Saturday, December 12, 2015

A Peculiar Kind of Music: Ennio Morricone Interviewed

Ahead of his first full-length score for Quentin Tarantino, the Maestro talks to Cian Traynor about overcoming anxiety, adding value to film and his musical experiments for Dario Argento

Portrait of Quentin Tarantino and Ennio Morricone at Abbey Road by Kevin Mazur
In a hotel suite overlooking London's Marylebone Station, Ennio Morricone ambles into the room, offering a soft handshake and the faint hint of a smile. At 87, the Maestro has a diminutive stature but a commanding presence: serious, softly spoken and sharply dressed. He's wearing a grey jacket, crimson polo neck, navy slacks and leather slip-on shoes.

To be granted a meeting with the man known as 'the father of modern arrangement' is the kind of opportunity you simply can't turn down. But there is a catch. This is a 20-minute slot and the clock has been running since before Morricone's family, management and label reps have had a chance to disperse. As an added time constraint, the interpreter by his side will translate questions into Italian and answers into English. Behind them sits a woman whose sole responsibility is to keep an eye on the time. "I'll give you a signal when there are five minutes left," she says. "That will be the last question as, just to warn you, the Maestro's answers tend to be quite long."

Wait. Four questions in 20 minutes? This produces a pang of despair. Beyond his work as an experimental jazz musician, hit-making pop producer and neo-classical innovator, Morricone has composed over 500 scores, many of which are considered to be the greatest soundtracks ever made. In doing so, he has worked with icons of cinema such as Sergio Leone, Terrence Malick, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Pedro Almodovar, John Carpenter, Dario Argento, Bernardo Bertolucci and Brian De Palma among many others. Just the lengthy catalogue of samples and reinterpretations of his work, from Babe Ruth's 'The Mexican' to The Orb's 'Little Fluffy Clouds', adds up to a significant imprint on modern music.

Trying to capture the essence of that career in under 20 minutes feels preposterous. Realistically, all you can hope for is to find an engaging way of connecting the Maestro's present-day work to the remarkable output that has come before it.

Morricone is in London for the premiere of Quentin Tarantino's The Hateful Eight, the first film by the director to feature a full-length score – one that has already earned a Golden Globe nomination. Yet despite the accolades, despite the breadth of his experience, the Maestro still worries about his work.

It's not that he doesn't have confidence in his abilities. Morricone began composing at the age of six, when his father taught him the G clef on holiday, and he remains capable of creating 12 or so scores per year. But his drive for precision can be nerve-racking. The feeling clearly hasn't deterred him from working, however, so how does he manage to overcome it?

"What helps me to cope with anxiety and to work through doubts is my conversations with the directors, first of all, as well as reading the script. That helps me understand what the directors want to convey in the film. In this case, I just read the script and had a very short conversation with Quentin Tarantino, who came to my house in Rome. He didn't give me any indication or put forward any requirement. He just wanted me to compose music about snow. That's the only clue he gave and then he left me totally free. On the one hand, that was very good: I had complete freedom to invent and compose the music. But on the other hand, it felt like a big responsibility. I always feel some burden of responsibility when composing for a director but in this case, without any direction, I was a little bit afraid that he could be disappointed. But I don't think that was the case. He seemed very happy when we were in Prague for the recording. So now I am less anxious. I just want to see how he has applied my music because I haven't seen the film yet. That's the only thing. But even with the conversation we had yesterday here in London, I think he is extremely happy with what I have done."

Tarantino was initially shocked by the outcome, finding the combination of bassoon, contra-bassoon and tuba to be not at all what he expected for a Western. But this is precisely Morricone's style: he does not wish to repeat himself. You can always rely on him for an element of unpredictability. Early on in his career, for example, it was turning everyday sounds like tin cans and typewriters into music. For Sergio Leone's Once Upon A Time In America, a gangster film set in New York between the 1920s and 60s, Morricone utilised pan pipes – a choice of instrumentation that would give any director pause. Yet it worked perfectly. So is there a sense of satisfaction to be had in surprising directors? Can it be considered a measure of success?

"Shocking a director is not my goal. In fact, it's totally the opposite of what I want to create because I don't feel I am so important or so relevant that I can afford to shock or surprise a director. But it is true in this case, for Quentin Tarantino, that I really tried to produce something totally new and totally unexpected – though not for the sake of it. I thought that the film deserved that kind of unexpected impact because it was appropriate to communicate the ideas and the theme of the film. That's why it seemed so unusual. I've often said that in my opinion, the goal of music in a film is to convey what is not seen or heard in the dialogue. It's something abstract, coming from afar... and that must add something. It must add value to the film. In this case, this abstraction is being conveyed in a totally different way than in my history as a composer."

That Morricone and Tarantino have teamed up for a film with a full-length score has surprised many. The Maestro has repeatedly spoken of his distaste at how directors readily insert pre-existing pieces of music in place of traditional scores. That has been a Tarantino signature. The director has re-used Morricone's work in Kill Bill (Vol. I and II), Death Proof, Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained, for which Morricone also contributed an original piece. But even The Hateful Eightsoundtrack contains songs by the White Stripes and Roy Orbison. The film is also reported to include segments of Morricone's scores for The Thing and Exorcist II. Does that approach interfere at all with his own sensibility?

"Generally speaking, it's true: I prefer scoring the whole film consistently. At the same time, if a director selects old pieces of my music for his film it doesn't mean that he doesn't like working with a composer. It just means he likes my music and this is something I actually appreciate. So I'm not unhappy with the way he used my music in the past. It just proved his love for what I have done."

Then there's the issue of violence. Morricone has admitted that directors sometimes worry about how he'll react to seeing their film, fearing that it may cause problems. But he feels his personal sensitivity to bloodshed is largely irrelevant and that any reservations he may have had over Tarantino's style have been overblown. Besides, Morricone has worked with plenty of directors who have employed on-screen violence. Mentioning Dario Argento as an example causes the Maestro to nod vigorously in approval.

"My experience and association with Dario Argento is extremely relevant. I scored his first three movies and, as you know, his horror films are quite violent and full of blood. Also, the music I've written for him has literally consisted of musical experiments. I tried to choose a peculiar kind of music that was dodecacophonic, where you had 12 different tones at once. There was no precise refrain or a melody or an easily recognisable sound that the audience could use to understand the music. Those first three films worked as a kind of thematic progression which was quite challenging for listeners. I used that kind of dodecacophonic sound for the most tragic parts of the films but at the same time I tried to strike a balance in the scoring. I added some simpler pieces to accompany sequences with the most basic characters in order to make it graspable by the general movie-going audience. It was a real experiment but, after a while, I abandoned it."

At this point, Serena, the woman in charge of timing, has started counting down on her fingers in the background. But just as it feels like time to broach a final topic, Morricone starts up again, warming to the subject.

"At one point the father of Dario Argento, Salvatore, who was the producer, came to me and said, 'You know, Ennio… you've been composing the same music for all three films now. There is no difference. They all sound alike.' I said, 'No, it's not that they're alike. The style is the same but there is a progression. If you're not musically educated enough to grasp the meaning of that, it would be better if you resort to another composer. If you think that I repeat myself then you don't understand what I have done.' And in fact they did work with someone else for a while... but Dario Argento later called me himself so that we could work together again."

By the time this has been translated, Serena has run out of fingers to hold up and is now circling through various signals that scream: "Wrap it up!" I pretend to be mesmerised by the Maestro but, in truth, we make for quite the contrast. He's perfectly composed: one knee crossed over another, sunk back in his chair with a look of professorial bemusement. Meanwhile I'm perched on the edge of my seat, resembling someone who's about to miss the last train home.

There must be time for one final question: a last-second lunge at one of countless avenues worth exploring. Morricone has cited two moments as the biggest regrets of his career and it's tempting to ask which disappointed him more: turning down the opportunity to score for Clint Eastwood out of respect for Sergio Leone, or missing out on A Clockwork Orange because Leone told Stanley Kubrick that Morricone was busy? He initially declined to score Roland JoffĂ©'s The Mission, claiming that the images were so strong that he didn't think he could live up to them. Has there been any other time in his career that he felt that way? And his son Andrea is also a conductor and film composer – what, if anything, have they learned from each other?

Serena's gaze is straining, her eyebrows arching, the instructions streaming into her earpiece clearly gaining in urgency. There isn't enough time for anything but the simplest parting shot. Could there be a 21st century film composer that Morricone feels a kinship with – someone who has the potential to carry on his ideals?

Instantly it feels like the wrong decision. It's not that Morricone doesn't want to mention any names – there are great young composers working today, he says – it's just that he doesn't recall them. Instead he brings up Argentine composer Lalo Schifrin – best known for the themes to Mission Impossible, Bullitt and Dirty Harry – born a mere four years after Morricone in 1932.

"That's the first name that comes into my mind. What I really appreciate about Lalo Schifrin is that he writes it all: from the very first composition to the orchestration. Whereas today, many film composers just write the initial composition and leave room for the arrangers and orchestrators to finish it. A real composer, like me, is someone who does the composition, orchestration and arrangement. It's so rare to find that these days. It's not often you get that anymore."

The Hateful Eight soundtrack is out via Decca Records on December 18th

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