Recently I was asked to create a couple arrangements of the music of Ennio Morricone for wild up, a wonderful new music collective in Los Angeles. Morricone has had an astonishingly prolific career as a film composer, having scored over 500 films in the last 50 years, but he’s still probably best known for his iconic work on Sergio Leone’s spaghetti Westerns, like A Fistful of Dollars, Once Upon a Time in the West, and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Working on these arrangements has been a great excuse for me to watch a bunch of amazing movies for “research purposes,” but it’s also been a chance to get better acquainted with some of the more obscure aspects of Morricone’s history—namely, his long association with the Italian avant-garde even before he started writing for film. It’s been fascinating to listen to his film music with that in mind, searching for traces of the experimental in his grandiose tonal harmonies and immediately hummable melodies.
Morricone’s theme for The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is almost certainly the most recognizable piece of music that he’s written. It’s been referenced and parodied so many times that it’s become easy to take for granted, and harder to hear just how strange and original it is. Morricone was a member of the experimental improvisation collective Gruppo di Improvvisazione di Nuova Consonanza, and it’s not hard to imagine that the musical discoveries made in that context had an impact on the way he thought about musical timbres. The theme’s unusual mix of whistling, vocalizations, assorted percussion, plus instruments like recorder, harmonica, and electric guitar, created a unique sound that was Morricone’s signature for many years. It was also quite different from most orchestral film scores at that time; in some ways, it’s closer to electronic music or musique concrete. The format also allowed him to adjust instrumental balance in ways that would be impossible in a live setting. While it’s true that composers and producers often artificially adjust the balance of recordings, Morricone calls attention to this process in an extreme way that’s impossible to ignore, blurring the distinctions between loud and soft, large and small, near and far. Is it too much of a stretch to relate it to Leone’s visual direction, which juxtaposed sweeping vistas with extreme close-ups?
Of course, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly showcases Morricone’s great gift for melody as well, including a brilliantly economical twist on the Wagnerian leitmotif. Instead of using different themes for the various characters, Morricone uses the same two-note theme for all three main characters. Supposedly this was to show that the three were really one character; that in spite of their circumstantial differences, they were all driven by the same desires. Variations of this idea crop up in other places; in Once Upon a Time in the West, Morricone intertwines two motifs, a menacing fuzzy guitar melody and a plaintive chromatic harmonica riff, to create one theme for two characters: Henry Fonda’s blue-eyed villain named Frank, and Charles Bronson’s mysterious man-of-few-words called Harmonica (naturally). This clues the viewer in to the fact that the characters are somehow intimately connected, even though they don’t share screen time until late in the film. When they finally do meet, it’s like a musical revelation.
Morricone was a master at creating these revelatory moments, and Quentin Tarantino, a huge Leone fan, often borrows Morricone’s music at crucial or climactic moments in his own movies. The music from the final duel of Il Mercenario (released as A Professional Gun in English) also appears in Tarantino’s Kill Bill Vol. 2 as The Bride punches her way out of a coffin. Here the music seems at first to be a fairly straightforward bolero, until the trumpet enters with a new, exuberant melody that dramatically changes the character of the scene. At the peak of the melody, the trumpet lands on an A-flat over a B-flat major chord, also recontextualizing the harmony! In Tarantino’s coffin scene the music announces The Bride’s seemingly inevitable triumph, but in Leone’s duel the emotional content is more tense and ambiguous, since the question remains: whose triumph?
Perhaps the greatest strength of Morricone’s music is his ability to seamlessly integrate this traditionally tonal language with the eerie effects and rigorous processes of avant-garde music. It’s something Morricone himself rarely talks about (maybe because no one asks), but he does address it briefly in an interview with The Quietus:
Let’s say that what I did was quite unique because I used tonal music which you might call melodic music. And I used this style and into this type of music I sneaked in some styles of avant-garde music and this was unnoticed. No-one really realized I was doing this directly. At this time I was a student of the School Of Vienna. It was a unique historical process that I did at this time. And I just wanted my work to be based on that because I just thought that it was very interesting and important for me to be following this process. And this resembled a clock going backwards because I was taking new things and adding them to very old ways of doing things. It is not very easy to explain this process! To give you an example for your reference, if you watch the opening credits to A Fistful Of Dynamite, in that particular score you will be able to definitely understand what I am talking about, being a student of the School of Vienna and the rest of it.
The “School of Vienna” undoubtedly refers to the Second Viennese School of Schoenberg, Webern, and Berg, and the music he refers to appears as “Inventions for John” on the soundtrack to A Fistful of Dynamite (also known as Duck, You Sucker or Giù la testa in Italian). But unless you were already listening for it, you might never imagine that this gorgeous, dreamy interlude was inspired by the thorny serialism of Schoenberg and company. On closer inspection there is a relationship, perhaps, in the pointillistic texture, recalling Webern’s klangfarbenmelodie. At any rate, this process allowed Morricone to create something that sounds absolutely nothing like anything else of its time—it’s almost as if he invented post-minimalism 20 years early!