THE MAESTRO – Ennio Morricone was more than one of the world’s greatest soundtrack composers—he was one of the world’s greatest composers. For me his work stands with Bach, Mozart, Debussy, Ellington and Stravinsky in achieving that ultra rare fusion of heart and mind. Morricone was a true maestro who, thru the medium of music, came to understand the soul and its workings, bringing beauty and truth to the world, enriching our lives with a vision that was both pure and eternally youthful. His work is timeless.
Morricone has been a huge influence and a constant artistic inspiration since I first encountered his music in 1967. The Ecstasy of Gold from The Good, The Bad and The Ugly hit me with the same power that Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, Ives’ 4th Symphony and Edgar Varese’s Arcana had, with its complex rhythmic invention, uniquely original sound world, lush romantic sweep and soaring sense of lyricism. His work has become a part of both my conscious, and my subconscious—indeed part of the very fabric of my being.
Embracing the lyricism of his Italian heritage, his gift for melody was extraordinary. He was one of those magical musicians who could make an unforgettable melody with a ‘fistful’ of notes (dare we compare the five notes of his famous ‘coyote call’ in The Good Bad and The Ugly with the four opening notes of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony?) Ennio’s meticulous craftsmanship, unique ear for orchestration, harmony, melody and rhythm resulted in music that was perfectly balanced in every way, and as with all master composers—every note is there for a reason. Change one note, one rhythm, one rest and there is diminishment.
Having roots in both the world of popular music as well as the avant-garde, Morricone was an innovator, and he overcame each new challenge with a fresh approach. Like all great artists he retained a curiosity and childlike sense of wonder throughout his life. In awe of nature, he was constantly growing and learning, and always open to trying new sounds, new instruments, new combinations, rarely drawing from the same well twice. He was a man of unquestioned integrity and character who did not suffer fools gladly. Stories of his responses to inane directorial suggestions are legendary, including one of my favorites—“In the history of music nothing like that has ever happened—nor will it ever happen.” He lived a relatively simple life in a beautiful apartment in Rome, waking as early as 430am, taking walks, and composing at his desk for hours on end. He traveled little, but his life and work has had immense resonance and meaning.
What needs to be understood is that Morricone was a magician of sound. He had an uncanny ability to combine instruments in original ways—ocarina, slapstick, whistling, electric guitar noises, grunts, electronics and howls in the night—everything was welcome in his sound world if it had dramatic effect. By the 1960s the electric guitar had become central to his sound palette and he was able to blend it into a variety of unusual contexts with dramatic flair. In Svegliati e Uccidi he has the guitarist imitate the rat-a-tat-rat of a machine gun through the amplifier’s spring reverb, and his instruction to ’sound like a spear’ resulted in one of the most intense guitar tones ever recorded—the legendary Once Upon a Time in the West.
His mastery of a wide range of genres and instruments made him a musician ahead of his time—and his was a rich and rewarding musical life. He could be exploring extended techniques on a trumpet mouthpiece in a free improvisational context in the morning, write a seductive big band arrangement for a pop singer in the afternoon, and a searing orchestral film soundtrack at night. This kind of openness is the way of the future—and he was a huge and formative role model for me.
Morricone’s sonic adventures have touched so many lives in so many ways that it is difficult to imagine a world without it. He is most known for his soundtrack work, but we must never forget his large catalog of “absolute music”—his classical compositions. There the music comes straight from his heart. Of course what he has accomplished in the challenging and often restrictive world of film music is nothing short of miraculous. There, his immense imagination, sharp ear for drama, profound lyricism, sly puckish sense of humor and huge heart find voice thru a magnificent and masterly musicianship. Artistic freedom was his credo and his impeccable taste and innate sense of energy, space and time was palpable. His work would elevate every film he scored.
One of my dearest memories was visiting the Maestro at a New York recording session, circa 1986. He was—as always—a gentleman: elegant, gracious and more than kind to this young fan who stood humbled in front of his hero. We spoke through a translator for much of our conversation, but he took me aside for a few private moments together, and to share some composerly advice on working in the soundtrack medium. I will always remember his words to me that day—“Forget the film—think of the soundtrack record!”
Many composers wonder—and may even worry—if their work will live on after they are gone, if their contribution will be remembered and their work treasured. Morricone need have no such fears. His work has been embraced by a huge global community and has deep relevance on both a cultural and an artistic level. He achieved that rare duality of being profoundly influential to both the inner world of musicians as well as to the outside culture and society as a whole. His music is loved. His work is treasured. His work stands on its own merits both in the context of the films he scored and on its own terms as pure music. This was his magic. He was more than a musical figure. He was a cultural icon. He was the Maestro—and I loved him dearly.
John Zorn, July 7, 2020
Morricone will be sorely missed, but we are blessed with his huge catalog of music which is a gift that will continue to inspire artists, filmmakers, poets, writers and musicians for generations to come.
- Battle Of Algiers
- The Sicilian Clan
- Poverty (Once Upon A Time In Amer)
- James Bond Theme
- Taxi Driver
- Milano Odeo
- Once Upon A Time In The West
- Erotico (The Burglars)
- The Lie
- Death Waltz Fantasy
July 27, 1988