October 22nd, 2009 | Interviews


Ennio Morricone can match a riff to a twitching cheek or imbue a drifting tumbleweed with a sense of doom. He’s the composer who gave Clint Eastwood his walking soundtrack in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, but he’s got more than 500 film scores under his belt. He has just canceled his only U.S. show this year and his first-ever performance in Los Angeles, but he surprised L.A. RECORD recently with a last-minute phone interview after we spent days compiling questions from our staff. This interview by Daiana Feuer.

How would you compare the myths of the Western, the Greek hero, and the gangster?
Ennio Morricone: These myths exist in completely different realities, ascribed by their times and the cultures that invented them. The Greek hero uses force to define and defend home, family and land. The gangster is concerned with his own interests and what he has. Usually a Western character is seeking his own interest but they are not really criminals—they are not truly bad people. Nor are they truly good. Sometimes they are defenders of the weak. Sometimes they are a Robin Hood.
How do you compose music for these characters?
Ennio Morricone: The Greek hero is always composed with music that is epic. For the gangster, I make dark music. For the Western, I think of something simple and plain with a melody in it. If we’re talking about theme music, then there has to be something symbolic. I never thought about the music for an American Western when I composed the music for my own Westerns. For me, it has always been about what the character symbolizes in terms of good and bad and the life they live.
Which of these myths serves reality as we know it most accurately?
Ennio Morricone: For the Greek needs, they are not modern anymore because of what they were defending—their ideals are confounded in our society. They couldn’t fit. Gangsters are the more realistic now because they defend their own interests against the law. There have always been and will always be criminals. The gangsters can be considered modern people. Western people existed over a hundred years ago and that sort of ideal has mostly disappeared now. The only ones that have resisted throughout time are the gangsters.
What might be the new archetype fifty years from now?
Ennio Morricone: Criminals will always exist. They’ll never cease to be. There will always be the fight of good versus bad, law versus outlaw, goodness against evil. The gangster is an eternal archetype. Good and bad or evil are what we are made of. We are partly good and partly bad. Sometimes you are better, sometimes less.
How has the shift in emphasis from the concert hall to the movie screen affected arranged orchestral pieces? How has it affected the listener’s relationship to the music? How do you feel about that?
Ennio Morricone: I was distracted by a piece of music I am working on. Can you repeat the question? The difference is that in arranging the score of a film, you have to respect the timing of the film, the length of the scene, whether there’s dialogue or not. Whereas when I conduct on stage with an orchestra, the sound becomes clear—there is no image to be matched with the sound. It is only the music that you hear which may create some sort of images in the listener’s mind, or it may just float around without any attachment to words or narrative ideas, despite there being an emotion that can be pointed out.
So sometimes music can be used like language?
Ennio Morricone: It can be meant as language and conceived as language. Or it can be conceived as an object of sound. It depends on what kind of music you listen to. In a greater notion of meaning that is placed on a timeline, contemporary music is an object of sound. Ancient music has been consolidated by history. History has shown its strength and spoken and so that music speaks of a certain time. Similarly in the smaller scale of a film, it might speak for the scene it represents.
Do you view your whole body of work as a connected piece—almost like one long composition?
Ennio Morricone: When I move from one project or piece to the next, there is not necessarily a line where one ends and the other begins. All of my body of work mingles together. Once I’ve composed something or discovered something new, that part comes with me or stays with me and enters my new work.
In looking at music, is there a definitive good or bad or best? Being a music maker and not just a listener, how does that inform your perception?
Ennio Morricone: This is a very complex question that needs a long time to think about and an even longer time to answer! The judgement a composer has on his music or the music of others depends on his culture and education. According to my character and the way I am and my musical culture—when I listen to music I can tell if the composer is an amateur or professional. It can also be that a skilled composer creates a music but doesn’t achieve success—it does not become great either by not fitting what it is trying to capture, or it musically is not good, even if it has all the parts it should. You can also feel an amateur is not a professional but can write a successful piece of music, but the style is not professional—it does not show the mark of training. Judging music, I have an opinion, but generally composers should have a unique line of behavior. They should know how to judge a piece of music all together. It also depends on personal characteristics. If a composer has a historically correct musical education, they can have a common opinion on things.
Must the greatest piece of music come from someone who has studied?
Ennio Morricone: That’s what I mean. It may happen that a great composer and professional writes an unsuccessful piece of music but you can tell he is a pro. On the other hand, the amateur is not skilled but it is great. And creates something beautiful. Of course this is difficult to judge.
What is your most successful piece of music—is that something you’ve decided?
Ennio Morricone: I’ve thought about it but I don’t know. I have composed a lot of successful music. I don’t think saying the one name or saying one is really possible. I wouldn’t be able to say there is one.