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A Quietus Interview

Ennio Morricone Interviewed: "Compared To Bach, I'm Practically Unemployed"
John Doran , April 8th, 2010 12:42

John Doran asks the Maestro about heavy metal, his fearsome work ethic and his fusion of the avant garde and the mainstream. Translator: Roberta Rinaldi

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Ennio Morricone is not a slight man. He is a slim man. A man of average height. But he is not slight.

It would be fair enough, perhaps, to say that he is unconcerned with being prepossessing. Perhaps less plagued with status anxiety than most. Certainly he is not a big head... not a man full of braggadocio. He probably has more right than most musicians and composers alive to be at least content with his position in the greater scheme of things. When you watch him conduct a full orchestra and choir – whether playing one of his neo-classical cantatas or one of his numerous film scores – he accepts the tumultuous, deafening, standing ovations that are thrust upon him with good grace mixed with a humorous grumpiness. After three or four encores in a venue with literally thousands of people stood on tip toe shouting "More Maestro! More!" He furrows his brow, points at his watch, then himself before striding off waving, not to return. It is as if he’s saying: ‘Come on. I am 81 you know...’

He is sprightly and energetic on stage and appears to be somewhere in the region of 20 or 30 years younger than he actually is. But despite his size and the way he carries himself, he casts a shadow that is long and wide across the music of the second half of the 20th Century and beyond. It is not surprising that when you watch him conduct, as a viewer you are overwhelmed with conflicting emotions. You are surrounded by adults weeping. The sober and normally staid shouting for more. What have we lost along the way with the way we enjoy music now? Have we lost something important? Something essential perhaps? There are certainly currently few things to compare with the visceral impact. Important season end finals conducted by Premiership football clubs. Certain concerts perhaps by Slayer, The Pixies or Leonard Cohen at a push.

The last time I had the privilege of watching the Maestro at work, I saw in front of me a handy metaphor for the reach of this jazz musician, OST writer, library music author, neo-classical powerhouse, pop hit maker, devotional composer... As soon as he gestured that there would be no more and the ten or fifteen minutes of wild applause died down a few rows in front of me feted graphic novel author Alan Moore and Brit rock singer from Kasabian Tom Meighan immediately turned to one another with mouths agape to discuss exactly how amazing the show had just been, like ten year olds after watching Empire Strikes Back for the first time.

Ennio Morricone was born in Rome in 1928 and never left. He wears it as a badge of pride that he never moved to America (specifically Hollywood) and never learned to speak English. Two things that probably helped his career and reputation in the long run. But given that he has always worked in a wide field of composition genres, from absolute music, which he has always produced, to applied music, working as orchestrator as well as conductor in the recording field, and then as a composer for theatre, radio and cinema, you get the impression, he’s never really cared that much about his standing in the eyes of Hollywood.

Since starting his career as film music composer in 1961 with the film Il Federale directed by Luciano Salce he has worked on over 500 scores. He is undoubtedly most famous worldwide for his astounding work on Sergio Leone’s Italian westerns: A Fistful Of Dollars (1964), For A Few Dollars More (1965), The Good, The Bad And The Ugly (1966), Once Upon A Time In The West (1968) and A Fistful Of Dynamite (1971). But this is only a mere fraction of the story. His film scores have been used by directors as diverse and feted as Pier Paolo Pasolini, Bernardo Bertolucci, Brian De Palma (with whom he has a very close artistic bond), Dario Argento, Pedro Almodovar and Roland Joffè. And that is before discussing the 100 or more concert or absolute works he has written and not to mention the dizzying array of easy listening, jazz, lounge and avant pop he has produced. (Some great examples of which can be found on the Mike Patton compiled Crimes And Dissonance anthology on Ipecac.)

He has little in common with the popular image of him as a cantankerous interviewee. In fact one gets the impression that he’s pretty much a riot when not constantly being asked about The Good, The Bad And The Ugly or Clint Eastwood. He shouts, laughs and sings his way through the interview while his trusted interpreter Roberta has to regularly chide him for saying more than she can possibly hope to remember without breaking off for a pause.

Hello Maestro! How are you?

Ennio Morricone: Good evening! I am well.

As a rock journalist primarily, I’ve been aware for a long time that your influence is evident across the 40 year history of heavy rock and metal, from Black Sabbath and Babe Ruth in the 1970s through Mike Patton of Faith No More and Metallica and beyond. I was wondering if you had any appreciation of this genre and if you see a link between it and what you do yourself?

EM: There is not really much of a link other than for one thing: the simplicity of the form. That is, usually we would both use a three tone chord, say C major for example. That is what I use and that is what they use, so perhaps that is the link you were talking about.

Going back as far as 1968, you composed 38 original soundtracks in one year! But even now in 2010, you show little or no sign of slowing down. To what do you owe your fearsome work ethic?

EM: First of all, I’ve never composed 38 soundtracks in just one year! Let me explain, so you understand. It would be impossible to compose 38 soundtracks in just one year! I have never scored over 12 or 13 soundtracks in one year, but even this number as you understand is a big number already. Sometimes, you know, some of the films are not released in the year in which I am commissioned to write the scores. Sometimes the films are delayed so what happens is that, sometimes, they’re all released at once. So, for example, a number of horror films come out at once and people believe that I have composed all the scores for that year in one go but that is not always the case. Due to the distribution system the release dates change all the time.

Be that as it may, even if the number of film scores is 12 or 13 a year, that is still a large amount of work to be produced alongside other classical or jazz works, and you are still very prolific to this day, so what do you owe this amount of work to?

EM: EH!? NO! NO! NO! It is not much to compose 12 or 13 cantatas in one year because if you think about it Bach, for example, used to compose one cantata a week. He had to compose the music in time for it to be performed in church on Sunday so if you just consider Bach, you will see that I’m practically unemployed!

Ha ha!

EM: And if you consider that Bach did not just compose the music for the Sunday church but he actually used to composed for loads of different reasons. As you know his body of work is huge and of course he used to work right from the morning through to the evening, which is what I do. This is the only comparison to be made between me and Bach, however, that we both work all day and evening long. But if it is your job to be a composer then the one thing you must do is compose! You have to work and maybe there are some times when you don’t want to compose and you take a day off but that is it.

Is there a therapeutic element to what you do? If you had ever needed to take an enforced year or two off, would you have been lost without the work?

EM: You know what happens to me? When I finish off a project, whether that is a film soundtrack or a score for example, I always suspect that I am not going to be able to do it anymore. I always feel like I won’t be able to do it anymore, even if I only stop for a very short time. I feel like my creative flame might disappear. This question makes me think of great singers like Pavarotti. A great opera singer, like Pavarotti, would tell me that when he woke up every morning the first thing he would do is become afraid that his voice had gone and that he couldn’t sing any more. So the first thing that singers like him would do every morning, before even getting out of bed, is they would sing for their wives [imitates histrionic tenor] "Oooooh, Maria! Where are you!?" Just to check that his voice is still there!

In recent years, in Hollywood, you have also been linked with Quentin Tarantino - most recently on Inglorious Basterds. Now this happened in a slightly odd way, in that he took your music, which had already achieved fame through its association with other films, and added it to his own film. Did this seem strange to you?

EM: Actually, I was really happy with what he did and I thought it really worked well. The thing is that as what he did was take the different scores from different films and put them all together...what I think he did was just to put them in the right place and used them in the right way. But first, if you are talking about coherence, it was not really there in terms of ideas and conversation because those things are different and taken from different ideas and films. But I think it really worked well though.

A lot of the time your work is so specific that it actually works as a plot device. A good example of this, I would say, is that of the musical fob watch in For A Few Dollars More. Every time the bandit produces the watch it plays a slightly different tune and this helps the viewer judge his state of mind. I was wondering, in your opinion, which of your soundtracks helps push on the plot the most or helps the viewer of the film understand the psychology of the characters on screen the most?

EM: I need to explain a few things before I can answer this question. Say for example if you gave a scene from a film to ten different composers, you would get ten different compositions which would all be good but would all characterize the film in different ways. The differences would be according to the composer’s state of mind, their personality, their individual style and imagination...So actually when I’m given a scenario like that one, it is just my personality, my style, my ideas and my imagination that I use to depict and describe what is going on musically, in the way I see it.

But do you agree that with the watch in For A Few Dollars More, every time it is used in that film, it specifically tells you what is going through the bandit’s mind?

EM: Yes, I do agree with you and in this case the music that the watch makes transfers your thought to a different place because it is just a watch and of course every time the bandit winds on this watch this character, who is thinking about his life and all the difficult situations he has been in and has lived through, the rage, the violence, the fear, come out through this watch. The character itself comes out through the watch but in a different situation every time it appears.

How difficult is it to express these profoundly fundamental human emotions that need to be expressed in a lot of films and that affect all of us, without resorting to musical cliché?

EM: That actually depends on when you’re writing something that you’re writing music with psychological complexity rather than in cliché or something predictable but this in turn depends on the composer and his way of feeling things and interpreting things. Because if he can write with psychology then he can hopefully tell you more about the thing that the music is describing. If he can disclose something different maybe it’s because he is a deep person or has studied music deeply or knows exactly how to use music from a psychological point of view. If he has a deep culture in music or a deep sensitivity he may get there but then it also depends on where he wants to get... it depends on who he actually is as a person...

Was there a palpable sense in the late 1960s through to the late 1970s that the avant garde had collided with the mainstream - especially in the field of soundtracks? And at the time, did it feel like the avant garde had taken a great leap forward for good?

EM: Well, actually avant garde music did not take over the mainstream. Speaking about myself, for example, I used the avant garde music when scoring films as an experiment. I wanted to experiment with going deep into the traumatic recesses of the film. And I used this music when I wanted to describe a certain kind of trauma, when the situation was very, very difficult or when something horrible had happened. For example, when I started to score for the film director Dario Argento and I went ahead with scoring other films which are not so well known or famous. But after a while, let’s say that I started hearing people telling me "Ennio, if you keep on writing this kind of music then ‘they’ won’t call you anymore." And that’s when I had to quit with the avant garde music!

If I were to be very coarse... and I only mean this in the broadest possible terms... but if you were to split your career into two halves as a film writer then the first half would be as an edgy, underground and experimental composer and the second half would be as a very famous international star. I was wondering which half of your career, in these terms, offered you more freedom? The underground and relatively unknown or the famous and mainstream?

EM: First of all, I would like to tell you that you have really understood my career, which I am pleased about! It is really nice and really interesting what you have said. I will try and give you a short answer but the question is quite complicated. First, I should say that I got to have my artistic career in both halves of my career but let me explain further. Let’s say that what I did was quite unique because I used tonal music which you might call melodic music. And I used this style and into this type of music I sneaked in some styles of avant garde music and this was unnoticed. No-one really realised I was doing this directly. At this time I was a student of the School Of Vienna. It was a unique historical process that I did at this time. And I just wanted my work to be based on that because I just thought that it was very interesting and important for me to be following this process. And this resembled a clock going backwards because I was taking new things and adding them to very old ways of doing things. It is not very easy to explain this process! To give you an example for your reference, if you watch the opening credits to A Fistful Of Dynamite, in that particular score you will be able to definitely understand what I am talking about, being a student of the School of Vienna and the rest of it. This was a mixing or a mingling of tonal music and avant garde music. Another example is that when you change chords, there is no verticality. The music shifts from left to right and that is exactly what I mean by music that was written in those days.

Roberta: I hope you are understanding this. His explanations are very complicated and I am trying to be as literal as possible.

No, this is really interesting. Thank you. When you used to write library music, did you invent your own narrative for these scores and if the answer is ‘yes’, did you find that this made the transition to writing film scores, easier or more difficult?

EM: When I was arranging and composing library music in the early part of my career, what I used to do was give my music a kind of autonomy. I wanted music to go on by itself. To have a life of its own. And it was very useful for me when I was doing arrangements and things because listening to an orchestra in this way was very useful for when I went on to composing for films and actual musical composition for piano or for orchestra. This experience really helped me a lot.

Roberta: I think we’re almost there, sorry to interrupt...

When you composed ‘Se Telefonando’ for Mina, you had a massive hit with 'In Italy' in 1966. Did you feel like a pop star? Were you treated like a pop star?

EM: [indignant] The pop star was Mina. She was a proper pop star. I was not.

Did you meet Morrissey before working on some of the strings for Ringleader Of The Tormentors?

EM: I didn’t meet him personally, I spoke to the producer Tony Visconti before starting but you know, he did not use what I did for the album anyway. It was not his style.

Are you a fan of Miles Davis? And if so what is your favourite album by him?

EM: Miles Davis is a great artist and I love him. There is him and a handful of other American jazz artists that I feel a great emotional depth for. His music makes me happy. I love him.

It was a pleasure and an honour to speak to you.

EM: Thank you very much, it was a great interview, it was really interesting and you really had me work very hard to answer some of those questions!

Ennio Morricone will be in concert at the Royal Albert Hall, London on April 10 at 7.30 pm, where he will conduct a 100 piece orchestra and 100 person choir in performing his classic film soundtracks. Click here for ticket information.

The programme is as follows:



H2 S

Il Clan Dei Siciliani

Metti Una Sera a Cena

Uno Che Grida Amore (From the film: Metti Una Sera a Cena)

Coma Madalena (From the film: Maddalena)


The Good, The Bad And The Ugly - Titles

Once Upon A Time In The West

A Fistful Of Dynamite

The Good, The Bad And The Ugly - The Ecstacy Of Gold




Per Le Antiche Scale

L'eredita' Ferramonti


Gabriel's Oboe


On Earth As It Is In Heaven

With thanks to Stuart Kirkham, John Tatlock, Matt Evans and Matt Colgate for their help and advice