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Ennio Morricone
Morricone In Colour Box Set John Doran , February 15th, 2013 10:43

Normally I’d baulk at quoting from one of my own interviews with a bona fide musical legend just to make a point in a review for fear of being branded a terrible name dropper. But seeing as some of the quotes I was toying with using already seem to have mysteriously made their way into the liner notes of this excellent box of eight reissued Italian soundtracks by Ennio Morricone, I don’t feel quite so gauche.

When I interviewed Maestro for our dear departed big sister paper, The Stool Pigeon, I put it to him that the sheer volume of film and TV scores he had worked on beggared belief. This is how it seemed to me at least. For since starting his career as a composer for the screen over half a century ago with the film Il Federale in 1961, he has worked on over 500 scores. Aside from his universally known work on Sergio Leone’s Italian Westerns, he has been used by such stellar directors as Pier Paolo Pasolini, Bernardo Bertolucci, Brian De Palma, Dario Argento, Pedro Almodovar, John Carpenter and Roland Joffè among a host of others. In fact if you look at the year 1968 alone then it appears that he worked on 38 soundtracks. He said this was a misconception and that sometimes due to studio politics and long periods of post-production, films featuring his work would sometimes bunch together and it was probably more likely that he only did “12 or 13” soundtracks that year.

When I suggested that this was still a relatively high number, especially considering all the rest of the music he was undertaking at the time including working in neo-classical (compositions he termed “absolute”), jazz and avant garde, he exploded into mock outrage: “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! … 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!”

And this is why it is relatively hard for modern audiences to get a handle on Morricone outside of the The Man With No Name films and The Mission OST etc. The size and breadth of his body of work is overwhelming to most modern music fans. His work ethic doesn't sit well with today's belief in the troubled auteur who spends months, if not years, altering, editing, polishing and even restarting a masterpiece. His busy-ness, his gleeful unpretentious relish in his job as being primarily a trade and his unstoppable forward momentum are things that should be fetishized by younger music fans.

It feels unfair to stick it to Kevin Shields, after all, this is the Century he chose to return with a new My Bloody Valentine album. But despite really taking off in the last third mbv actually feels rushed, badly produced and lacking in ideas or cohesiveness… having the luxury of time might benefit the artist but it really doesn’t benefit most art. I would bet any money that if Shields and co. were to go into the studio now and were forced on the pain of death to produce another album from scratch before the end of the year, it would be genuinely brilliant from start to finish, not simply refreshing because it was completely unexpected.

While there are obviously exceptions to every rule, the idea of the sensitive, god-like artist, one step apart from (or above) us mere mortals, too busy battling with inner demons to actually produce work, is, ironically, harmful to art and should be quashed immediately and vigorously. In music you kind of get the impression that people who claim to be “blocked” are actually staring out of the window idly twirling a moustachio while processing the most recent catastrophic bong hit. God damn! Won’t someone give these idle blighters some carbolic oil for the soul! Look at the world we live in – this is a time for action not entitled navel gazing.

There have been some great compilations introducing various strands of the great Italian composer's work such as the more lounge orientated Mondo Morricone series and the essential Alan Bishop (Sun City Girls) picked Crime And Dissonance on Ipecac which delves into the weirdest recesses of his career. These four discs cover perhaps the most exciting and innovative era of his career full stop however. This box set on Chery Red covers the (long) Seventies, when mainstream cinema music collided head on with the avant garde, with main focus being trained on the years 1969 – 1972. And nowhere is this more evident than on the two Dario Argento OSTs included here L’Uccello Dalle Plume Di Cristallo (The Bird With The Crystal Plumage) and Quattro Mosche Di Velluto Grigio (Four Flies On Grey Velvet). The use of then obscure left field music was almost a way of ‘sneaking’ more horror past the censors. Sure we may see the glint of a knife blade on a stair case, exposed cream skin, thick technicolour blood and pearl white teeth bared in agony but it is in the slow, dissonant scrape of violin strings, the violently off kilter percussion and non-tonal vocal performances, that we really feel the viscera being exposed and the real psychological carnage being unleashed.

There has been a long and proud history of collaboration between so-called genre films and forward looking music of all different stripes from The Shining relying heavily on atmospherics created by György Ligeti and Krzysztof Penderecki to Susperia’s original score by Italian prog rock band Goblin; and it is not too much of a stretch to say that the two Argento soundtracks here, sonically predict some aspects of his work with Goblin. (This history of collaboration was not long enough or proud enough for some film studios however. Coil’s churning electronics, requested by Clive Barker for Hellraiser and Black Rain’s bleak ambient techno for Johnny Mnemonic were considered too outré for release by the powers that be and have gone on to be regarded as stand-alone cult classics.)

There had been composers who had favoured addressing the psychology of characters on screen via music before him obviously, most notably Bernard Herrmann for Welles and Hitchcock but Morricone moved further out into more abstract territory… leading (perhaps inevitably) to more abstract music. He wasn't even the first to combine such various strands of high, low and middle brow forms of music to create vivid inner and outer profiles of psychopathy and madness. (Chico Hamilton's work on Polanski's Repulsion in 1965 still stands up as startlingly modern for example.) The Italian composer was a master at achieving these combinations to achieve perfect thriller scores because he had a philosophy above and beyond merely heaping anxiety on anxiety onto the viewer before the inevitable release.

In a way these are some of his key releases as they mark a very short period of transition between the two halves of his career: an underground, experimental composer who became an international mainstream artist. They represent the short period where both careers ran parallel to one another.

Explaining his method and explaining why this period was so short, he told me: “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!”

It would be a fair bet to presume that most people interested in Peter Strickland’s immensely enjoyable and exquisitely realised Berberian Sound Studio are already fans of This Kind Of Thing; it’s a certainty that Broadcast were. If not however they could do much, much worse than starting with this pair of albums. If anything Morricone’s work stands up as being much weirder and darker in the song writing (being less concerned with the nature of sound processing) and this is emphasised by the stark contrast offered by the occasional track of breezy lounge, breathily voiced by Edda Dell’Orso (‘Non Rimane Più Nessuno’) or smoking Mod freakbeat (‘Quattro Mosche Di Velluto Grigio (Titoli)’).

Compare these to the luxurious soundtrack to Anche Se Volessi Lavorare Che Faccio recorded just three years later in 1972 and it is like the work of a different – if no less talented – man. Chamber pop, Italian folk, the dark art of whistling on wax: it’s all woven into a record that’s warm, emotionally resonant and effortless sounding. (Although, it has to be said for the record, that this film – which appears to be a comedy about unemployed, cross dressing scoundrels who steal cremation urns from churches with hilarious consequences, judging by the poster – probably had less need for the psychological exploration of deep recesses and hidden trauma.)

Of course, busy-ness in people who write music is a double edged sword. The sexual politics and arty erotica of Metti, Una Sera A Cena are as much of their day as is the soundtrack and what is heavenly music to lounge aficionados will be more quattro formaggi than Quattro Mosche to many others. Airborne romantic comedy, Forza G has a slightly better OST to these ears; Morricone takes the main theme and playfully reworks it in several of his key styles such as western and giallo etc. However the main theme of L’Assoluto Naturale is such a brisk and insistent earworm that it could drive a sensitive person slightly demented; aided in no small amount by the fact it appears in a very similar form on nearly all of 15 tracks.

Of the two films representing the late 1970s, Il Gatto (an erotic rom com about slum landlords with a dead cat as a MacGuffin) has a soundtrack less memorable than its bizarre plot but Il Giocattolo (“the Italian Taxi Driver”) has a gripping and tension building score which revisits a musical device he first used in 1965 when scoring For A Few Dollars More. (Both films feature a theme played as if on a wind up music box, which is then altered subtly during the course of the film to reflect the inner landscape of a main character.)

Edited: 06/07/20