Ennio Morricone: They shoot, he scores

Ennio Morricone has provided film directors such as Sergio Leone with exotic music for more than four decades. He's the maestro. And doesn't he know it, says James McNair
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Interviewing Ennio Morricone, one must observe the protocol. He insists on being called "maestro". As a 75-year-old Italian who also happens to be the greatest living film-score composer, he is worthier of the epithet than most. It also chimes with the grandeur of his central Rome apartment, a 17th-century property with crystal chandeliers and views of the Forum.

Interviewing Ennio Morricone, one must observe the protocol. He insists on being called "maestro". As a 75-year-old Italian who also happens to be the greatest living film-score composer, he is worthier of the epithet than most. It also chimes with the grandeur of his central Rome apartment, a 17th-century property with crystal chandeliers and views of the Forum.

Disappointingly, pressing the maestro's doorbell elicits a monotone buzz, not the stirring "Ay-ee ay-ee ah!" of his theme for Sergio Leone's The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Having gained entry, we are led to a short, slightly frail-looking man in a blue cardigan and tortoiseshell glasses. The maestro nods, then pats the antique chaise he's sitting on. He wants our pretty blonde translator, Roberta, to join him there.

The creator of more than 400 film scores, Morricone was born in the Rome of Mussolini in 1928. He started composing at the age of six, and by 12 he was studying music under Raffaele Petrassi at the Santa Cecilia Conservatory. His first score was for Luciano Salce's 1961 film Il Federale ( The Fascist), but it was the outré, highly evocative music he composed for the spaghetti westerns of his schoolfriend Sergio Leone that brought Morricone to the fore.

But this meeting has been prompted by the release of Arena Concerto, an album of live performances of some of his best-known works. Much of it was recorded in the suitably epic surrounds of the Verona Arena, with Morricone conducting a 90-piece orchestra and 100-strong choir.

His big brown eyes fixed on the middle-distance, he tells me he admires Stockhausen, Monteverdi and Stravinsky. "I like that he took ideas from folk music," he says of the Russian modernist. "Did I learn from Stravinsky? Of course. But no composer, not even Stravinsky or Bach, invented music. One builds on what was previously composed, making use of the fresh resources that are newly available."

We talk about his score for A Fistful of Dollars: about its church bells, whip-cracks and Hank Marvin-gone-loco guitars. These last were the work of Allesandro Allesandroni, who was also responsible for whistling that score's main melody. Mindful of Allesandroni's fine vibrato, I venture that whistling is a dying art whose deft execution is now largely the preserve of men over 50. "You're deluding yourself there," Morricone says. "Besides, Allesandroni was quite a young man when we recorded A Fistful of Dollars. Perhaps there is a dearth of whistling talent in England, however: it's so cold there nobody feels happy enough to whistle."

The maestro's work with the late Leone is a tiny part of his output. Whether working with iconoclastic Italians such us Pasolini and Zeffirelli, or Hollywood heavyweights such as Oliver Stone and Warren Beatty, Morricone always furnishes directors with wonderfully simpatico music. He is also the composer's composer, one anonymous peer noting that "his scores can lend gravitas even to rubbish like Disclosure and Mission to Mars." But he is more likely to be remembered for his fine choral and world music-influenced score for Roland Joffé's The Mission.

In the late 1980s, when a Herbie Hancock-supervised treatment of bop standards for Round Midnight scooped the Oscar that many felt The Mission's soundtrack should have won, word was that Morricone was highly miffed. Now, however, he says that never having won an Oscar isn't important. "I simply want to carry on expressing my ideas. Other people see the moment of creativity as magical, but it is not. That's just a romantic notion. For me, it's simply, 'I have to get from A to B. How am I going to achieve this?' You have to be like the painter who knows his brush strokes. In the end it comes down to technique and experience. Sometimes a small idea will come without warning, but after that, I insist once more upon craft. If you know how to do your job, you will get a result. It's very simple."

There are times when the maestro displays the kind of plain rudeness that can be strangely endearing in the elderly. He orders an espresso for everyone in the room but me. He rolls his eyes when he thinks my questions particularly ridiculous. He makes eye contact three, maybe four times in the whole interview. "I was up very late last night," he says at one point. Momentarily, I read this as some kind of apology, but then he follows through with: "Just how many questions do you have?"

Weary as he is, Morricone has the energy to stroke Roberta's hair. And gently to prick her arm with a toothpick, smiling devilishly. Our translator isn't fussed. "Would you like some of my espresso?" she asks me. Jab, jab, goes the maestro's toothpick.

When not busy at his recording studio in Rome, Morricone says he enjoys cinema and working out a little at home. He is partial to the computer chess program Mephisto, and plays chess with his son, Giovanni, who usually wins. Mostly, though, it is still sound that sustains the maestro, his passion for the atonal melodies of "absolute" music providing succour when composing chamber and orchestral works not destined for the cinema.

Does he have a sense of diminishing time in which to write the music he has left? "No, I feel quite relaxed about it," he says. "Things used to be much more frantic, but now I say no to a lot of offers, and have more time to think about my work. There are private ambitions, things I won't tell you. If life is to go on, there must be challenges. But if I don't manage to realise the ambitions I have left, it doesn't matter, and I won't suffer because of it. I will simply do what I can."

And what of Quentin Tarantino and Kill Bill? Was the director offended when Morricone declined his offer to compose for the soundtrack? "First of all," Morricone says, "I didn't speak to him directly, so I don't think he would have been offended. Second, I was asked only to compose two or three minutes of music, and I wasn't going to do all that work for three minutes. It also seemed strange that there was such a huge amount of money on offer, so I said no. In the end, Tarantino called another composer who imitated my style. He wanted a Morricone-like composition and he got one."

It is perhaps insensitive to finish by asking the maestro what music he'd have at his funeral. I do so, though, framing the question as delicately as I can. "I think it's important that other people choose that music," he says. "And I want to have a secret funeral. I don't want anybody other than my family knowing about it. When the funeral is over, then people can know that I'm dead. That way I won't disturb anyone, and they won't waste money on flowers."

When I apologise for ending on a sombre note, the maestro replies with a rare smile. "That's OK. The important thing is that we have reached your last question."

'Arena Concerto' is out now on Eastwest