Thursday, February 15, 2007

The Maestro of Spaghetti Westerns Takes a Bow

NY Times -


FOR many filmmakers through the years, a certain kind of pilgrimage to Rome leads to the opulent parlor of the composer Ennio Morricone. It's the place where he has discussed grand concepts and crucial details, and often unveiled new themes on the piano, for the distinctive film scores he has written over the past four decades, from "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" to "The Mission." There are more than 400 of them, though he hasn't kept count.

Next Saturday Mr. Morricone, 78, makes his long-overdue American concert debut with 200 musicians and singers at Radio City Music Hall. It is the beginning of a triumphal month in the United States that will also include festivals of his films at the Museum of Modern Art and Film Forum, and the release of a tribute album, "We All Love Ennio Morricone" (Sony Masterworks), with performances from Bruce Springsteen, Renée Fleming, Herbie Hancock and Metallica, among others. On Feb. 25 he will be presented with an honorary Academy Award for lifetime achievement, atoning for past omissions. After five nominations, he has never won.

Massimo Gallotta, the promoter who is producing the concert, has been working for more than a year to present Mr. Morricone's American debut. "It was strange for me that Morricone had never performed here in the past," Mr. Gallotta said. "He agreed right away. And then I was lucky about the Oscar, the CD, everything."

Mr. Morricone has given concerts periodically in Europe, including a December performance that drew 50,000 people to the Piazza del Duomo in Milan. At Radio City he will lead the 100-piece Roma Sinfonietta orchestra, along with the 100-member Canticum Novum Singers.

Everyone except Maestro Morricone, as he is called in Rome, considers him startlingly prolific. Along with his hundreds of film scores, he has composed a sizable body of concert music like "Voci dal Silencio" ("Voices From the Silence"), a cantata he wrote in response to "the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 and all the massacres of humanity all over the world," he said. He will be performing that work on Friday at the United Nations, at a concert welcoming the new secretary general, Ban Ki-moon.

"The notion that I am a composer who writes a lot of things is true on one hand and not true on the other hand," he said in an interview at his home, speaking in Italian through a translator. "Maybe my time is better organized than many other people's. But compared to classical composers like Bach, Frescobaldi, Palestrina or Mozart, I would define myself as unemployed."

Maestro Morricone is a flinty, pragmatic character, but one who marvels at what he called "the strange miracle of music." He looked like a bespectacled businessman, wearing a sport jacket, dark trousers, white shirt and tie. He greeted any generalizations about his work with a shrug, or a terse, "That is up to the audience to decide." But through the years he has created music that is as memorable as the films it accompanies, and sometimes more so.

Audiences respond to the operatic sweep of themes like the ones he wrote for "Cinema Paradiso" and "Once Upon a Time in America." Musicians prize the ingenuity of his writing: the unexpected harmonic turns, the odd meters (even in tunes that seem to be marches), the use of silence and wide spaces between instruments. Meanwhile hipsters and producers delight in the almost sardonic themes he wrote for films like "Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion" and the striking, sample-ready timbres he has invented.

For "1900" he wrote a score that encompasses Italian folk songs and dance music as well as symphonic arrangements. "He is someone with two identities," said Bernardo Bertolucci, that film's director. "One is the composer of contemporary music, and the other is this composer of big epics, this popular music for movies. All his life he has been trying to nourish one identity with the other one, and it is as if the two voices were enriching each other. He has a great capacity of harmonizing in himself."

Maestro Morricone's parlor, in a palazzo with a view of the Campidoglio hill in the center of Rome, is a Baroque room so large that the grand piano is almost lost amid the lavishly ornamented chairs, couches and tables. A small silver frame holds a family photo full of children and grandchildren. (He has three sons and a daughter; one son, Andrea, is a composer, and another, Giovanni, is a film director.)

At one corner of the room, a doorway leads into the office where Mr. Morricone writes his music. An unobtrusive movie screen, big enough for some multiplexes, can unroll down one wall of the parlor. On the other walls an antique tapestry of the abduction of the Sabine women is flanked by surreal, turbulent 20th-century paintings full of striking colors and brooding shadows.

The room's mixture of elegant history and menacing modernity echoes the qualities that have made generations of directors — from Sergio Leone with "A Fistful of Dollars" to Terrence Malick with "Days of Heaven" to Roland Joffe with "The Mission" to Giuseppe Tornatore with "Cinema Paradiso" and "Malèna" — seek out Mr. Morricone.

He composes not at the piano or on a computer but at an imposing desk in his writing studio, amid shelves of books, LPs, CDs, tapes and DVDs. On a coffee table supported by a realistic rhinoceros is a neat stack of score paper with all the parts for an orchestra written in pencil: Mr. Morricone's next batch of soundtracks.

His extensive background in classical music can be heard in his swelling love themes and in his meticulous orchestrations, which can suggest the stateliness of the 18th century or the eerie dissonances of the 20th. Unlike younger film composers who create their music as studio recordings rather than manuscripts, or who hand off their themes for others to arrange, Mr. Morricone writes full scores and conducts them himself.

"He doesn't have a piano in his studio," said the director Barry Levinson, who commissioned Mr. Morricone for "Bugsy," a soundtrack nominated for an Academy Award. "I always thought that with composers, you sit at the piano, and you try to find the melody. There's no such thing with him. He hears a melody, and he writes it down. He hears the orchestration completely done."

Mr. Morricone grew up playing trumpet like his father, who worked in jazz bands and opera orchestras; sometimes Ennio substituted for him at gigs. While studying trumpet and composition at the Conservatorio di Santa Cecilia in Rome, Mr. Morricone was also arranging and sometimes writing pop songs. His film scores invoke centuries of popular music, from tarantellas and polkas to psychedelia, lounge pop and avant-garde jazz.

Mr. Morricone has also experimented constantly with timbre, using surf-rock guitar or jew's harp, panpipes or synthesizer, wordless voices or exotic percussion. For the beginning of "Once Upon a Time in the West," he persuaded the director, Mr. Leone, not to use conventional instruments at all: just amplified ambient sounds, from the creak of a swinging sign to the screech of an arriving train.

He pushes instruments to the extremes of their ranges and dynamics, and voices too. For "Navajo Joe," he drew yowls and shrieks from the singers he hired. "When they finished recording, they were crying because what had been done sounded so terrible to them," Mr. Morricone said with satisfaction.

His approach, he said, reflects his education and his era. "I have studied the expressive methods of the entire history of musical composition," he said. "At times I turn more toward light music, at times I turn more toward serious music. I mingle things, and sometimes I turn into a chameleon. We are living in a modern world, and in contemporary music the central fact is contamination, not the contamination of disease but the contamination of musical styles. If you find this in me, that is good."

In the films that established his reputation in the 1960s, the series of spaghetti westerns he scored for Mr. Leone, Mr. Morricone's music is anything but a backdrop. It's sometimes a conspirator, sometimes a lampoon, with tunes that are as vividly in the foreground as any of the actors' faces. The sound of an ocarina, the humble potato-shaped ceramic flute, made his name in the 1960s in the theme for "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly."

That theme was typical Morricone: a tenacious melody put across by an unlikely, unpretty, arresting combination of instruments. "I always follow an idea," he said, "and if an idea tells me I've got to use strange combinations of instruments, then I do what works." For Mr. Morricone the plan was simple. "I wanted to differentiate three timbres — the good, the bad and the ugly," he said. "A silver flute, sounding sweet, is the good. The ocarina is the ugly. And the bad is the voices of two men singing together, off key.

"I should not be revealing this," he continued. "These are family secrets."

Metallica has been using "The Ecstasy of Gold," from the same movie, as its entrance music since 1983, and performs its own version of the piece on the new tribute album.

"To me his music is just absolutely inspirational, corny as that may sound," said James Hetfield, Metallica's singer and guitarist. "He has taken so many risks, and his music is not polished whatsoever. It's very rude and blatant. All of a sudden a Mexican horn will come blasting through and just take over the melody. It's just so raw, really raw, and it feels real, unpolished. You hear mistakes in it, and that's just great — if they are mistakes. Who knows? There's so much character in it, and I appreciate that in such a polished world of soundtracks."

After he became known for Mr. Leone's spaghetti westerns, Mr. Morricone went on to write for every imaginable genre: crime films like "The Untouchables," historical epics like "Burn!," horror movies like "The Thing," art films like "Teorema," even an occasional comedy. He has worked with virtually every major Italian director after Fellini, as well as a long international list.

Mr. Morricone chooses his commissions based almost entirely on his trust in the director, he said. "Sometimes I read the script, sometimes I read the main part of the story, and sometimes I just watch the film when it's done and that's it," he said.

"When you work in cinema, you can't exclude anything," he added. "Lately I have scored a film, and the film had not been shot yet. It was just being shot, and I just heard the director's story of the film. This is not as negative as it seems to be, because it gives the composer the possibility to just express music — music and only music."

Mr. Levinson said that unlike many film scorers, Mr. Morricone does not want to hear the temporary music many directors use while shooting. He watches a movie without accompaniment and takes notes, sometimes coming up with themes immediately. "They usually give you less time than necessary, but I usually ask for a month," he said. "When I have to compose I have no holidays. I write every day. And Saturday and Sunday are even better, because the phone doesn't ring that much."

Mr. Morricone is wary of having too much music in a film. "It's useless," he said. "After a while the audience loses track, and you cannot appreciate the psychological idea and aim that the music has."

He often presents himself as the servant of the director and the film. "Time is the element they have in common, music and cinema," he said. "You have to take into account the actors, the plot, the intention of the director and the story you are going to score."

But he is more than a functionary. His own personality, what he has called a "musical calligraphy," comes through. "A composer is conditioned by the film, but he has to find a way to overcome these limits," he said. "And how does he do this? Through his musical culture, through his great passion for musicians of the past. And doing it time after time, little by little it becomes a style."

Is his own story in the music? "That's a romantic idea of composing, that there is autobiographical inspiration in things," he said. "Some composers, perhaps, they see a woman and say, 'I'm going to write something extraordinary because I'm thinking of her.' "

And has that happened to him? He scowled. "Niente," he said emphatically. "Never."

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