Monday, February 26, 2007


I didn't watch the Oscars this year. I don't care much about the annual Hollywood circle jerk anymore, and the fact that the broadcast station I would have watched it on was off the air didn't faze me. Despite that, I am glad Ol' Marty finally got his due (though typically not for his best work). Other than that, there was only one reason I really wanted to watch, and that was to see Ennio Morricone, the best film composer ever, recieve a long overdue Oscar. Reading later that Celine Dion butchered one of his tunes was reason enough to give thanks that I didn't witness that train wreck with my own eyes.

Terry Teachout, who wrote an engrossing biography of H.L. Mencken a few years ago and who's one of the few reasons to read the Wall Street Journal, recently talked to Morricone.
Right from the start, his scores sounded startlingly different from those of any other film composer of the '60s, in part because of their highly individual orchestral palette. Moreover, Mr. Morricone deserves all the credit for their extreme individuality, for he orchestrates his own scores instead of relying on a studio specialist to do it for him.

"When a composer composes music," he says, "he needs to do the whole job from start to finish. There must be no orchestrator, no arranger, no whatever. That's what he's got to do. This is a moral judgment. You can tell that Bernard Herrmann wrote his film scores all by himself. You can feel that he's responsible for them. You could feel his aesthetic hand on everything he did. Who does not do the orchestration and all these other things is not really a composer--he is a 50% composer. And my own judgment of other film composers is influenced by this. It is something I learned from Petrassi. He was a master in teaching, but also in life--a man who saw music as a moral issue."

One of Mr. Morricone's coloristic trademarks is the harmonica, which he first used in "Once Upon a Time in the West." He takes no credit for the original idea, noting that the script called for the instrument to be played on screen by Charles Bronson. But it was his own idea to leave the first 11 minutes of the film completely unscored, instead filling the soundtrack with amplified natural sounds--the buzzing of a fly, the squeak of a rusty windmill, the blowing of the hot desert wind. It is only when Bronson appears in the distance that we finally hear the reedy wheeze of a chromatic harmonica, which plays a stark three-note motif that Mr. Morricone will later use as the basis for the film's most memorable music cue, an edgy, spiraling, near-tuneless tune called "Man With a Harmonica."
If you haven't seen "Once Upon a Time in the West" or heard the soundtrack, avail yourself immediately (and don't watch the clip below because its filled with spoilers).

PREVIOUSLY: A collection of some of Morricone's weirder work.