Ennio Morricone, The Master

Certain things are anathema to the mature writer: hyperbole, cliché, groupthink, money — just kidding, (mostly).

Sometimes, and the instances are rare enough to be exceptions to the rule, one can speak with a certainty that preempts circumspection. Jimi Hendrix, John Coltrane, Robert Johnson. These names are unassailable, inviolable; they warrant extensive appraisal, but their names alone suffice.

Another name has joined the immortals, for whom one need only say: listen to the work.

Like any musical (or artistic) genre, the field is filled with the good, the bad, and the ugly. When it comes to film music, and the the crowded field of contenders for the throne, a handful of geniuses easily distance themselves from the competition: Piero Umiliani is Bach, Nino Rota is Mozart, John Barry is Wagner, (John Williams is Stephen King), and Bernard Herrmann is Beethoven. (Ennio Morricone is God.)

Morricone is not merely the most prolific film composer. He’s not even the standard by which all others will forever be measured; he’s more. He’s the Shakespeare of movie music, a category unto himself whose output tells not just a diverse and definitive artistic story, but a cultural one. Or, to declare Morricone merely the most significant film composer still fails to capture his import, as an icon and example. He is his own category, and his oeuvre an entity unto itself. One way to measure the greatest is to note the extent to which they are revered by their peers and apostles.

Speaking of The Bard, describing Morricone as the King of the Spaghetti Western soundtrack is, however accurate, like celebrating Shakespeare as the guy who wrote some sonnets. He is (and he did), but he did so much more it diminishes the scope of his achievements to not appraise the man — and his decades of brilliance — in full. So even if it’s impossible to properly absorb the ceaseless springs of sound that rush from his well, he should be savored and studied, like Bach, like Shakespeare, like Scorsese.

For the final word, I’m more than content to turn to John Zorn, a visionary who knows a thing or three about film music, about incomprehensible productivity, and Morricone (indeed, one of his best-loved albums is The Big Gundown, a masterful and properly iconoclastic tribute to his hero):

Morricone was a true maestro who, thru the medium of music, came to understand the soul and its workings, bringing beauty and truth to the world, enriching our lives with a vision that was both pure and eternally youthful. His work is timeless.

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 work treasured. Morricone need have no such fears. His work has been embraced by a huge global community and has deep relevance on both a cultural and an artistic level. He achieved that rare duality of being profoundly influential to both the inner world of musicians as well as to the outside culture and society as a whole. His music is loved. His work is treasured. His work stands on its own merits both in the context of the films he scored and on its 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.

— John Zorn, July 7, 2020

Below is my own tribute, written on the occasion of yet another tribute, We All Love Ennio Morricone, from 2007.

Hitchcock had Bernard Herrmann. Fellini had Nino Rota. The world has Ennio Morricone.

To claim that Morricone is merely the greatest and most prolific composer of film scores seems a bit much, but it actually is an understatement. Unquestionably, his stature will only grow as time passes, for as long as people are watching movies, they will be hearing Morricone. It is unavoidable: between television and the big screen, his name rolls with the credits more than 400 times. Repeat, more than 400 times. Perhaps best known for his indelible association with Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns (chiefly the ones featuring a young actor named Clint Eastwood), Morricone has traversed the times and spaces to include unreal but epic American myth (Once Upon a Time in the West), early 20th century gangster drama (The Untouchables), the jungles of 18th century South America (The Mission), even the icy wasteland of Antarctica (The Thing) — and that is just a random sampling of the ones everyone knows. Living legends don’t require accolades, but it’s nice, all the same, to see that he is being celebrated this year with an Honorary Academy Award.

We All Love Ennio Morricone is intended to accompany this occasion, and can be viewed as a gesture of gratitude and respect from the musicians who were obviously delighted to participate. It is, of course, also a succinct history lesson of Morricone’s influence and the indescribable shadow he casts, not only over movies, but music. That the assembled performers represent genres as disparate — and ostensibly incompatible — as rock, classical, jazz and opera reveals the extent of Morricone’s scope, and appeal. Of course, if you throw a party and invite everyone, there will inevitably be some misfits in the group. That said, a friendly warning to Morricone aficionados: anyone looking for irreverent, more twisted interpretations of many familiar favorites, this one is probably not for you. The good news is that a deeply felt yet joyously anarchic take on Morricone already exists, courtesy of John Zorn’s brilliant homage The Big Gundown.

Despite the myriad places, times and feelings he has translated into music, and in spite of his inhuman productivity, there is still an undeniable Morricone style. That such a sundry array of artists took part in this project is a testament to his influence; that the collected results still sound clearly identifiable is a testament to his genius. Finally, in addition to his inevitable figurative presence, Morricone’s fingerprints are all over the final mix, courtesy of his original orchestration, fitted between each piece to establish an uninterrupted flow. It is a subtle, yet typically astute touch from a man who has always understood that it’s the slightest gestures or moments that matter most.

And so, what does this tribute sound like? Well, like a not so great western, it gets ugly, early. Celine Dion (yes, that Celine Dion) kicks off the action, and does not disappoint. To be awful, that is. It’s almost like a preemptive antidote, a postmodern exercise in providing an anti-Morricone moment before getting down to the actual business at hand. To each their own, obviously, but this is the only justification that comes to mind while pondering Dion’s place in these proceedings. Thankfully, actual artists with souls (and talent) rescue the lugubrious opening salvo: Quincy Jones and Herbie Hancock to the rescue! Their take on “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly” is of the kitchen sink variety, and with the collective talent of those two, it’s impressive and appropriate overkill: Mwandishi keyboards mixed with Quincy’s more-is-more arrangements, it’s the early ’70s on a see-saw with tomorrow; in other words, pretty much what you’d expect. The dust is still thick in the air when Sheriff Springsteen blows into town to interpret “Once Upon a Time in the West”. With admirable restraint, The Boss keeps his yap shut and shows what Morricone means, using his guitar to tell the tale. As is often the case these days, understatement suits Springsteen. A rather pedestrian reading of “Conradiana” is turned in by Andrea Boceli, which makes the subsequent appearance of Metallica that much more intriguing. It would be telling enough that Metallica was interested in this experiment, but considering the group has opened its live shows for the past two decades with “The Ecstasy Of Gold”, Morricone’s palpable influence on music is further elucidated. Five songs in and we’ve already sampled jazz, opera, rock, heavy metal and Hollywood schlock. Pretty much covers the bases, doesn’t it?

It is nice to have Metallica’s mayhem ease into mellower Morricone, and this collection is likely to be the only place you’ll ever find metal melting into Yo-Yo Ma. The renowned cellist already has intimate ties to the maestro (2004’s “Yo-Yo Ma Plays Ennio Morricone”), and his rendition of “Malena” from that recording is graceful and authoritative. Unfortunately, the bathos is back with Renee Fleming’s mawkish theatrics on “Come Sail Away”. Simply put, when one is accustomed to having the instruments doing the talking, it seems at best superfluous to have such a breathless melodrama cluttering up the clarity. The perfect tonic for this is Morricone himself: “Gabriel’s Oboe” from The Mission (a score that must be counted among his ultimate masterpieces) is about as good as it gets. The next several selections feature the Roma Sinfonietta Orchestra, with stellar contributions from Chris Botti’s trumpet and Dulce Pontes’ ethereal vocals. After some saccharine French pop from Vanessa And The O’s (“Je changerais d’avis”), another heavyweight takes his turn. Well, former heavyweight anyway. Roger Waters, post Pink Floyd, is definitely an acquired taste for the exceedingly patient, or ludicrously loyal. In revealingly megalomaniacal fashion, his work has become increasingly less interesting as the man has moved more to the forefront (Regarding those strained vocals, has anyone ever seen him and Mark Knopfler in the same recording studio?). Even what should have been encouraging accompaniment from Eddie Van Halen is tame and listless.

Thankfully, the collection ends strongly, with Morricone himself conducting/orchestrating the final four songs. “The Tropical Variation” alone is more than worth the price of admission, particularly if you are not inclined to cough up $53 for a used copy of the Nostromo soundtrack online. This piece, as much as any other, embodies everything that is great — and inimitable — about Morricone: that familiar tension of mirth always on the verge of bursting into violence. Kind of like movies, kind of like real life. “Addio Monti” is gorgeous enough to cause one to consider, for the umpteenth time: this is the guy who scored all those spaghetti westerns? Morricone is large, Morricone contains multitudes. Fittingly, the final notes are from “Cinema Paradiso”, a title that could aptly describe Morricone’s own song of himself. In conclusion, We All Love Ennio Morricone is a suitable introduction to a vast and breathtaking body of work. With any luck, this well-deserved encomium will inspire a flood of reissues and reasonably priced collections, enabling the uninitiated an opportunity to hear the world with his eyes.

Some suggested listening, for beginners:

Once Upon a Time in the West

The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

The Mission

Once Upon a Time in America

The Thing

And a few words about the last selection, from my celebration of that classic film, Here’s The Thing:

Perfection is a word that should never be used lightly, but no other word will suffice for the wonders Ennio Morricone works, scoring this film. The name Morricone is — and should be — associated with brilliance, variety and superhuman productivity, just to pick a few obvious choices. While the list of only his very best efforts is not short, his work here must be considered amongst the top tier: The Thing would be unimaginable without it. Rather than overwhelming, or distracting the action on the screen — as film scores do with distressing regularity these days — Morricone’s music exists mostly on the periphery, in the corners and inside the shadows. Its effectiveness serves an almost opposite purpose to the handful of over-the-top alien transformations: the real horror of the story lies in the tension of not knowing, the dread of isolation and the fear of being assailed by an inexplicable enemy. Morricone subtly embellishes the otherwise silent scenes, where the only sounds are the Antarctic winds, the silence and the darkness. As the paranoia increases, strings are plucked like raw nerves, while stark, almost soulless keyboard drones mirror the growing desperation: the music exists as a wind chill factor, making everything colder and more forlorn than it already is.

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