Appreciation: Few ever heard Ennio Morricone's avant-garde music. Why it was key to his movies

Mark Swed, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

Ennio Morricone, who died Monday at age 91, was, of course, famed as the outrageously prolific and inventive film composer of such classics as "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly," one of his more than 500 movie scores. His stylist range covered everything from up-to-the-minute experimental to yesterday's most tired schlock, leading to the equally tired quip that his music was the good, the bad and the ugly.

Less appreciated, though, is how much the ugly helped make Morricone so good.

Besides his film music, Morricone wrote more than 150 concert works, which he considered absolute music, many avant-garde. There is a very good chance that you've heard none of them. Live performances outside of Italy have been exceedingly rare, and nearly nonexistent in the U.S. Only a tiny fraction has been recorded. Yet Morricone insisted, the time I interviewed him, that it was far and away his most important work.

The only apparent reason Morricone -- who hardly ever came to America, didn't speak English and had zero regard for music journalists -- agreed to speak with me was because I said I wanted to focus on his "serious" music. Even so, the interview started badly when I asked the composer, a princely presence in his velvet slippers with embossed crowns, to describe his concert work, since I knew so little of it.

Before YouTube or streaming, before he had a website, before the music could be found on CD, the only way to encounter any of it was to attend the premiere in Italy. Morricone's undisguised impatience indicated that was no excuse. But when I mentioned that I had seen him perform as a member of Gruppo di Improvvisazione Nuova Consonanza in Florence in the early 1970s and that I had bought all the ensemble's albums when they came out, his demeanor changed. I was one of the clan.

The Group, as it was called on its first American LP, "The Private Sea of Dreams," in 1967, was a radical improvising collective formed by Italian composer Franco Evangelisti in 1964. Its heyday was in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Morricone played trumpet in it for a dozen years, and what I remember from the performance I attended was what a cool, formidable presence he had.


The timing was critical. Morricone's distinctive, multifaceted musical personality was just coming into being when he joined the Group. He had just scored Sergio Leone's "A Fistful of Dollars" (which made Morricone's name), Bernardo Bertolucci's "Before the Revolution" and John Huston's "The Bible," along with several cheesy Italian exploitation films. The Group, on the other hand, challenged some of the basic tenets of what most people think music should be, and it challenged everything film music is supposed to be.

In the early 1960s, Morricone had studied with Goffredo Petrassi, a respected mainstream modernist Italian composer with an outsize influence on a new generation. His students included such avid avant-gardists as the anarchistic Englishman Cornelius Cardew and the unpredictable Italian Franco Donatoni (with whom Esa-Pekka Salonen studied), as well as American composer and influential critic Eric Salzman.

Morricone joined right in, and by the late 1950s, he was adept at the latest experimental techniques of electronic music and, as he wrote in his memoir, "Life Notes," had taken to heart John Cage's insistence that "all real-world sounds ... belong to music." He embraced noise and demonstrated a talent for finding things that instruments could do that no one else thought of. To earn his keep, however, he moonlighted playing trumpet in clubs and arranging pop recordings, mastering studio techniques in the process. When he started to blow for Evangelisti, Morricone said he was just coming to terms with living a double life as a composer, writing advanced "absolute music" entirely on his terms and commercial music on someone else's. The Group offered a third way that made surprising sense to both worlds.

In his musical revolution to save music from what he called the "already done," Evangelisti had come up with a novel systematic approach to improvisation. Every member had to be a composer and accomplished performer, but no individual player had priority. No sound produced could be bound to the tonal system. There could be no rhythmic periodicity or repetition, no easily remembered tunes (of which Morricone happened to be genius), no cliches (including avant-garde ones), no wasteful sound, no improviser ego-tripping.


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