He Scores

Ennio Morricone has written great music for good, bad and ugly films

"I really pay attention to what I have to do less than what the others are doing," he says. "I think that each composer always has to maintain their own personality...Still, everything that's happening in the progress of music, be it that on the high level or be it that on a low level, you need to be aware of. You have to be informed."

Morricone began writing music when he was 6 and enrolled in Rome's Conservatory of Santa Cecilia when he was 12, hoping to master the trumpet, the instrument his father played. But he soon found himself surpassing his professors: He completed a four-year course in harmony in a matter of months. He would end up studying composition by day and playing trumpet in Rome's nightclubs by night, and when he graduated from the school, he left with degrees in orchestration, conducting, composition and, of course, the trumpet. Morricone would go into film composing only after he'd been hired as a session musician on a handful of scores, which he found "ugly"; he was convinced he could do better, especially after having heard West Side Story and Alfred Newman's score for The Robe. Morricone thought he would put on hold, for a little while, his writing for the concert stage. That was nearly 40 years ago, and decades would pass before he began writing and performing music not intended for film.

For a long time, he felt writing movie music made him "a traitor" to the art of composing music; if it wasn't exactly beneath him, it was, at the very least, foreign and frustrating. He'd been trained by some of the best writers and musicians in Italy, and now he was going to make music for movies? For Westerns, for God's sake? It was unfathomable. But soon enough, he realized movies allowed a different kind of freedom--the kind that allows a composer to score a Western today, a political drama tomorrow and a horror movie the day after that. Within those confines was a world of possibilities.

Ennio Morricone has been nominated for five Oscars -- and he's yet to win one.
Ennio Morricone has been nominated for five Oscars -- and he's yet to win one.

"I started from a much higher point [than most film composers]," he says. "I was not a dilettante. A long time ago, I didn't know what I know today, and it's true: Then, writing for cinema seemed to be a frustration. Almost no one goes into this thinking, 'I want to become a film composer,' but people do go into it saying, 'I want to be a composer.' Therefore, when you change paths, you still have the same creativity that you would in making music for concerts. A composer is worthy of this name only if he has his own personality, even if he does films that are completely different one from another. His style has to come out clearly, even though each film is different.

"The reasons for doing cinema is that if one believes in doing it, it can also give you back a lot. First of all, you're in contact with the orchestra very often. You get to listen to your music continually while you're recording it, and you get to hear it very shortly after you've written it. You can experiment privately and listen to these experiments and learn a lot by doing this, and this I owe to cinema...It has improved within me a general sense of composing. Movies have conditions, make demands, and you must find a way to get over these conditions. You must find a new freedom."

Despite his 72 years, Morricone has little interest in cutting back on his workload; only two weeks ago, he traveled to London for the first time to perform his non-film music, along with selections from his best-known scores. And last year, he scored three films: De Palma's Mission to Mars, Joffé's Vatel and Giuseppe Tornatore's Malena, the latter of which earned him his fifth Oscar nomination (he lost out to Tan Dun's score for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon). But Morricone was resigned to losing: When his score for The Mission lost in 1987 to Round Midnight, which was nothing more than a collection of jazz standards, Morricone realized it was perhaps never meant to be. Hollywood belongs to the hacks and heathens whose awards are, in his estimation, nothing but "propaganda for the movies." Maybe that's why he stays in Rome and refuses to learn English.

But Morricone may have little say in his own destiny: Now, more than ever, soundtracks are but top-of-the-pops compilations, one more product in the merchandising business plan. Movie music has been devalued; the larger-than-life orchestral soundtrack has been rendered all but obsolete. Perhaps the film composer is not far behind.

"You have touched on the problem with all music of this time," Morricone says. "Certainly, the record companies are now trying to take advantage of music that is hot, that is now, that doesn't last for a very long time--music of the moment. So, the industry doesn't like something that lasts a long time. They like something that's just for the moment, something seasonal, something temporary. It's just the natural evolution of the music industry."

Even though he speaks in Italian, the weariness in his voice needs no translation. Perhaps, then, Morricone can take solace knowing that he, or at least a good portion of his work, is immortale.

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