Monday, July 06, 2020

RIP Ennio Morricone: He Left Us Multitudes

Maestro Ennio Morricone has passed away at the age of 91, leaving behind some 400 feature film scores, miscellaneous experimental recordings and pop music arrangements, and more albums, retrospectives and compilations than anyone could count, much less own. It is a popular opinion that such prolificacy is its own worst enemy, that it spreads talent thin and wastes more time and ability in expenditure than in incubating - but if anyone could put the lie to this homespun wisdom, it was Morricone. There's a song on Bob Dylan's new album called "I Contain Multitudes," which derives its title and concept from a poem by Walt Whitman, "Song of Myself." Certainly Dylan has worn a variety of masks during his long career and used them to express a great variety of popular music and (sometimes unpopular) voices, but Morricone could have laid an even more valid claim to the title. It's interesting that both stories begin, more or less, from the same seed: Woody Guthrie. 

Bear with me. Woody Guthrie was Bob Dylan's hero; it's said that he - two generations away from Russian Jewish immigrants - left his hometown of Hibbing, Minnesota to travel east and sing to the hospitalized Guthrie. He did his best to look, sound, walk, and talk like him; and because Guthrie's brain was dying in the throes of Huntington's Disease, Dylan carried his voice and his message forward like a torch. He called himself Woody's "disciple," but soon enough he had become more analogous to the voice of Christ for thousands of young folk. You could hear a pin drop in Carnegie Hall as he wove his spell, just one man and an old, beaten-up guitar. After his fabled motorcycle accident saved him from a self-destructive spiral on the road, he came back somewhat reborn in the image of American traditional music with the Band, then country music under the wing of Johnny Cash, and a whole procession of images from the clown-faced bandleader of the Rolling Thunder Revue, the sanctimonious front man of the GOTTA SERVE SOMEBODY tour, stints with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and the Grateful Dead, the drunken-sounding uncle singing Christmas songs, the Sinatra-like crooner mooning over old lost loves, and most currently the songwriter whose sprawling cast of characters from the Marquis de Sade to the Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands have become synonymous with some kind of forsaken Americana, somehow synonymous with JFK's sadly exploding head. You might say he's a myth-maker as much as a writer of song; his first Number One was 17 minutes long. 

Morricone's Woody Guthrie connection, of course, was the 1941 song "Pastures of Plenty", which he - in his original status as an orchestral arranger of Italian pop music recordings - gave a special arrangement for a 1962 single by the expatriate American folk singer Peter Tevis. At this time, Morricone had already composed a couple of Italian Western scores in a more traditional vein, GUNFIGHT AT RED SANDS and and Tevis had sung themes for thebut had previously sung the title themes of Morricone's two previous Westerns, GUNFIGHT AT RED SANDS ("A Gringo Like Me") and BULLETS DON'T ARGUE ("Lonesome Billy"). So it was natural for Morricone to suggest a reprise of this successful template to Sergio Leone when he was approached to score FISTFUL OF DOLLARS - but Leone didn't want the Tevis voice - he wanted that Guthrie/Tevis sound, which somehow gathered the galloping of ghostly horses in a guitar's sultry strum, whip cracks, flute trills, the caws of men attempting to marshal an unruly nature, and the gentleness that was just a heartbeat away from cataclysmic violence. Morricone would later refer to FISTFUL, repeatedly, as the worst score he ever wrote, but it redefined the musical genre laid down by Aaron Copeland in his 1940s compositions like "Billy the Kid", "Hoedown", and "Appalachian Spring." 

The music that Morricone wrote for Italian Westerns of the 1960s was as defining of them as their look, their stars, their direction. It was lusty, sweaty, humorous, even spiritual music with a hair-trigger temper. His sixteen-year membership in the ensemble Gruppo di Improvvisazione di Nuova Consonanza, which explored improvised experimental music, kept him vigilant on the edge of musical frontiers. It was with his scores for THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY and ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST that his movie music became too brilliant to ignore; Sergio Leone himself saw to that, using his brooding, roiling, suspenseful, harrowing, even mournful music to embrace long silences, as the cinema he created returned periodically to the purity of the silent era. One critic noted about the latter film that it was like an opera in which the arias were stared. 

But we mustn't forget that Morricone's music also paraded itself in a series of masks. There are not only compilations of Morricone's music, but compilations of distinct genres of his music. He contained it all. There are collections of his love themes, his themes of violence, his work as a pop music composer and arranger (topped by Mina's astonishing and much-covered "Se telefonando"); there are three volumes of MONDO MORRICONE containing his masterful and elegant pop and shake instrumentals for "Continental Op" pictures; there is MORRICONE GIALLO, CRIME AND DISSONANCE, MORRICONE BOSSA, PSICODELICO JAZZISTICO, even a 24-disc ULTIMATE COLLECTION that doesn't begin to cover even a quarter of it. He left us any number of worlds to get lost in, not least of all the world of collecting his vast archive of recorded works.

If the work had been unsigned, it would take an ear far more skilled than mine to identify the common author of the scores for Elio Petri's A QUIET PLACE IN THE COUNTRY, Edouard Molinaro's LA CAGE AUX FOLLES, John Carpenter's THE THING, and Wolfgang Petersen's IN THE LINE OF FIRE. In these and other scores, we find Morricone stepping not only outside his usual perimeters but his unique personality as well, always with bold distinction, and he managed to do so at the same time he was writing the more readily identifiable scores of such films as Mario Bava's DANGER: DIABOLIK, Luciano Ercoli's FORBIDDEN PHOTOS OF A LADY ABOVE SUSPICION (with its killer track, "Amore come dolore", Franco Rossi's MOSES THE LAWGIVER, Sergio Leone's ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA, Roland Joffe's THE MISSION, Giuseppe Tornatore's CINEMA PARADISO, and Quentin Tarantino's THE HATEFUL EIGHT. Readily identifiable, yes, but at the same time wholly original and another step in his evolution as an artist. One might reasonably call him a music factory, but the phrase gives a false impression of faceless, impersonal work. The base materials that passed through Morricone's loom were never less than serviceable and almost invariably came out as woven gold.

Time will tell, but when the definitive history of contemporary music is written, Ennio Morricone may well be cited as the most significant classical composer of his lifetime. I can think of no other composer who was more capable of galvanizing and raising orchestras to a higher calling, unleashing tides of profound emotion wherever he conducted. But even this heroic accomplishment is just one of the many faces he wore. In a world of heroes, Ennio Morricone was the rarest of the rare - a Titan - and the odds are seriously against our seeing his like again.

(c) 2020 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.