Interview: Film Music Maestro Ennio Morricone

Oct 1, 2008 12:00 PM, By Mike Clark



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Conducting the Ennio Morricone Orchestra in RCA Studio A, Rome, in 1965.

Conducting the Ennio Morricone Orchestra in RCA Studio A, Rome, in 1965.
Photo: From the book C’era una volta la RCA by M. Becker, courtesy of Coniglio Editore

Watching Ennio Morricone receive his Honorary Award for “magnificent and multifaceted contributions to the art of film music” at the 79th Academy Awards ceremony in February 2007, viewers were able to grasp in his speech (which was translated by Clint Eastwood) the humble, down-to-earth nature of one of cinema's most inventive and original composers.

Morricone's career dates back to 1961, when, a few years after obtaining diplomas in trumpet and composition at Rome's Santa Cecilia Conservatory, he began working on music for A Fistful of Dollars (1964), the first of a series of legendary Western soundtracks for Sergio Leone. During an almost 50-year career, Morricone has scored more than 400 films, working with many of the world's top directors. His best-known soundtracks include The Battle of Algiers, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Sacco and Vanzetti, Cinema Paradiso, The Legend of 1900, Malena, The Untouchables, Once Upon a Time in America, The Mission and U-Turn. Apart from his ex-schoolmate Leone, his illustrious clients have included filmmakers such as Gillo Pontecorvo, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Bernardo Bertolucci, Giuliano Montaldo, Giuseppe Tornatore, Brian De Palma, Roman Polanski, Warren Beatty, Oliver Stone, Margarethe von Trotta, Henri Verneuil, Pedro Almodóvar and Roland Joffé.

“The film's director is my client and is the person who contacts me,” says Morricone, 80, from the home in Rome where he does all his writing. “There are various ways of going about the job. Sometimes I discuss the film with the director or he gives me the script to read; on other occasions, I view the first edit, the dailies or the final cut, and when I've got clear ideas I meet for discussions with the director and submit my ideas. I have a very close relationship with the directors I work with. Their collaboration is very important, but they must put their complete trust in the composer: Some directors have very clear, sometimes restrictive, ideas on what they want from a musical point of view, which limits composers' creativity.”

The Composer's Approach

The average viewer might imagine that when a composer hasn't seen the edited film but only read the script, he might begin by writing the main theme, but Morricone says that this is not always the case: “Every film has a characteristic feature, which can be suggested by the director or ‘felt’ by the composer. This characteristic must remain, and the music is born from that certain feel, typical feature or style that the composer grasps. Each composer reacts personally to the film's action and style — the director's ‘poetics,’ the images, story and key sequences or scenes. So, in theory, 10 composers will write 10 totally different scores for the same film and they could all be good — if the composers are.”

Another commonplace notion refuted by Morricone is that a composer's approach varies according to the type of film — a love story, an action movie, a Western, etc. “My personal approach is always the same,” he says, “but it could vary, for example, if the director gives the composer carte blanche or is restrictive as far as music is concerned.”

He notes that the time he needs to score a feature will vary according to the amount of music in each film, adding that it also “depends a lot on the period of reflection required: In some cases, I have a very clear idea of what to do almost as soon as I see a film, whereas in others a lengthy period of thought may be required. However, when I've got clear ideas and am in agreement with the director, it might take two or three weeks — even just 10 days!”

The Score in the Studio

Morricone stresses the particular importance of his working relationship with studio sound engineers. “I met [the late] Franco Patrignani at RCA's Rome studios on Via Tiburtina many years ago, and we had a great, friendly relationship. This is a must with the technicians with whom I work because their job is of fundamental importance — they don't write the music, but they have the job of realizing what the composer wants and they personally contribute to achieving the necessary results.”

In the late '60s, Morricone and three other top Italian composers (Armando Trovajoli, Luis Bacalov and Piero Piccioni) founded Forum Studios (Rome), which was helmed from 1979 by Patrignani, one of Italy's best-known engineers, and his wife. The couple evidently passed on the recording bug to their son, Marco, who worked in the studios from his teenage days while studying marketing and business administration and completely rebuilt the studios before founding Forum Music Village (FMV). Since then, FMV has hosted top Italian and international artists, including Morrissey, who also worked with Morricone, and cellist Yo-Yo Ma, who recorded Yo-Yo Ma Plays Ennio Morricone in 2003. Recently, Morricone recorded music there for an ad for a new Lancia car, featuring Richard Gere and directed by Harald Zwart (Pink Panther 2), so he does more than just feature scoring.

Fabio Venturi is the composer's regular studio and live sound engineer these days. He explains how their methods have changed since he first began working with Morricone 10 years ago: “When I first began, for multitrack projects we used 21 analog tracks with Dolby SR, then passed on to Sony 24-track DASH machines and, more recently, Pro Tools,” Venturi says. “These upgrades led to big changes in the way recordings were produced, thanks to greater possibilities in terms of editing, number of tracks and sound management, and processing via plug-ins. Although Morricone has never gone into the application details of the hardware used, he's always been very aware of the operative possibilities offered by new technology and its creative use, such as loops, digital sound processing, et cetera.”

As far as miking techniques, Venturi says the main change over the years has been the increase in the quantity due to the larger number of tracks available. Venturi has used classic miking schemes such as the Decca Tree (both on the orchestra as a whole and for sections), but he continues to experiment. He's been known to use the SPL Atmos 5.1 surround recording system with Brauner's ASM 5 5-channel adjustable surround microphone, for example. “Changes as far as desks were concerned weren't so radical,” Venturi offers. “We passed from a Harrison 32-input analog to a Neve analog console; input quality and quantity is without a doubt better, but the modus operandi remained unchanged.”

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