Tuesday 31 December 2019

Ennio Morricone In Conversation

Ennio Morricone and Jonathan Baz


At 91 years old and with a career that stretches back some 65 years, Ennio Morricone is one of the greatest film composers of our time. Much of his music is magnificent, some of it iconic, with his score for Sergio Leone's 1966 "spaghetti western" The Good, The Bad And The Ugly having become one of the most globally recognised movie tunes of all time.

More recent decades have seen Morricone’s scores for  Roland Joffe's The Mission and Giuseppe Tornatore's Cinema Paradiso (to name but two titles) garner virtually universal critical appreciation and only three years ago the composer earned his second Oscar and his sixth BAFTA win, this time for Quentin Tarantino's The Hateful Eight. There are of course more than just Oscars and BAFTAs in Morricone's trophy cabinet. Countless accolades pay tribute to a man of outstanding genius who even as this interview is published, is in the midst of composing for Tornatore's next project.

And so it was earlier this year that Ennio Morricone invited me to his home, an exquisitely furnished duplex set atop a luxury condo in a smart Rome suburb. The Maestro’s residence has been built and shared with Maria his wife of more than 60 years and it is a place where the warmth of the welcome was matched only by the fine coffee and stunning city views.

The impression within the Morricones’ apartment was not just that of homeliness (Maria was in the kitchen Skyping with son Giovanni in New York as I chatted to Ennio), but also of a place dedicated to culture and beauty with just a hint of politics too. The furnishings and artworks may have been breathtakingly gorgeous, but the ethos of the place was not one of extravagance, but rather that of talented achievement and quietly-spoken, beautifully assured modesty.

With Fabio Venturi, Morricone’s trusted sound engineer and right-hand man to act as interpreter, Morricone shared some observations upon his life and career with me and as one might expect from a man not only so accomplished but also wise, that he remained throughout the very essence of diplomacy. Not once was any particular individual or movie highlighted for exceptional praise, nor singled out for criticism. Read on...

Morricone’s extensive filmography has seen him score for more than 500 pictures across a diverse range of genres that can range from hauntingly passionate love, through to graphic horror. With numerous composers (including Hans Zimmer and John Williams) together with various "greats" from the rock and pop world citing Morricone as an influence, my first question was how he himself perceived the cultural handprint that his music has left upon the world over the last 60 years. In what was to be the first of many glimpses of Morricone’s profound understatement, a constant virtue throughout our conversation, he simply stated that he places himself at the service of any movie that he is engaged to compose for. With a stark humility, he stated his simple belief that it is solely the responsibility of the audiences listening to his music to form their own opinion as to what mark he may have left upon the world.


Our dialogue shifted from global impact to Morricone’s native beloved Italy. While he has worked for Hollywood studios, often to great acclaim, Morricone’s most prodigious output has been alongside his fellow native Italian filmmakers. Proponents of Italy’s culture will fiercely argue that the composer epitomises L’Italianità – an undefinable yet recognisable aura that stamps “Made In Italy” upon a work of art. Morricone however disagreed: notwithstanding his immense national pride, he was passionate in defining his music as international rather than parochial in its provenance.

Many of the movies that Morricone has scored over the years have included scenes of graphic violence and I was curious as to if he was ever personally troubled or affected by some of the imagery that his music had supported. In a fascinating reply he firstly commented that for the most part he finds himself unmoved by movie violence, looking at the scene and its interaction with his score as simply part of his job. That being said, when he first worked with Dario Argento (the Italian director, famous for his horror and giallo work) he realised the importance of atonality in music that can accompany horrific violence. Morricone strips away the harmony from such moments, analogous in a way to the scene’s brutality being in itself a stripping-away of humanity. However, In a footnote that further defined his savvy genius, Morricone added that where a movie may have been aimed at a more mainstream commercial market rather than for "arthouse" consumption, that he would factor that into his compositions and include more melody alongside the violence. 
And what, in his opinion, was the most gruesome movie that he had scored? The Maestro had no hesitation in telling me that Pier Paolo Pasolini's 1975 movie  Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom had been a project that he had found nigh-on impossible to stomach.


Morricone has lived through massive political change within his native Italy and a question I posed to him was whether his country's changing political landscape over the last nine decades had impacted upon his music? "Not at all" was his swift reply.

Recent decades have seen seismic shifts in how movies are viewed by their target audiences. At the start of Morricone's career, a cinema / theatrical was the only way to catch a film. Since then, more personal screenings be they via TV, or today’s various digital devices have outstripped the numbers of people buying cinema tickets. I asked the composer as to how that change in the way in which movies "are consumed" by modern audiences, may have impacted upon his work? Again, and with a refreshing commitment to artistic purity, Morricone commented that his composition is always driven by the drama either as a script or as acted - and that he is not distracted by mainstream changes in how a movie is ultimately to be watched. 
That being said, Morricone remains acutely aware of a film’s final sound balance and of the final mix between music, background ambient noise and dialogue. We discussed the extent of his involvement in the post-production of a movie's sound, where he indicated that he broadly leaves that decision entirely in the hands of the director. He did however hint intriguingly at one particular project from years gone by (sadly no names mentioned) in which he learned that the director had spent just one day (!) mixing and finalising the sound for the entire picture. His opinion of that project was scathing, although I was left longing for an indiscretion or two.


In 1968 Morricone was to score Sergio Leone’s Once Upon A Time In The West, a movie for which he has subsequently related that he composed two of the most haunting melodies - Jill’s Theme and The Man With The Harmonica - based solely upon the script and well before principal photography had even commenced or been storyboarded. The score, particularly the haunting soprano line in Jill’s Theme, went on to become one of Morricone’s most celebrated compositions and he spoke briefly about the constraints and indeed freedoms, of writing music for a movie that existed only on paper.

He explained that with a select few directors (including Leone of course), he was able to picture a very clear understanding of a movie's imagery from discussions and early planning. From these discussions, the critical themes of the narrative developed their musical form in ways that were only to be complemented by the finished picture.

The conversation then wandered onto the inspiration he draws upon for the "musical palette" to any particular score? His response was that typically such a palette emerges from his simple following of the filmed story. He will though always think carefully as to how "shocking" he may want a particular score to be. He spoke too of drawing inspiration from his environment and surrounds, relating how in 1995 as he was writing the score for Sostiene Pereira, Roberto Faenza’s political drama about Portuguese fascism, that it was the noise arising from a political demonstration  taking place on Rome’s Piazza Venezia, outside his (then) home, that was to provide the muse for that movie’s music.

Ennio Morricone's BAFTA for The Hateful Eight
Changing tack, the conversation returned to Morricone’s back catalogue of compositions. Modern day directors (most notably Tarantino, in a number of movies over the last 15 or so years) have sampled his previous compositions, incorporating the music into their 21st century pictures. I asked Morricone about the degree of editorial control (if any) that he sought to exercise over such use. 
Morricone expressed a relaxed attitude to how his music may have been used in subsequent soundtracks, but offered a fascinating glimpse into a  cultural “exchange” around The Hateful Eight. The Maestro suggested that while Tarantino had been free to select vintage melodies in his earlier soundtrack compilations, Morricone in turn, had been granted a relatively free hand in composing that movie’s  score. I asked if the movie marked Morricone's return to Westerns to which he replied that he had actually sought to place more emphasis upon the story’s dramatic edge rather than on its Western genre. He was however confident - a confidence subsequently affirmed by both the British and American Academies - that his work fitted the both the screenplay and the photography. 
It is worth noting that when Morricone won that 2016 Oscar, that he became the oldest Academy Award winner ever to triumph in a competitive category. Listen to the soundtrack recording and note the track entitled “Neve” that lasts for 12 minutes - an astonishing length of time for a movie composition in this day and age. Morricone spoke of his personal pride in the movie’s music, describing that track as having an almost symphonic beauty to it and of how he cherished having the rare opportunity to lay down such a score in this modern era of film-making.


As audiences grow to appreciate some of cinema’s more classic scores and with the assistance of 21st century techno-wizardry, there is a growing trend for movies to be screened with the original score digitally erased from the print and replaced by a live orchestra simultaneously performing the movie’s scored backdrop.

Morricone was, again, succinct on this. By all means, he said, go to a concert performance of a score where there may perhaps be subtle re-orchestrations of the work for the purposes of that particular event. However, where the movie is being screened then the music to accompany that experience should unquestionably be the original soundtrack as recorded - he was clear that his scores should never be live-played to accompany a screening.

The interview had taken place in the Morricones’ lounge - but I was curious to see more of the apartment. Chancing my luck upon the warm rapport that had been struck between the genius Italian composer and the curious English journalist, I grabbed the moment and asked the Maestro for a glimpse of “his Oscars”. Beaming with pride, he grasped my arm, escorting me to a staircase that led to his penthouse study. Rarely have I been in such a cockpit of profound creativity, in a room that is a testament to talent. The walls were covered in framed first editions of Morricone’s scores, together with certificates of honour and recognition that dated back to his graduation (first class, naturally) as a teenager from Rome’s Santa Cecilia Conservatory. The shelf of trophies was deafening in its silent tribute to their owner - but in discussing that room and its magnificence with Morricone, all he could say was that he took pride in all his compositions, irrespective of any production’s size or budget or pedigree.

Ennio Morricone - a man whose genius is matched only by his modesty.

With grateful thanks and appreciation to Fabio Venturi and Nanni Civitenga, who made this interview possible. 

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