Ennio Morricone

Applied and Absolute Music
(an interview of Stefano Catucci in Februar 2007)

On February 25th, the night of the Oscars Ennio Morricone will receive the lifetime achievement Award for the 300+ soundtracks he has composed since 1961, the year he worked on Luciano Salce's Il federale. At the time he was 33. He was born in Rome in 1928, and was the pupil of one of Italy's greatest 20th century composers, Goffredo Petrassi. Right from the beginning he combined the composing of classical music with a series of works that would strengthen his versatility. As a composer of what he calls "applied music", Morricone always tried to exploit his experience, so that not only in his soundtracks but also in the light music arrangements produced in the 1960s for RCA he would constantly filter an idea, a sound, an approach to voices or instruments to reflect the more demanding boundaries of music in those years. We need only recall the chorus accompanying EdoardoVianello in Abbronzatissima, with its apparently irregular, out-of-place rhythm, the text broken up into "nonsense", the pure invention of the arranger, and compare it with the rhythmic, energetic, fragmentary choruses that appear like intruders in the soundtracks of Il buono, il brutto e il cattivo (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly) for example, or C'era una volta il West (Once upon a time in the West) - the legendary "shon-shon" sound - or later in The Mission.
Morricone himself says he has been a sort of "smuggler", exporting into everyday music the inventions of serious music of his time. While for years he continued to compose classical music as "second nature", keeping it separate from his better known works, this gap has been narrowing over the past decade and, thanks to an age that is more generous with the use of "contaminations", Morricone now gives concerts that include both his "absolute" and "applied" music, i.e. his much-loved sound tracks. He will be in New York again in February, on the 2nd at the Radio City Hall and the 3rd at UN Headquarters. At the UN he will conduct his own composition, Voices from silence, written soon after the tragedy of the Twin Towers but dedicated to the memory of "all massacres".

The Maestro speaks
We caught up with Ennio Morricone in Rieti, prior to a concert in his honour, just a few days after the news about the Oscar.

In your classical pieces you use unusual instruments like the marimba or harmonica. But of course everyone can recall such unexpected, "just right" sounds in your soundtracks, sometimes with the support of a very simple theme, just three harmonica notes in Once upon a time in the West. Your teacher, Goffredo Petrassi, once confessed to me that he had never met anyone more skilled than you in utilisíng the expressive potential of the most humble of instruments, like an ocarina, jew's-harp, reed flute, or a man whistling...
The choice of a sound or a tone is very important, but it cannot be isolated from all the rest. Music requires simplicity to come to the point in the shortest time possible. The timbre, or tone, can be a means to obtain this result. But there would be no success without a coherent composition logic to properly highlight the characteristics of that sound, and sometimes to exploit its defects.

When did you discover this inclination to choose unusual sounds? Was it like that from the beginning? Your biographies mention the first compositions at the age of six...
Never mind that, please, they were nothing, or even worse. I came across them recently, and even with all the comprehension I might have for my own childhood, they are terrible. Do you know what I composed? "Hunts", forest scenes in the style of Weber's Franco Cacciatore (Der
Freischütz), which I had heard because my father, a trumpet player, performed them with his little orchestra. I wrote the pieces for horns only, because I was attracted by the narrative and epic force of that sound. Come to think of it, it could be because I had these "hunts" in my blood that I was so comfortable with westerns.

Like horns, other instruments you have often used also evoke a sense of distance. In your music, including your concerts, there is this effect, together with a light touch.
I think I have developed a personal technique to obtain lightness, turning to the classical masters of counterpoint. Without going too deeply into technical detail, I can say that counterpoint balances the rigid, straightforward aspect of a vertical harmony consisting of full chords, extending it horizontally so the harmony emerges from a combination of various waves of sounds. This is why counterpoint helps define that sensation of lightness and suspension that has almost become a style "signature" for me.

Is this how you also conceive your melodies, with the same need for simplicity and lightness?
Yes, the melodies, too. Some of the most famous ones I have written consist of very few notes; sometimes I have risked my reputation by proposing themes of just three, at most four notes, but they have always worked very well.

How would you define this function?
Music is the non-realistic element of cinema. Unless you see the source of the sound, as happens rarely only when there is a scene with someone playing or showing a record or a radio being played, and so on, in films the music comes from an undefined other place, an abstract place that can very well be identified with the place where the imagination leads. This means that music requires its own space, that not everyone is willing to grant, especially those who insert it in the context of “realistic" noises, which in addition to ruining the music make it ineffective. Instead of overriding it with something else, it would be better not to have any at all.
Sergio Leone understood very well that music needs space to expand in, and he gave this space. And so the music works as a basic ingredient of the narrative, becoming a poetic additive. The success of a sound-track depends very much on the space that the director gives.

The reason given by the Academy for awarding the Oscar to your career, after five nominations in the past, is that your soundtracks have become "very widely known and much loved masterpieces".
Apparently I have found directors who have given the proper space to my music. Or if you prefer, my music has taken this space.

For a long time Ennio Morricone kept separate the categories of "applied" and "absolute" music (the latter being classical music written without the conditions imposed by another art). Early works include the Sonata for brass, kettledrums and piano, followed in 1960 with the
Concerto for orchestra performed in Venice. In 1965 he started to work with the radical avant-garde group "Nuova Consonanza" founded by Franco Evangelisti. Some of Morricone's most significant classical works include the Cantata per l'Europa, Una Via Crucis, Ut for trumpet and orchestra, the Third concerto for guitar, marimba and string orchestra and the Fourth concerto for organ, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones and orchestra. More recent is Voci dal silenzio, which Morricone will direct in New York on 2nd February at the charity concert staged in his honour at the UN Headquarters in New York and on 3rd February at the big concert-event at The Radio City music Hall.


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