically expressive manner.

Cineaste: What is the average length of time you are given to write and record a film score? A common complaint among many film composers is that they could write better scores if they had more time. Do you agree with that or do you find the pressure of a short schedule to be a creative stimulant?

Morricone: In asking the question you’ve already answered everything. Usually they give me the time I need. I never had to complain about too short a schedule because I always ask for the time I need.

Cineaste: How much time is that?

Morricone: Usually a month and a half, and they give it to me because they know I need it. When I didn’t have the time I needed, the score that I wrote in a very short time was not better than the one that I had four months to write.

Cineaste: Was it worse?

Morricone: In taking four or five months to write the music for a film, a composer could produce an excessive elaboration, an involution, in a sense, so that the result would be much less spontaneous. You have to remember that, for a film, the work has to be precise and directed toward the spectator, so too many mediations of resolution of a scientific and mathematical nature in the composition could be negative. With more time, then, the composer could be carried away with his taste for this elaboration and arrive at a composition that is perhaps on a slightly more superior level but one that is more difficult for the spectator.

Enrico de Melis [friend of Morricone]: But there’s a very important factor you should talk about. Contrary to most other composers, directors ask you to write the scores for their films way ahead of time, when they’re writing the screenplay.

Cineaste: So you’re asked very early on?

Morricone: Yes, sometimes. It’s not that they ask me to write the score then, but to do the themes. I write the themes at the time the script is done. That’s not the same thing as writing a score.

Cineaste: How often do you compose before seeing a final cut?

Morricone: Almost always, because when I view the film it is not in its final form. Therefore, corrections to the score are usually made after the final cut has been made.

Cineaste: Can you discuss the sources of your artistic inspiration, or describe the process of how you create such beautiful and emotionally powerful music? To avoid seeming overly mystical about this matter, and to refer to that old cliché, how much of your work derives from perspiration—that is, from hard work and years of training and experience—and how much derives from inspiration? There’s this romantic notion that the composer sits and waits for the muse to strike, after which melodies flow from his pen. But it’s actually very hard work, isn’t it?

Morricone: It’s definitely a cliché. Music does not descend from the skies. I think most of it is work—sweat and application—combined with our personal influences, of the artistic experiences which have formed us, and our musical experiences, both historical ones and those particular to film. Let’s say that the general result, whether from inspiration or technical preparation, comes through many interactions between various components, and all these influences determine the final product.

Cineaste: You are probably most widely known for your early scores for the Sergio Leone Westerns. Most people are unaware, however, that many of those scores were written before the filming was done. That’s a complete reversal of the usual production procedure. Leone said, in fact, that for those films the music was as important as the dialog.

Morricone: Leone first called me because he had heard my music for two other Italian-Spanish Westerns. He’d heard an arrangement I’d done for a song, and he wanted that arrangement for A Fistful of Dollars. It was an atmosphere to which we later added the theme, and the whistle, and so on. Then, in the following films, Leone granted a greater importance to the use of the music than most other directors. For him. music really was as important as dialog and all the other components. Therefore, he felt it was important to ask me to write the music before he shot the film.

Cineaste: I’ve heard he actually filmed scenes as the music was played?

Morricone: Yes. He had a recording of an arrangement of the music which he played on the set.

Cineaste: Do you find that, as with Leone. European directors are more willing than American directors to let the music assume a more prominent role?

Morricone: No, not at all. I do not think that Leone gave more possibilities to work within the film than other directors. It stems primarily from Leone’s style, which allowed more time, more space, for music than that of other directors. It wasn’t because of our friendship; it was strictly his particular style. For Leone, music was a very dramatic and expressive element, and, because of this, he allowed the right amount of time and space for music. If other directors do not do this, that’s OK. Again, it depends upon the personal style of the director.

Cineaste: Your collaborations with Leone had an enormous impact on world cinema and on film music. Did you recognize it at the time and how do you assess their impact now?

Morricone: As I said before, Leone allowed a lot more time and space for music; that was his stylistic choice. And since there was more music, people heard more music. And if they heard more music, they noticed it more. And if they noticed it more, they were able to assimilate it more. This is a sign that is very important to a composer, because now he finds himself collaborating on a more intense level and his music becomes an integral part of the film itself.

I will make a very simple, paradoxical statement. If a director gives a composer ten seconds of time, he cannot be heard and therefore cannot collaborate with the director. However, if a director gives ten minutes of time, the composer can express himself properly. If the ten minutes that you have been given can be heard, and it is not drowned out by either the dialog between the characters or the special effects and action—which distracts the public from the music —then the music will be appreciated. However, if in those ten minutes you cannot even begin to hear any musical expression, because of the dialog or action taking place at the same time, the music is completely destroyed.

Therefore, ten seconds of music, if it can be heard, is a far better collaboration between director and composer than ten minutes of music which has been stifled by other factors within the film. The final decision of whether to hear the music or not remains in the hands of the director. If the director believes that the music serves a function as a dramatic and expressive form, then the music will be heard; if not, then it will not be heard. This is not a fault; we must always keep in mind Sergio Leone as the central character in this question.

Cineaste: The Mission was a great favorite in this country. What was it about that film that inspired you, and can you speak about your choices, including the use of a choir and indigenous South American instruments?

Morricone: I don’t know if The Mission was very well loved in America. I would have liked it if the film had been better received here. With regard to the music, there were many considerations. I was conditioned by the following things: the Jesuits, who were bringing their civilization and beliefs to South America, as well as the type of music they were accustomed to. The instruments they brought to teach to the Indians were instruments from Western Europe. This was the first condition. Second, one of the two protagonists played the oboe. That’s another condition. And the third condition was the music of the Indians themselves. Therefore, I had to take into account these facts, two of which were historical. The third fact was that the priest played an oboe. The oboe piece is influenced by the development and composition of Renaissance music. These were the things I had to keep in mind when writing the music for the Jesuits.

There was a contrast between Renaissance music, the music created by the Indians themselves, and the oboe. These three elements, combined, gave the final result not only in a musical sense, but also in a historical sense, of the communion that existed between the Jesuits and the Indians. The result is that the music describes the spiritual union between the Jesuits and the Indians, both on a musical level—combining the styles of Western Europe, South America, and the indigenous music of the Indians—as well as on an expressive level.

On a technical level, it was incredibly difficult. The musical concept was mine; the director did not ask me to do this. I feel very attached to this music. I recognize myself in this piece.

Cineaste: How important is it, in your view, that a score for a historical film attempt to be authentic in terms of the use of original instruments or a re creation of the musical style of the era? For example, how extensive was your research for films such as Moses and Marco Polo, which involved ancient Jewish music and Oriental music.

Morricone: In general, I don’t have the original instruments nor the people who can play them, and sometimes I don’t think I’m even interested in that regard. I use instruments which give the illusion of the instruments of the era, perhaps using them only for a little color, and I also use the technical composition of that period. In Marco Polo, for example. I wrote a piece with only two chords. Then there arc the Hebrew modalities, which I know well, and which are very close to the Greek ones, later acquired by the modalities of liturgical Christian music. Even today Gregorian chant is an emanation of the Greek and Hebrew, so all of this brought about the results of Moses and Marco Polo. Of course, in Marco Polo there was also the Chinese element, which was the result of the same idea.

Cineaste: The version of Marco Polo that was shown on American television was shorter than that shown in Europe and the music seemed to be very badly mixed, even abused. Were you able to participate in the mixing of the American version of that film?

Morricone: I came to Los Angeles to participate in the mixing of the music, and I was scandalized by how they treated the music. It was so…they should have been ashamed of themselves. I left before it was finished. In America they don’t care about the music on TV, all they care about is the dialog. Since they cut everything that was not dialog, they sacrificed my music in a terrible way. After that experience. I refused all TV work that would go on television in America.

Cineaste: What about Abraham?

Morricone: I didn’t do Abraham, I turned it down, all I did are the main titles and end titles. This is one of the reasons why I turned it down. I’m not against music on TV or in TV films. I am against how in America they pay attention only to dialog. It’s as if people didn’t want to lost time to hear the music. They reduced Marco Polo to a soap opera, and it’s not right. Not all TV programs are alike. A program of artistic merit, like Marco Polo, which has nothing to do with the usual commercial work, was reduced on American TV to a very low level of pure discussion between actors. It became merely a verbal account.

Cineaste: Why do you think music is generally ignored in most film criticism? What for you would constitute good film music criticism?

Morricone Most film critics should not judge the music, it’s not their job, and, in general, when they do they usually come out very badly. They should talk in general about the film, its expressivity, and what the music is to the film, so that they judge the him in the totality of its elements. Sometimes a critic ventures to say that there’s too much music, or that it’s too loud, or that there’s too little music, or too much beautiful music, and when they want to talk about it they use a single adjective. That’s not criticism, really, about the music.

Cineaste: Is the problem that film critics, in general, don’t have adequate musical training, and therefore the necessary critical tools, to comment authoritatively on the music?

Morricone: It’s really not their job. They should judge the film in its entirety. A film is not a musical work.

Cineaste: Some would argue that the sound, including the music, is sometimes as much as fifty percent of the overall cinematic experience, and that it would be a good thing if critics were able to comment more authoritatively on the music and sound.

Morricone: Certainly, more attention to film music on the part of critics wouldn’t be a bad idea, it would be welcome. But you can’t ask for this.

Cineaste: How important is it for you that your scores are released separately on CD?

Morricone: Very important.

Cineaste: Why?

Morricone: Because sometimes the director finds it necessary to hold back the music and so it cannot really make the contribution it would have wanted to make. In that sense, a compact disc is a way for the composer to vindicate himself, to revalidate his music. The compact disc enables the audience to finally hear the music they couldn’t hear during the film.

Cineaste: Do you have any personal favorite scores?

Morricone: I never answer this question, because I like all the film music that I have composed. If at the end of a him there is some thing that I didn’t really like, it is because of the use of the music in the film, or its length, or the possibility that the public won’t hear it. I have always done my best. If my goal is sometimes not achieved, then it depends on the circumstances mentioned earlier.

Cineaste: Do you have any plans for concerts in the U.S.?

Morricone: I don’t know. It doesn’t necessarily depend on me. Then again, what kind of concerts? If they are film music concerts. I do not want to do those. I want to do non-film music, meaning more refined, difficult music. The public wants to hear film music, but I don’t want to give it to them. So when they go to the concert, they will be disillusioned by what they hear, because they will get something they did not expect.

Cineaste: How do you presently divide your time between film music and concert music?

Morricone: Fifty-fifty.

Cineaste: Which is more satisfying to you as a composer?

Morricone: They are two separate things. You must remember that film music is written to be at the service of the cinematic work, and so is conditioned by the film. My other music is not conditioned by anything else I am the one who decides my chamber music, so 1 am the artistic father of the concert music. In the cinema, the father of the work is the director.

But writing film music also gives me great satisfaction, and I’m very happy that the film music I’ve written is widely heard. To confront the director and the public and to see that the music really works in the film is a source of great satisfaction in a spiritual sense as well.

Cineaste, Vol. 21, No. 1/2 (1995), pp. 76-80