Ennio Morricone was more than just a great film composer
By John Zorn
Ennio Morricone was more than one of the world’s great soundtrack composers, he was one of the world’s great composers, period. For me, his work stands with Bach, Mozart, Debussy, Ellington and Stravinsky in achieving that rare fusion of heart and mind. Dare we compare the five notes of his famous “coyote call” in “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” with the four opening notes of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5? Morricone’s music is just as timeless.
Morricone, who died Monday at age 91, has been an influence and an inspiration since I first encountered his work as a teenager in 1967. “The Ecstasy of Gold” from “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” hit me with the same power as modernist masterpieces like “The Rite of Spring,” Ives’ Symphony No. 4 and Varèse’s “Arcana”; it shares their complex rhythmic invention, unique sound world and lush romantic sweep.
Embracing the soaring lyricism of his Italian heritage, Morricone’s gift for song was extraordinary. He was one of those musicians who could make an unforgettable melody with just a small fistful of notes. His meticulous craftsmanship and ear for orchestration, harmony, melody and rhythm resulted in music that was perfectly balanced; as with all master composers, every note was there for a reason. Change one note, one rhythm, one rest, and there is diminishment.
Having roots in both popular music and the avant-garde, Morricone was an innovator, and he overcame each new challenge with a fresh approach, retaining a curiosity and childlike sense of wonder. He was always open to trying new sounds, new instruments, new combinations — rarely drawing from the same well twice.
He was a man of integrity who did not suffer fools gladly. Stories of his responses to inane directorial suggestions are legend, including one of my favorites: “In the history of music, nothing like that has ever happened — nor will it ever happen.” He lived a relatively simple life in a beautiful apartment in Rome, waking as early as 4:30 a.m., taking walks and composing at his desk for hours on end. He traveled little.
What needs to be understood is that Morricone was a magician of sound. He had an uncanny ability to combine instruments in original ways. Ocarina, slapstick, whistling, electric guitar noises, grunts, electronics and howls in the night: Anything was welcome if it had dramatic effect. By the 1960s, the electric guitar had become central to his palette and he was able to blend it into a variety of unusual contexts with dramatic flair. In “Svegliati e Uccidi,” he has the guitarist imitate the “rat-a-tat-tat” of a machine gun through the amplifier’s spring reverb, and his instruction to the musician to “sound like a spear” resulted in one of the most intense guitar tones ever recorded, in “Once Upon a Time in the West.”
His mastery of a wide range of genres and instruments made him a musician ahead of his time. He could explore extended techniques on a trumpet mouthpiece in a free-improvisational context in the morning; write a seductive big-band arrangement for a pop singer in the afternoon; and score a searing orchestral film soundtrack at night. This kind of openness remains the way of the future — and was a formative model for me.
Morricone is best known for his film work, but we must never forget his large catalog of “absolute” music — his classical compositions. There the music comes straight from his heart. And yet what he accomplished in the challenging and restrictive world of film music is nothing short of miraculous. There, his immense imagination, sharp ear for drama, profound lyricism, puckish sense of humor and huge heart find voice through a magnificent and masterly musicianship. Artistic freedom was his credo, and his impeccable taste and innate sense of energy, space and time were palpable. His work elevated every film he scored.
One of my dearest memories is visiting him at a recording session in New York, around 1986. He was, as always, a gentleman: elegant, gracious and more than kind to a young fan who stood humbled in front of his hero. We spoke through a translator for much of our conversation, but he took me aside for a few moments and shared some composerly advice on working in movies. I will always remember his words to me that day: “Forget the film. Think of the soundtrack record.”
Many composers wonder, and may even worry, if their work will live on after they are gone — if their contribution will be remembered and their music treasured. Morricone need have had no such fears. His work has been embraced; he achieved that rare balance of being profoundly influential to both the inner world of musicians and society as a whole. His sonic adventures stand on their own merits both in the context of the films he scored and on their own terms as pure music. This was his magic.
He was more than a musical figure. He was a cultural icon. He was the maestro — and I loved him dearly.