Morricone evokes musical mood in many films

February 04, 2007|By Jon Pareles | Jon Pareles,New York Times News Service

ROME -- For many filmmakers through the years, a certain kind of pilgrimage to Rome leads to the opulent parlor of the composer Ennio Morricone. It's the place where he has discussed grand concepts and crucial details, and often unveiled new themes on the piano, for the distinctive film scores he has written over the past four decades, from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly to The Mission. There are more than 400 of them, though he hasn't kept count.

Yesterday, Morricone, 78, was to make his long-overdue American concert debut with 200 musicians and singers at Radio City Music Hall in New York. It marked the beginning of a triumphal month in the United States that will also include festivals of his films in New York at the Museum of Modern Art and Film Forum, and the release of a tribute album, We All Love Ennio Morricone (Sony Masterworks), with performances from Bruce Springsteen, Renee Fleming, Herbie Hancock, Enya and Metallica, among others. On Feb. 25, he will be presented with an honorary Academy Award for lifetime achievement, atoning for past omissions. Despite five nominations, he has never won.

Massimo Gallotta, the promoter producing the concert, had been working for more than a year to present Morricone's American debut. "It was strange for me that Morricone had never performed here in the past," Gallotta said. "He agreed right away. And then I was lucky about the Oscar, the CD, everything."

Morricone has given concerts periodically in Europe, including a December performance that drew 50,000 people to the Piazza del Duomo in Milan. At Radio City, he was to lead the 100-piece Roma Sinfonietta orchestra, along with the 100-member Canticum Novum Singers.

Everyone except Maestro Morricone, as he is called in Rome, considers him startlingly prolific. Along with his hundreds of film scores, he has composed a sizable body of concert music such as "Voci dal Silencio" ("Voices From the Silence"), a cantata he wrote in response to "the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 and all the massacres of humanity all over the world," he said. He performed that work Friday at the United Nations, at a concert welcoming the new secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon.

"The notion that I am a composer who writes a lot of things is true on one hand and not true on the other hand," he said in an interview at his home, speaking in Italian through a translator. "Maybe my time is better organized than many other people's. But compared to classical composers like Bach, Frescobaldi, Palestrina or Mozart, I would define myself as unemployed."

Memorable music

Morricone is a flinty, pragmatic character, but one who marvels at what he called "the strange miracle of music." He looked like a bespectacled businessman, wearing a sport jacket, dark trousers, white shirt and tie. He greeted any generalizations about his work with a shrug, or a terse "that is up to the audience to decide." But through the years he has created music that is as memorable as the films it accompanies, and sometimes more so.

Audiences respond to the operatic sweep of themes like the ones he wrote for Cinema Paradiso (1988) and Once Upon a Time in America (1968). Musicians prize the ingenuity of his writing: the unexpected harmonic turns, the odd meters (even in tunes that seem to be marches), the use of silence and wide spaces between instruments. Meanwhile hipsters and producers delight in the almost sardonic themes he wrote for films such as director Elio Petri's Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion (1970) and the striking, sample-ready timbres he has invented.

For 1900 he wrote a score that encompasses Italian folk songs, dance music and symphonic arrangements. "He is someone with two identities," said Bernardo Bertolucci, that film's director. "One is the composer of contemporary music, and the other is this composer of big epics, this popular music for movies. All his life he has been trying to nourish one identity with the other one, and it is as if the two voices were enriching each other. He has a great capacity of harmonizing in himself."

Morricone's Roman palazzo mixes elegant history - an antique tapestry of the abduction of the Sabine women - with menacing modernity - turbulent 20th-century paintings full of striking colors and brooding shadows. That combination echoes the qualities that have made generations of directors seek out Morricone - from Sergio Leone with A Fistful of Dollars (1964) to Terrence Malick with Days of Heaven (1978) to Roland Joffe with The Mission (1980) to Giuseppe Tornatore with Cinema Paradiso and Malena (2000).

He composes not at the piano or on a computer but at an imposing desk in his writing studio, amid shelves of books, LPs, CDs, tapes and DVDs. On a coffee table supported by a realistic rhinoceros is a neat stack of score paper with all the parts for an orchestra written in pencil: Morricone's next batch of soundtracks.

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