That distinctive whistle in the theme of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966) is one of the most instantly recognizable elements in the history of cinema. The coyote call in the opening credits… “L’estasi dell’oro” [Ecstasy of Gold], the piece of music that accompanies Eli Wallach when racing through a cemetery in a desperate search for the grave where he believes the missing gold is buried. The haunting, melancholic ballad “La Storia de un soldato” [The Story of a Soldier] sung by a group of prisoners to cover up a violent episode when Tuco is tortured. I recently watched the film again and Ennio Morricone’s music was what made me appreciate the film in a new way.
I had just read Ennio Morricone: In His Own Words, recently released, and which presents Ennio Morricone and Alessandro de Rosa’s years-long discussion of life and music in what Morricone himself defines as “beyond a shadow of a doubt the best book ever written about me, the most authentic, the most detailed and well curated. The truest.” There’s really nothing much I can add to that. The book tells the stories behind Morricone’s many film scores (his name may forever be linked to Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns, but his contribution to the world of cinema reaches far beyond that, with westerns representing only about 8 percent of his diverse film productions, including Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven, Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America, Giuseppe Tornatore’s movies, Roland Joffé’s The Mission, Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight) that have reinvented the sound of cinema and it navigates the sources of his inspiration, but the conversation also covers music theory, composing absolute music, Morricone’s approach to music as a whole and where he sees music in the world. It is a fascinating and unexpected overview on and a true insight into the uncompromising work and career of a great composer.
But what I believe it is even more extraordinary is that he is an innovator, especially for the way his film music carves out its own path while still informing the plot, for the way it bonds with images and for the way it bonds with the audiences. In other words, I believe that his film music has made it possible for many people to appreciate a kind of music, a craft, a profession that requires patience, study, hard work, comprehension, and reflection, in a day when such qualities are less and less valued and when people are after easy success more and more often.
Here are five of my favourite take aways from the book, in Ennio Morricone’s own words.
About film music
“The general appreciation of my music in Leone’s and Tornatore’s cinema goes beyond music per se: the truth is that Leone and Tornatore mixed it better than others. How? They left it alone, washed it away from other sounds; the listener can therefore focus on the music and better enjoy it. […] During the mixing phase one ought to avoid overlapping music with other noises, other musical elements, or too much dialogue.”
About inspiration and hard work
“If we want to speak about inspiration, then we must become aware that it just lasts for a moment; once that moment is gone, work remains. You write something, erase it, throw it away, and start again. There’s no such thing as falling from the sky. Sometimes the idea contains the seeds of a possible elaboration within itself, but in general, one must struggle.”
“Are you kidding? People have tried to explain to me how email works numerous times, but I’m just fine with my telephone and my fax. I’ve always relied on paper sheets to keep to my weekly schedule – I split a sheet of paper in seven parts, write the days on it and fill in all my appointments and commitments for the week. Agendas bother me and I just don’t trust computers.”
“Perhaps it feels too complicated to pinpoint it and define it once and for all, precisely because there’s something so intimate and private to it, which does not want to be communicated.”
About music, life
“If everything’s worthwhile, then nothing is.”
Ennio Morricone: In His Own Words, edited by Alessandro De Rosa,
and translated from the Italian by Maurizio Corbella,
has recently been published by Oxford University Press