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Sat May 24, 2014

A Few Words With Ennio Morricone

Originally published on Sun May 25, 2014 2:10 pm

Today at the Cannes Film Festival, attendees marked the 50th anniversary of the spaghetti western at a special screening of A Fistful of Dollars, the Sergio Leone classic that kick-started the genre. Leone's vision of the American West remains singular — and it's impossible to imagine without the iconic music of Ennio Morricone.

Morricone's music is inseparable from the emotional texture of an astonishingly diverse number of films: The Battle of Algiers, The Mission, The Thing, Cinema Paradiso and so many others. He's a fixture of the cultural landscape now, but as a young composer, Morricone was a radical. Long before the spaghetti westerns, he was working modern American sounds into his experimental ensemble, Il Gruppo di Improvvisazione di Nuova Consonanza — Il Gruppo for short.

Speaking from his house in Rome, the 85-year-old Morricone recently told NPR's Arun Rath that Il Gruppo's approach began as a joke: a collection of friends spoofing on the work of one of their contemporaries, John Cage. To learn how the gag evolved into an identity — and hear Morricone's best impression of the coyote howl from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly — listen to their conversation at the audio link.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

While the Gimp was here speaking with me, Quentin Tarantino was at the Cannes Festival celebrating the 20th anniversary of "Pulp Fiction's" triumph there. Tonight he's hosting a screening of "A Fistful of Dollars," celebrating the 50th anniversary of the birth of the spaghetti Western.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RATH: It's impossible to imagine Sergio Leone's vision of the American West without the iconic music of Ennio Morricone. Morricone's music is inseparable from the emotional texture of an astonishingly diverse number of films: "The Battle of Algiers," "The Mission," "The Thing," "Cinema Paradiso," and so many others.

He's a fixture of the cultural landscape now, but as a young composer, he was a radical. Long before the spaghetti Westerns, he was working modern American sounds into his experimental ensemble called Il Gruppo di Improvvisazione, or Il Gruppo for short. Their approach was inspired in a funny way by the experimental work of American composer John Cage. I spoke with Ennio Morricone with the help of translator Roberta Rinaldi.

ENNIO MORRICONE: (Foreign language spoken)

ROBERTA RINALDI: It started after a journey to Damstadt because I had gone with some friends there. And we attended a class by John Cage and also a concert at the time. And what he did was really a bit odd, because you could tell he did not know the basics of music in a certain sense.

And so just as a joke I called these friends of mine. We went outside Damstadt and I started telling them to do kind of a sound like groans or very strange sounds, and I started conducting them. And I also did sounds myself. So I kind of did some strange voice and a noise.

MORRICONE: (foreign language spoken)

RINALDI: And I was somehow teasing what John Cage had done, because at that time, we did not understand what he was trying to do and what he did.

RATH: So it began as a joke?

MORRICONE: (Foreign language spoken)

RINALDI: Yes, it actually started as a joke, but then the idea we all had about using the instruments was just not to play the instruments as they should have been played but to play them also raping them in somehow.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RINALDI: Making strange sounds and strange noises, and that's how we created the Gruppo di Improvvisazione.

MORRICONE: (Foreign language spoken)

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RATH: What's amazing about that music listening to it now, it sounds so modern still. And I'm wondering if, for instance, the track "The Feedback," it's been sampled by a lot of musicians and I'm wondering if he's aware of the influence and how it's been sampled.

MORRICONE: (Foreign language spoken)

RINALDI: I am aware of this, of course, and the important thing that you have to point out and understand about this is that, you know, people who composed music, they composed music freely with a certain freedom. And then people actually played and performed for music. I used to perform it with the same freedom, so it was music out of control.

MORRICONE: (Foreign language spoken)

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RATH: One of the things that is so wonderful about your music is the way you incorporate a lot of non-traditional sounds; dissonance of course, but also, you know, electronic sounds, you know, environmental sounds, that sort of thing. How did you inspired to have such a broad palette?

MORRICONE: (Foreign language spoken)

RINALDI: Well, of course, something of the experience of the group remained, plus I had an experience, a very interesting one, with two French (unintelligible) who actually had recorded music - let's call it music - with environment sounds, for example; the firefighters' sirens, horse riding, traffic jams, et cetera, this kind of sounds. And they just did a recording only with these things.

So that lead me to believe that, you know, by putting environmental music or, for example, animal sounds into music, you could get something more out of it.

MORRICONE: (Foreign language spoken)

RINALDI: Just to give you an example, the animal sound in "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly," by Leone, I used a coyote howl.

(SOUNDBITE OF COYOTE HOWL)

MORRICONE: (Foreign language spoken)

RINALDI: That exact sound, that is the theme of the film. So as you can see, you can use this kind of music, and I personally used it like an improvement for myself and for my own music and composition.

MORRICONE: (Foreign language spoken)

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RATH: There are so many films that I would want to talk about. I wonder if we could just talk about "The Mission." And what's remarkable to me about that is the use of the native instruments and sounds, the South American sounds that frankly in less talented hands could sound like a gimmick. But you integrate it so beautifully. I wondering how you approached that original music.

MORRICONE: (Foreign language spoken)

RINALDI: The music is actually conditioned by the period in which the film was set, which is 1750. So, of course, the Jesuits went to South America to teach Christianity to these people. They also brought with them the music appreciation, in that particular case instrumental music, for example, Gabriel with his Oboe.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MORRICONE: (Foreign language spoken)

RINALDI: Another aspect I had to take into account was choral music, for example. And the third element is, as you were saying, native music.

So in the film, at the beginning of the film, for example, aspect one and two had to be combined together. Then, aspect one and three had to be combined together, then two and three had to be combined together, and then at the end of the film, I had to combine all three elements of this music together, and that was not really easy.

MORRICONE: (Foreign language spoken)

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RATH: Ennio Morricone is 85 years old and still composing. He spoke to us from his house in Rome. Ennio Morricone, thank you so much.

MORRICONE: (Foreign language spoken)

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RATH: And for Saturday, that's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath.

Tomorrow, we'll take you on a voyage to the dark side of the Internet. There's a lot more to the Internet than the sites you can visit through your standard web browser, a part of the internet called the dark net.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: There are a lot of drug sites. They sell weapons, guns, tasers, hacking tools, and even you can hire an assassin.

RATH: But it's not all elicit activity. Some people visit the dark net just to avoid leaving footprints online.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: There's human rights activists, journalists, military, law enforcement, normal people. It just really depends on what you want to do.

RATH: A peek behind the curtain of the dark net, that's tomorrow. Until then, thanks for listening and have a great night.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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