An interview with Ennio Morricone: “Experimenting is important to me”

From Uncut's March 2015 issue

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Following the sad news of his passing at the age of 91, here’s an interview I conducted with Enno Morricone, at his home in Rome, for our An Audience With… feature.

The piece ran in Uncut issue 214 (March 2015) and includes Il Maestro’s thoughts on Sergio Leone, Tarantino and scoring the 1978 World Cup theme.

Follow me on Twitter @MichaelBonner

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When visiting Ennio Morricone at home in Rome, it is necessary to observe a number of protocols. The composer, for instance, should be addressed as “Il Maestro”. During a career spanning more than 50 years, he is worthier of the honorific than most. One other thing, Uncut is told: it is considered impolite to linger too long on the subject of spaghetti Westerns. There are, after all, over 500 other film scores in the composer’s estimable repertoire. “It could have been extremely boring to write musical scores for only westerns of horror films,” he explains. “It was really exciting for me to work in all these various genres.”

The Morricone residence is a spacious apartment located in the city’s stately Monteverde Vecchio district. The living room windows look out over some of Rome’s grandest architectural achievements, including Michelangelo’s Piazza del Campidoglio and the remains of the Roman Forum, while the Trevi Fountain is only a short walk away. Inside the apartment itself – where Morricone and his wife have lived since the early 1980s – chandeliers hang from the high, coffered ceilings. Paintings mounted in handsome gilt frames decorate the walls, while a giant tapestry adorns one entire side of the living room. At 86, one year on from suffering a spinal injury, Morricone is on sprightly form. Dressed in a red polo neck, beige slacks and slippers, he peers owlishly from behind a pair of large glasses. At one point, he leaps to his feet to berate a BBC Radio crew setting up in a corner of the living room who, Morricone believes, are tampering with an electrical socket next to his hi-fi.

Through a translator, Morricone is happy to discuss his extraordinary life and career – from his earliest forays into music during the 1950s up to his present commissions. Many of his best known scores – and, he confides, some of his lesser known ones – will receive a rare public outing this month as part of his My Life In Music tour. However, with so many credits to his name, it is sadly inevitable that he is no longer able to recall one or two high-profile collaborations. Asked, for instance, about his memories of working with a certain Mancunian singer, he looks puzzled. “Morrissey?” He says, shaking his head. “No, I can’t remember him…”

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Do you have any tips for a young guy like me, how do I get into the movie business?
Giorgio Moroder
He already has a career in film and doesn’t have to do anything! Do I consider him to be a contemporary? It is hard to define him as a composer. When you write for films, you know, you can use baroque music or something very contemporary. So it’s very hard to say.

Your score to John Carpenter’s The Thing is sympathetic to Carpenter’s own soundtrack work, but retains your own sensibility. How did you arrive at this?
Clint Mansell
I knew that he was also a composer. He came to Rome to show me the film, and then as soon as I saw the film he went away. He never discussed anything with me at all, so I went to Los Angeles to record. He selected a piece that was unlike all the other pieces of music I recorded; it was an electronic piece of music. That was quite strange.

What was it like growing up in Italy during the 1940s?
Sheena Roberts, Oxford
It was very hard. I was born in 1928, so in 1943, 1944 we had the war in Rome. There were a lot of hardships, a lack of food, many shortages. So when I worked with the Americans, the English and the Canadians soon after the war, when I played with them, they paid me with food. That will give you an idea how widespread poverty was at that time. It was food for my family.

What are your earliest memories of going to the cinema?
Javier Vázquez, Madrid
My first memories were linked to cinema. I love cinema anyway, aside from the music. In my youth, cinemas showed two films in one day. I used to watch both of them. It may sound strange, but West Side Story was the only musical I liked. I didn’t like musicals, or films with songs, at all. I always thought they were not real, that the songs sounded a little bit false. But in the case of West Side Story things were different. The songs started from reality and there was a real plot. I didn’t like love stories much, either. I liked adventure films and detective stories. Hitchcock was the master.

In the late 1950s, you played the trumpet in a jazz band. What do you remember about that time?
Nikki Vogler, Vienna
Let me make a distinction. In the 1950s, I played the trumpet with some jazz groups. And then I did something else again with the trumpet, improvising with the Gruppo di Improvvisazione Nuova Consonanza, who were really avant garde. My more risky or avant garde music is not that well known to a wider audience; but I wish it was. Was there a moment when I knew I wanted to be a composer? Initially, as early as my composition classes in the conservatory, at Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, in 1940.Are there any regrets about not working with Stanley Kubrick on A Clockwork Orange?
Andrea Morandi, Milan
It was a real regret! We had already agreed to work together, but at that time I was working on a score for Sergio Leone. There was a problem of timing, different jobs and everything. I never met him; Kubrick didn’t like flying, so we only spoke on the telephone. We had already agreed that I was going to record in Rome and then send the music to him. Are there other occasions where circumstances have prevented me from working with a director? To tell the truth, no-one apart from Kubrick. You know, I have written one hundred pieces of music for concerts when I was not writing for musical scores. I have had so many other engagements!

Who is the most difficult director he worked with, or the one who has been hardest to please?
Steph, Twickenham
There was a lot of agreement, and a convergence of ideas, with Giuseppe Tornatore, because he improved his musical knowledge a lot from when we first met. But there were no directors with whom I had problems, particularly. I remember on The Legend Of 1900, the big issue we had was that the lead actor [Tim Roth] had to train beforehand to learn the piano before we shot, in order to be able to perform the music in the film. That was the only movie where I had to go many times on the set to see how everything was going.

Is it true that Sergio Leone let you compose the music before the shoot, to enable the actors to get in the mood on set?
Jessica Mackney, Tufnell Park
I liked to write the music before shooting the film begins, not only for the actors but also for the director. I think that when you have the music beforehand you can listen and get accustomed to it, you can assimilate it. Leone was not the only director for whom he did this. It may happen that you write a signature theme or a tune for a specific character, but usually I never lose sight of the whole film when I write scores. I prefer to have the whole film in mind rather than just a single character. My working relationship with Leone over the years was intriguing. It was an excellent collaboration, because he really trusted me; there was a lot of convergence of ideas!

How did you come to score the ’78 World Cup theme?
Jason Smith, Tadworth
Simply, I was commissioned. But it was terrible… because rather than having it recorded and played before matches as I wanted, they had these four people in a band going from one stadium to the other playing the music. It was terrible. I support Roma. They’ve got good results this season. Do I go to matches? No, not any more. I prefer to watch it here on TV. It’s quiet here, I’ve got a nice big screen, and when obviously Roma wins I can also fall asleep.

On Inglourious Basterds, Quentin Tarantino used music of yours that had already appeared in other films. What were your views on that?
Dionne Newsome, via email
At first, he asked me to write a full musical score. The problem was he asked me in January and I had to go to Cannes in May, so these three months were really too short a time to write a complete score. That’s the reason why he decided to use some pieces of music I had already composed. Was it strange to see the music used in a different context? I thought that the balance between the music and the scene was really very good. So while I knew the music was written for another film, I couldn’t care less really. This is why I said there should always be a convergence. Directors should know the music and realise that it is the music that is good for the film. Tarantino probably knew the music because he had it on another occasions and therefore thought that it was the right music for that scene, that film.Do you ever think about how your soundtrack will sound outside of the context of the film?
Nenad, via email
I always say that in order to work well in a film, the music should have the strength of its own specific technical characteristics. It should have a life irrespective of the film it’s associated with. That is why at times you have unusual music in a film and it works really well. If it had been written before for other occasions but it still worked well in the film, obviously it was a formal and correct piece of work. It has its own strength and autonomy. I have written musical scores for films, but I thought that they should have a life of their own. That’s the reason why I can organise concerts with music produced for films, because that music has its own structures.

What are your current working practices?
Alison Goodman, Bristol
It’s a very regular routine. I wake up early, I shave and dress then I do some physical exercises. Let’s say I march around my home, buy the papers, read the papers. Then after all that I start composing and if I have some urgent commissions that I have to complete I can work for a long, long period of time. Apart from lunch obviously. Or if there are no urgent commissions, I rest a little bit in the afternoon. I usually feel more tired in the afternoon. At the moment, I’m working on the music for a French film.

Are there any films you regret writing the soundtrack for?
Paul Speller, Chalfont St Peter
No, and I can explain why. I have worked on the musical scores of films that were not so important, and those films especially had no real chance of success. But on those, I really experimented a lot in terms of music. Experiments were important for me and that was also a good contribution for the film. But there is one movie that I think I could have improved upon. Tranquillo Posto di Campagnia by Elio Petri. A marvellous film, with ultra modern music. It was a great success with the critics but was not a success at the box office. I had the idea that I should rewrite the music because it was very difficult for the public to understand. The producer and director both said there were no problems. For them, the music was perfect.

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