Conversation with Ennio Morricone about Music and Cinema

Intervista Ennio Morricone CIAK

In 2007 Ennio Morricone received Honorary Academy Award for Career Achievement, on that occasion I had a long conversation with him and it was published on the cinema magazine “CIAK”. I am pleased to introduce it here today to celebrate the victory of his second, well deserved Academy Award.
Franco Piersanti


Conversation with Ennio Morricone about Music and Cinema: Where and how does it come from and what is movie music?

I have met Ennio Morricone for the first time in Rome, in a recording studio, maybe in 1976.

I used to play double bass in the orchestra. He was there to record the score of Il deserto dei Tartari by Valerio Zurlini. I was impressed by his rigour with the orchestra, a certain strictness as a conductor, as well as his friendliness with musicians when the music ended. I was particularly impressed by his music. So different, of great substance and extraordinarily emotional. The beauty of the metaphysical atmosphere from Buzzati’s book, brilliantly re-created through a moving canto fermo of the organ, of a tuba, on a constantly moving harmonic structure of strings and wind instruments. Who knows if my decision to dedicate myself exclusively to movies music comes from that experience. In the following years, as I had become a professional, I have met Ennio many times and I have had the privilege to see him as a friend. And today, as he is celebrated and applauded by everyone, with several tributes paid to him (a CD with his most beautiful pieces re-interpreted by the greatest world-known music personalities is to be released soon), I would like to express my gratitude.

Well Ennio, finally we made it!

First of all, dear Franco, I am emotioned for this conversation as I have never been “interviewed” by a talented colleague, before, nor by a less talented one. It feels pleasant and embarrassing at the same time.

I would like to simply talk, just like the many conversations we have had, with no one listening.

Well but people can read this! And the truth is that I am excited because you are not a journalist nor a musicologist, your profession is the same as mine.

How do you feel now, after learning about the Academy Award, after your prestigious concerts at the U.N. and at the Radio City Hall in New York, aware to be one of the most appreciated musicians all over the world, surrounded and pervaded by such a wave of affection and gratitude?

First of all I did not expect anything, after the last nomination for Malèna… That time I was in the theatre and as they were about to pronounce the winner name I had whispered to my wife: “Maria I hope they won’t call me”, I felt like it was nice and funny to remain with 5 nominations. This Honorary Academy Award has comforted me a little, as it covers my whole work. How do I feel about it? Well…When you write a music piece you don’t think about prizes you will be awarded.

Sure, but what about knowing to be loved so much?

I have started realizing it playing concerts, a few years ago! The audience in London was standing after the execution of the first piece…as well as in Tokyo and at the Auditorium in Rome. But I do not deceive myself: to me it looks more and more something temporary, even if it seems to last longer. But there is no time to think. Maybe this is due to the simplicity and clarity of my writing.

You are modest, reducing everything to a technical matter, but the harmony is made up of something that strikes people’s emotions and not their rationality. I think you have this great privilege, because the music that has reached people’s system, their hearts and brains, and that remains there, is far more different from success, and you know this. People identify themselves with your music and are grateful to you.

It is a matter of writing: it’s the attempt to use simple harmonies, except in cases where I make unprecedented complications. Basically it’s the attempt to compare those simple harmonies to some melodies with other articulations, to find some difference in the melody, playing in the same movie with pauses contraposing a theme. This process maybe produces an outcome. Maybe this makes people repeat such things, including those who play in a simple, non professional way, the guitar. Many times I have wondered why and I have found some answer.

You have always been original, since your first movie Il Federale, and even before, since you used to write arrangements for singer-songwriters. If I listen again to what you have written for Morandi or Paoli I immediately hear your style, it was very clear already…

With singer-songwriters I had always tried not to be passive in front of a nice or not so nice melody, to subject the piece to something above the piece itself, coexisting with the melody in an almost autonomous way… Even Bacalov did something similar, very good works. I have always tried to act in a non-passive way: a prevailing idea is necessary. The listener has to be attracted by the first twenty seconds before the singer starts to sing, that is the core of everything and then it is to become a sort of countersubject.

“Movies music, even the ugly one, will in any case be the mirror of our culture, of our time” 

As a matter of fact you have really been a pioneer from those arrangements to the movies music, paving a bright way for people doing this work. You have mainstreamed movies music: twenty years ago it was not so easy to play movies music concerts, it was unpopular. 

And the question they ask me all the time is: “do you think that movies music could have its own autonomy?” Why does Mahler’s music for Death in Venice work perfectly? And why does Bruchner’s music perfectly work on Senso and Bach’s music is perfect for Accattone?
What I have noticed throughout my life is that music, in order to work properly with a movie, must have its own strength, in terms of form, syntax, writing, breadth, its own resistance, from the non-breaks to a certain way to use sync, without breaking the piece unity. I have always thought that music for movies needs a path enabling it to be both focused on the movie but also sounding as it were written before, thus some pieces have been written before the movie shooting and they worked very well.

Does it mean that you only need to read a screenplay to compose?

No, that’s not enough, because it can be done in a different way. No, I need to know very well the director, talk to him/her, understand what is the movie path, what is the characters inwardness to highlight.

Things change when you watch the scenes: do you happen to change your mind, as you completely change your perspective?

I happen to correct and add, but knowing how a director shoots is very important as well as if he/she properly explains you his/her demands and gives you a clear opinion, even a critical one, about what you played for her/him on the piano…

Are you more generous with some directors rather than with others?

No, I am not.

And when you have found the general structure of the movie and it satisfies you, I am not talking about the theme…

I do not believe in the theme, I have reduced it to its bare minimum and if I could completely avoid it I would be very happy, because I am constantly asked for “a theme, the theme!”.

What I meant is: when you are satisfied by your idea and the director wants you to explore another path, demanding you something completely different from your initial idea, what is your approach? Do you try to convince him/her, are you argumentative, is there room for dialectic?

Yes, I am argumentative. I am less controversial in the recording studio, where it is necessary to keep going and try to listen to the director who is the author of the main work, because we are authors of an applied work, not a primary one, even if with its own independence. The director, in turn, has to respect the composer’s view, so basically if you and I would write the score for the same movie, without knowing it, we’d probably do a good job, but different. So what is the best music? The problem is not the competition, the problem is what music better fits the movie and this is up to the director, to his culture, to his vision of the movie. There are many paths leading to the music of a movie: the director must choose one of them.

There are potentially many adequate music types for the same movie…

I have realized that there are many good music types that work and many bad ones that work too. Even the ugly ones do work, have you noticed it? Do you know why? Because the director has respected and taken them into account. The director’s mixing sets the music functionality in the movie: a director doing a bad mixing could destroy a very good music. The music score mixed with reality sounds is a problem for us because we write music which is external to the movie reality. Where does the music come from? From an elsewhere that is mysterious and if it is this mysterious elsewhere providing the distant and psychological idea of such an abstract art, if it does not emerge confidently, cleared of the reality sounds, that music will never be beautiful, also because the brain cannot perceive more than two different signals.

So we should stop writing music for movies because it is constantly jeopardized…

No, a good mixing should be taught, with a good balance between effects and music, because when there is music, there can not be more than an additional element and maybe it must be secondary. Think of A man and a woman by Lelouch, the song you hear while  Trintignant goes to the car works very well because you can listen to it clearly. It would have not worked with the noise of brakes, curves etc.    

Tell me Ennio, is there a movie, a director, that has changed your relationship with music and your vision of cinema?

I don’t think there is one, but for sure I have seen progresses in terms of directors, discussions, in the civil way to listen to music sound to the extent that, for instance in the movie The Unknown Woman I had strong and clarifying exchanges that left no room to uncertainties: no piece was to be repeated in any case, there were only two themes and then completely different music because Tornatore was afraid of the theme, just like me.

The Unknown Woman is one of the few movies where there about 30 second pauses between one piece and the other.

There is one hour and twenty five minutes of music out of a total of two hours movie: maybe it’s the movie with the highest music quantity.

There is a different intention, a safe bet…

It’s a milestone to me. I could start further arguments from here and maybe make progresses.

Tell me a movie you are particularly fond of.
I never answer this question because there are many movies I am fond of. I could say Mission, The Unknown Woman, some movies by Leone, Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion, Metti una sera a cena, but I feel like I hurt directors, I always forget someone. So I never answer but this time I have answered! 

Does your relationship with the director – and you have worked mainly with excellent directors – remain the same or does it change?

I have noticed that the more I feel a director trusts me, the better my compositions are. I also feel freer to make mistakes and mistakes are steps forward. When the director feels and accepts it, trust gives its outcomes. The experience makes you improve, I think The Unkown Woman is an important step forward in terms of music for movies I will benefit from, in the future. This movie, more than ever, marks something that has really happened: not a slow process but a jump ahead. And I am happy to keep fighting and improving at my age.

You have always been like that!
Yes, but now I’m almost eighty years old!

And you keep writing…

Of course…

I apologize for the indiscreet question, I know there was a moment in your career when you were seriously considering to quit.

I have thought it every ten years.

Looking at your filmography maybe something can be guessed: in certain years you have worked for 26 movies…

Well, let me explain: actually I work for a movie today and it is launched three years later because no movie theatre is available and filmographies are written taking into account only the year the movie is released. I have never worked on 26 movies in one year!

Well but you have managed to work on 14 movies per year and then in other periods your production is remarkably reduced and surely not for a lower demand…

I used to leave aside the movie work to write absolute music. Every score takes a long time so I postponed it just in case of a true occasion. I have invested a lot on absolute music. It took me a long time to compose the Quarto concerto for organ, two trumpets, two trombones and orchestra

I have re-listened to theConcerto for flute, cello and orchestra, I think it’s your third one, it’s absolute beauty, deserving to be placed next to the great compositions of the historical XIX century, inspired and clear music…

I never know, I am happy if you think so. I compose, then I hope music works and is executed. That Concerto has a new peculiarity. In the first part there is the flute solo, in the second there is the cello solo, in the third part there are both, together, obviously always with the orchestra.

You say: “It takes me nine month to write such a score” but many of the scores you write and have written are cathedrals and in those cases you have less time. You do love playing chess and all the combinatorial art with words and numbers. Tell me some figure: four hundred movies, Ennio, many for the TV, on average one hour music per movie, that is to say about four hundred music hours. Every movie contains about thirty pieces, that is to say twelve thousands: you have written twelve thousands scores, that is to say the complete composition played by the orchestra. And you are a musician who does not use the computer, just handwriting, on your own, since 1961. A huge production plus the absolute music. What is your daily rule? 

I force myself to be regular, I set the working and non-working time, it’s a very regular life.

But movies have very tight deadlines…

I currently demand 30-40 days to write, also because I am responsible, I know how tough the copyist life is, copying every singular music part for the instruments.

Are you fast at writing?

I am quite fast, if I have clear ideas.

What about ideas? Do you come up with ideas quickly?

Sometimes I don’t, I have to struggle. Sostiene Pereira made me suffer: I used to call on the phone Faenza who was in Portugal to tell him I had not come up with any idea. Then I had the decisive idea by chance. From the window of this house I have seen a retirees demonstration, listening to the protest rhythm they were beating on drums. So this binary rhythm has generated also the song Pereira used to listen to – not by chance on that binary rhythm there is a ternary melody – that has become a protagonist of the movie. It is important to me achieving an unquestionable combination, a strong structure.

It would be desirable to talk about your structures, about what you have created breaking phrases, what you manage to do, in a non-rhytmic way, in a linearity. And this is the gap between you and the others

You can not just stick to the movie, composing applied music only: you have to find a reason, you have to think you are doing something that concerns you and this is a constant growth. A while ago I even needed to “detox” from movies music before writing absolute music. Now it’s different, I can easily write anything without interruption.

When you write absolute music, are you methodical or is it an expression of an inner urge?

It is something I feel. Voci dal silenzio, for instance, is the outcome of an urgency, the emotionality triggered by 9/11 events. As I was writing and watching and re-watching the airplanes images on theTV, I had realized that there have been and there are hundreds of other bloodsheds no one talks about and I felt I had to cover them too, with my creation. What has moved me the most is that Voci dal silenzio (Voices from silence) has immediately got connected to the audience. Why? Maybe voices are the reason, those voices sprinkling the cantata and then, when airplanes crash against the towers, you hear the woman voice, violent, dramatic, imperious. Just think that as I was completing my composition, to me those voices seemed to represent a danger. In any case, it’s a piece composed right away.

You dedicate a long time to absolute music scores, maybe because you have no deadlines, but I find it peculiar and extraordinary that you are faster with movies music, which sometimes requires complex and articulated thinking ignored by the other music, as it is not applied.

There is a paradoxical but brilliant sentence Sergio Miceli (musicologist, author of many essays and of a beautiful book about Morricone, Morricone, la musica e il cinema – Morricone, music and films , Ricordi-Mucchi, Modena 1994 editor’s note) told me: “Ennio, it doesn’t have to take you a long time to write, be fast as it works better”.

Your movie scores are extremely refined because orchestras are overlapped, with more and more complex evolutions and express all the movie sides with a great combinatory art.

I believe in the art of counterpoint. When, at school, we were told “do not repeat the same note too many times” they were right. You don’t have to repeat it! You write a melody only if it’s articulated, if it doesn’t stick too much to the metric, to the same sounds. And then also two orchestras together do work, especially if they counterpoint each other, not the melodies but the ideas. Rules learned at school always apply, even to the extreme vanguard works. And they pay.

“People say I have written the best music for Leone. It’s not true, it’s Sergio who made them sound”.

Listen Ennio, now, with your experience, are you still concerned, nervous when you compose for a movie?

I feel more and more the responsibility of the director who, in case of mistakes, will have to wait a long time before directing a new movie. The recording phase is a very concerning one. And I try not to tire my executors, I keep them “tense” for a proper execution, because often the first recording is better as they are less tired. Moreover there is the discussion with the director who could not agree with some experiments I have done and details to be discussed with her/him, disagreements to overcome: “no, this is too sad” “but I thought you wanted it this way”. Because as I discuss, the inactivity makes orchestra bored, tired.


When you have written for instance the great themes for
Once upon a time in the West or Mission, did you feel those compositions were to become so popular?

I knew they would fit the movie, but I really had no idea they could become so popular, I could not predict it. Let me give you a funny example: when I wrote the music for Adrian Lyn’s movie Lolita, he came to me and listened to some themes “They’re nice, but they’re not immortal themes”. I told him: “It takes several years before they get immortal, how can you tell it now?” Then I wrote other themes and they seemed immortal to him. He was a very nice person…

For sure directors expect the best, sometimes I feel like they are a bit jealous of what music can steal from images…

This happens, I would prefer not to talk about it. It has happened.

What should one do in such cases?

Nothing, you give them the music and they do what they want. You cannot do anything. I no longer take part to the mixing.

I do not refer to mixing but to music that in your opinion works in a certain part  and they do not agree…

Another music might happen to work better and in that case they may be right. And then this is what may happen with a director: I was working on Hamlet with Zeffirelli, I was happy because he didn’t want the theme. I was arguing with him in the editing room and Mel Gibson was there. During the part with the famous “To be or not to be” Zeffirelli tells me: “Alright, now the music starts and lasts for the whole monologue”. So Gibson tells him: “Why would you place music as I act? Don’t you trust me? Isn’t my acting enough?”. In the American and British edition there is no music. Even De Niro didn’t want music in some parts of Once upon a time in America, but Leone didn’t listen to him.

So your ideal music for movies has no theme?

I have always tried to avoid the theme or to make a study about breaks or even a theme with all the breaks, or I have tried to play like in the theme of Once upon a time in the West. It is so cheerful, and it’s a full of six notes breaks (a 6 notes distance from a starting note, both high and low – editor’s note).

I want to understand how you conceive the music of a movie without a theme, it is something that thrills me too…

But you can do it better than me.

Honestly, when I hear your themes, Ennio, I think “here is a friend”, that small group of notes spinning around and orchestrated in certain manners…It comforts you, it delicately pervades you and establishes itself in there.
Well there are many ways, there is the interrogative theme, the one that never ends. Then there are themes imposing themselves and others playing with breaks, with pauses. I remember that for a Bolognini’s movie, L’assoluto naturale from Ercole Patti’s book, I did the most I could and I never did it again: a theme with two notes only, something crazy. During the third shift at the Fono Roma, Bolognini did not speak any more, he was just drawing. “So how is it?” I asked him at one point. “I don’t like it at all”. “So why haven’t you told me before? Then I put another note”. In the end he liked my work. Ten years later I met him in Piazza di Spagna and the told me “I’ve watched again L’assoluto naturale, it is the most beautiful score you have written for me”. Hard to understand! In any case my wife is the first person listening to my work and my first selection is based on her opinion. Maria understands more than I do because I cannot be objective.

What is music for movies?

Miceli explained it very well, music for movies is the mirror of our times, because it is a young art encompassing all the arts (dance, architecture, poetry, acting) so those who have not taken into account music for movies have understood nothing because music for movies, even the ugly one, even the badly written one will be the mirror of our culture and our times. Then we, you and I try to write it properly for ourselves, but maybe also for History.

What is the role of music in the movie?

It has to express what words, images, colours, clothes nor the scenery do not express: the interiority of the character that could remain in the shadow. To achieve this, music has to be alone with the character and the scene. This is why I believe music should be isolated to the maximum extent to be listened to. Many people tell me: “for Leone you have composed better music than for other directors”. This is not true. This is because you manage to listen to it, music is with the character who cries, who laughs, and so it is easier to reach the meaning and truth of its application.

You have dedicated the Academy Award to Maria, your wife. May I ask you why?

Why? Because of her sacrifice…it is hard to stay with a composer. Last time I spent three months in the recording studio for Tornatore’s movie. When I work and write I stay there, alone, and she stays home, alone. So it’s a life of sacrifice.

In the photograph: Ennio Morricone (78 yo) on the left and Franco Piersanti, author of this interview for CIAK, portrayed together in the beautiful house of the Academy Award winner and Roman composer.

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