Ennio Morricone has written some of the cinema's most- recognizable and best-loved film scores including the recent Sergio Leone's "Once Upon a Time in America". Here he is inter­viewed by Sue Adler.
Sergio Leone con Ennio Morricone

by Sue Adler

Did you have a formal musical education?

Yes, My father was a musician and he wanted me to be one, so he sent me to the Conservatorium of Santa Cecilia in Rome. I wanted to follow the profession of a musician and composer of serious music, so everything I did was to realize that aim.

You were also, at one point, the leader of a light music orchestra…

Before writing film music, I did many different things. I started by doing arrangements and orchestra­tions for the RAI, for television, for records, for the theatre and for composers who didn’t want to write because they were lazy. Gradually, I was sought after in my own right, and I was able to realize my dream of writing music under my own name.

You wrote under the name of Dan Savio for A Fist Full of Dollars. Was this because you were writing serious music and didn’t want to compromise yourself?

No. I took a pseudonym, chosen at random, because the producers wanted the film to appear to be an American production, Obviously I couldn’t use my name.

When was your debut in the cinema?

In 1961, with Luciano Salce’s Il federale (The Federal Man).

Was writing for the cinema a natural musical progression?

Actually, it was the problem of how to live when you are not independently wealthy. I earned so little from classical music that gradually I started to do arrange­ments and little by little this led me into the cinema. It wasn’t some­thing I had planned; I have never determined anything in my life. I always just keep going. This is how I ended up.

Are you a filmgoer?

I don’t go to the cinema very often, but I do like films. I prefer the ones which are least commer­cial, those which are on the level of art.

In the 1960s, how strong was the American influence on the Italian cinema?

It was very strong from I960 to 1970. It was important from the artistic point of view; that period threw up some very important directors, and, what was funda­mental for me, the Italian Western. Some very beautiful Italian films were made during that time, too.

What about the general atmo­sphere in Italian cinema then?

I don’t remember it that much, I was in a formative stage, worried about subsistence and the basic problems of day-to-day life. The financial problems seemed impass­able. I didn’t even notice politics, the economy of the Italian nation and the “economic miracle’’. My biggest problem then, as it is now, was how to serve the cinema in order to earn money and yet do so without renouncing the ideals of a serious composer of the sort of music I have wanted to write since I was young.

What were the influences in your musical formation?

Stravinsky is an extremely im­portant composer, because of what he put into his music, because of the positive force with which he always imbued his sounds, and because of his clawing, trenchant creativity and the way in which he acquired folkloric influences of Russia at that time and used them. He is one of the fundamental com­posers of contemporary music.
My maestro, Goffredo Petrassi, and several other composers — Stockhausen, Boulez, Nono, Berrio, Palestrina and Monteverdi, and Bach (another one I adore) — all have left very positive marks in the course of my musical develop­ment. These composers are part of me, in that I have digested and filtered them. I can quite easily reproduce them, but in a manner completely revised by my non- passivity towards them.
One’s taste derives from the influences of these composers; the things one loves; everyday occur­rences; contemporary music; and childhood memories. These form experience and experience forms technique, and from technique comes style; they come unconsciously and are therefore beyond our control. So I, and others, write in a certain way and only other people can define it. Maybe in years to come I will be able to hazard an appraisal of my produc­tion, artistically and technically. But I don’t have the time to stop and reflect on things I have already done. I have to think of the future.

It seems as if you keep your distance socially from the cinema…

Yes, I am cut off from it. Recently I have become friends with certain directors and, as good friends, we go out to dinner. But in the early days I was at home, and that was it.
I don’t go out looking for work; directors have to come to me. In the early days, after The Federal Man, the same director offered me another film and then the producer recommended me to another direc­tor and the circle started to enlarge. In my first five years I did about six films, more or less one a year.

You have worked with many Italians, but also a few Americans: for example, Don Siegel. Is the approach different?

Sometimes I have done Ameri­can films without even meeting the director. This was very difficult because I am used to working with the director, having him hear the themes and comment on them. In the absence of a director, there were times when I have felt rather lost. Fortunately, it hasn’t happened too often.
With Don Siegel there was prac­tically no collaboration. He came to the recording session but didn’t know what I should record. It was strange and it happens — but not with Italians. There, the director chooses a particular composer because he knows he can work with him.

How do you go about scoring a film?

Once the composer accepts the task, discussion begins — either about the screenplay, during the shoot, or about a film which has already been edited. At this point a consensus is sought with the direc­tor, according to his ideas and the exigencies of the composer. Once this common direction has been established, the composer starts thinking and translates the concept which has been agreed upon. The music is thus born.

Do you work with an orchestra conductor?

Not since 1975. Once the music has been written, I go into the studio and conduct the orchestra, listen to the recording, do the mix and then, if I have to edit the music, do so over the image.

Does your approach differ when writing for a live audience and for the cinema?

Fundamentally, the two fields aren’t that different; the exercise of writing music is always the same. There has to be a way to understand what the director is saying and then to translate it. It differs with theatre in that there are fewer possibilities for music to be heard; sometimes it serves only to fill in between the action and sometimes it serves as background, but you really don’t hear much because it can’t drown out the actors. There isn’t a definitive mix like in the cinema.
Also, in the theatre, there isn’t the scope for long pieces of music. So it is difficult to express a musical idea. But these are all small problems. Basically, I don’t find writing for the theatre very different from writing for the cinema, other than having to bear in mind the theatre where the music will be performed and the manner in which it will be repro­duced: that is, the equipment.

Your first big film success was A Fist Full of Dollars, whose score is very different from that of the Hollywood Westerns. Your cul­tural perspective is obviously different. What were the stimuli?

The stimulus was the film itself. Leone had made an ironic and, in a certain sense, a grotesque film in that it was funny, a caricature. It was necessary to respect the clarity that Leone wanted for his charac­ters. Besides, I was not, and am not, a specialist in American folk music, so what sense was there in my treating the characters like Americans? If that is required, use an American composer.
So, I treated Leone’s characters by attempting to re-invent, in my way, American folk, bearing in mind certain musical and technical data. And then the caricatured treatment of the characters encouraged me to introduce strange sounds into the score so that the character would have the charisma Leone wanted.

The music for Once Upon a Time in the West and A Fist Full of Dollars was, in its way, quite avant-garde…

For a soundtrack it was avant-garde, but in itself it wasn’t avant-garde music.

In Once Upon a Time in the West, the theme of the ‘West’…

The West existed and we had to bear this in mind. So Sergio Leone and I focused our attention on the characters and, therefore, on the feelings. I would say that an act, or a thought, of love is basically the same in Lapland, the U.S., Aus­tralia or Africa. Certainly there are cultural differences, but what com­mands in film is the way in which the audience comprehends the music: that is, what the music is saying, which isn’t what the dialogue is saying.
Music must be international and you always have to bear in mind what the public is capable of understanding. For this reason Sergio and I concentrate more on the characters and their feelings; these feelings have to be inter­preted musically so that the audi­ence is able to understand them. For example, for a bad guy one uses music which is dissonant, gloomy and dark. The choice of instrument doesn’t come into it that much; I can create music for a bad guy with the brightest of instruments.

Do you have an “alphabet” or code which you use to depict cer­tain sensations or ideas?

I don’t have an “alphabet” but rather what I would call the composer’s stilema [unity of style]; that is to say, what I feel dramatic­ally for that character. So inde­pendently of how the character is written, I insist on my style for interpreting a character.

How would you define your style, and how does it come about?

Well that’s a difficult question for me. The exact moment when the musical idea occurs is quite elusive. Sometimes I spend days pursuing that moment and I can’t find it; then, just when I least expect it, it hits me.
So, it is very difficult for me to tell you how that ‘magic’ moment comes about, when a musical idea takes form and resolves a situation of creative difficulty, or the initial crisis when writing any sort of music. It is like love between a man and a woman: the first moment is something unqualifiable.
I would have to say that it is the unconscious sum of all the things I love: from the music I love to people, things, experiences from childhood. The sum of all this is combined with study and guidance of my maestro and the condensed technique acquired from certain composers.
In the cinema, you have to create sensations and to do this you have to have recourse to various modes of communication, but not to the sum of the various modes, rather the synthesis of them. For example, with Once Upon a Time in the West, I wrote a piece for Henry Fonda that em­ployed the pointillistic use of per­cussion to create a certain sensa­tion: tension, and a sense of hidden and growing danger. The use of the viola, when Fonda is trying to make love to Claudia Cardinale, was intended to create an atmosphere of tenderness.
I can talk about the results, but technique only expresses itself and evolves as I write. Terms like “pointillist” are perfectly correct but it is not really necessary to use them.

How do you treat the music in films such as the Battle of Algiers and Marco Polo so that it remains faithful to the ambience?

There are two distinct divisions. One is the music of the characters, which expresses them quite apart from the ambience in which they are situated. The other type is about the ambience of places, and is suggested by the circumstances and reality of where the action is situated. These are two completely different types of music. The first deals with the interior aspect of the character, and is done by the com­poser. The second is less the music of the composer. If I write music on Chinese folklore it is my music only by chance; Chinese folk music has been in existence a lot longer than I have and is part of a historic process. I can’t use authentic instruments.

With the film you have recently worked on, Once Upon a Time in America, the action commences in the 1920s and finishes in 1968. This must cover a wide variety of musical types, such as the 1920s jazz…

I can write jazz very well; it isn’t a problem for me. But it doesn’t involve much invention because jazz is something already historically acquired. It would be the same if I had to do a film about Mozart and write music alla Mozart; that would be an exercise of pure craftsmanship. But it wouldn’t be my music, it would be the music of Mozart.
If I were to compare the jazz music in Leone’s film with my themes, mine are far more important: they come into the film when the camera looks into the eyes of the character. The theme then singles out what he is thinking at that moment, what is going on inside, what he is about to say. The pain and joy inside a character is what my music is about. The jazz themes don’t function like that; they are atmospheric and casual music, incidental to the story and the places.
Not all films pose this problem of historical music and character music. For example, A Man and a Woman takes place in a contemporary setting and the audience listens with the mind and ears of today. The division between the historical music and the charac­ter’s music doesn’t occur; the music is very precisely one type: music of today, for characters of today, for a film which takes place today.

Have there been instances where you have had carte blanche?

There have been instances when directors have said to me: “I don’t know what to say to you, do as you think best” — for example, with Roberto Faenza on his first film. This doesn’t mean that the director doesn’t want to discuss the matter, but that he wants the composer to go away and think about it, and then come back with suggestions. Then if he likes the idea he agrees; if he doesn’t, it becomes the basis for discussion. I rather like this liberty because it is an encourage­ment, an act of faith, which most of the time doesn’t occur.

What is your working relationship with Sergio Leone?

There is a lot of talking, of listening to things. Quite fre­quently, everything is scrapped and we start again from scratch. Often when everything has been accepted Sergio starts to doubt the decision and then more doubts come. It becomes a very compli­cated process that has to be endured. But it is quite normal that it should be like this; it doesn’t upset me, or even bother me, because it means that when a decision is finally made it is the right one.

What about with Elio Petri?

There was something which hap­pened on the last film of Elio Petri, Buone notizie (Good News), with Giancarlo Giannini and Angela Molina. Elio wanted me to write music, drawing on the spirit of a theme from Schubert’s piano sonata. I listened to this sonata on a tape borrowed from the RAI. [This sonata has only recently been discovered.] So for trial purposes I composed three variations for Petri, which were to refer just slightly to the Schubert theme to interpret the grotesque quality and humor of the film. I wrote these three pieces, recorded them and then set about editing them with Petri.
But the editor, Ruggero Mastroianni, a friend of mine as well as of Elio Petri, said to us, “But the film disappears here because of the music.” He was right. Petri and I agreed to scrap that music and I wrote other music which was recorded and cut, and worked very well.
It is not as if everything proceeds with enormous ease in the cinema. There is always a lot of toil. The difference between something which works well and something which doesn’t is often quite small. If Ruggero’s judgment in that case hadn’t been so explicit and lucid, then the music for Buone notizie would have been that of Schubert rather than what subse­quently was written. The film would have suffered.

What was the collaboration be­tween you and Pier Paolo Pasolini like?

Very good. He was a quite extra­ordinary person in his manner of working. My first meeting with Pasolini happened through a mutual friend, his director of pro­duction, Enzo Ocone. He called me in for Uccellacci e uccellini (The Hawks and the Sparrows), and Pasolini arrived with a list of music that he wanted me to use, such as Mozart. I said to Pasolini, “Look, I think you’ve made a mistake in calling me”, because I wasn’t one who applied, re-did or re-worked music — I wrote it. So he said to me, “Okay, you are right, go ahead and do what you think.” He let me do what I wanted and the only piece I had to re-do was a reference to a piece from “The Magic Flute” for one instrument, I can’t remember which. He was very happy with what I did and with the scores for Canterbury Tales, Arabian Nights and the Decameron.
I did very little of the music for Salo; Pasolini wanted music of the period and so I helped out. But it is not as if I wrote the music; it was more like a technical consultation. The only piece of mine, which is five or six minutes long, is the music of the pianist who attends all these terrible situations and then eventually throws herself out the window. It is, shall we say, dodecaphonic.
I also re-worked old music for Canterbury. There is virtually nothing of mine in Canterbury.

You have done so many different scores that you now must be able to treat just about anything…

I am capable of doing anything. This can also be negative in the sense that I could be accused of qualunquismo [a jack of all trades and master of none]. However, I believe that because I can do anything with a certain ease it makes me capable of aspatial fantasy and using aspatial technique more freely. By varying what I do I always have the possibility to express myself and to rediscover things. I would say that this is a need of mine, because I am not a musician and composer limited to one thing, such as Westerns. Certainly I have had success with Westerns and I am perhaps better known for these than for other things. But I have done many things. Certain art films in the Italian cinema use music I have written, which is certainly worthy of respect.

Do you feel that today you are recognized more as a composer for the cinema?

Yes. Those who like me, who have heard me and who have studied me know that the other aspect also exists. But most people think I am a composer for the cinema and that is all. I would like everybody to know that I am something else.

Cinema Papers, December 1984, pp. 425-427


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