#writing #music: #EnnioMorricone

Composer Ennio Morricone–how to describe Il Maestro? He is an institution, an inspiration. He gave us THE showdown music, music so powerful the Sergio Leone would construct his films movie around Morricone’s music. You don’t edit Morricone. You follow Morricone. That’s how we have some of the most iconic moments in cinematic history, such as the climax from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly:

Aren’t you just on the edge of your seats as the trumpets and drums build and build and build, the close-ups quickening and quickening until you can’t stand it anymore and SOMEONE HAS TO SHOOT and bam bam bam–just like that. Your heart remembers how to work, and you realize you’d stopped breathing for the last several seconds.

That’s the power of Il Maestro.

I use Morricone often for writing my Fallen Princeborn Omnibus, both the short stories and the novels. No, not the western soundtracks–powerful as they are, one cannot think of anything but Clint Eastwood staring down the likes of Eli Wallach and Lee Van Cleef. When the narrative turns down the dark road and finds itself stranded in menace–that is when I turn up The Thing.

The score composed for John Carpenter’s The Thing is not what I would call complex, and that’s fine. An orchestra would feel strange for a Carpenter film, and Morricone knows how to draw out unsettling harmonies for maximum effect. Just listen to this theme (roughly the first four and a half minutes of the track). It’s so simple. So, so bloody simple. The synth rhythm, steady as a comatose heartbeat. The synth chords moving in their own quiet pattern in sync with the heartbeat. Nothing loud. Nothing heroic. Just this slow, slow add to the harmony: more synth around the 2:00 mark, and more around the 3:00 mark, this time off-rhythm, just slightly. Just…not quite right, just like The Thing that hides so damn perfectly at the Arctic research base. Morricone’s rhythms of sounds, of notes-not-quite-notes: he takes the synth and forms them into a bleak landscape. We see nothing with this music. We hope for nothing. We escape nothing.

Now let’s see how such a dire emptiness feels with an orchestra in Quentin Tarantino’s brilliant western The Hateful Eight.

Strictly strings at first. The endless bass with a steady rhythm of violins: The Thing‘s influence, perfect for this moment of travelers approaching a lonely outpost on a mountain with a blizzard at their heels. Around 0:50 the xylophone begins a simple harmony, its repetition reminiscent of the chime of Lee Van Cleef’s watch in For a Few Dollars More. The minor key of the string’s harmonies further presses the boreboding into our psyche. We can’t not think something bad is going to happen.

This has to be my favorite track from Hateful Eight. The drums a bit faster here compared to The Thing, which gives us the feel of impending…something. Something, we don’t know what, is coming. We also get the feel of characters not sitting around, waiting for that Something to come. They’re hunting Something as much as Something is creeping up on them. There’s a multi-layered mystery here of who’s hunting who, who is who, and the treachery you know lies in every heart of the Eight just bleeds through the music onto the story.

Now for the record, I should note that Morricone considers this composition to be a bit lighter compared to some of his other work. As Michael Ordoña of the LA Times quotes Morricone:

“What I wanted to do with the two bassoons at first — and later there is a tuba and later on the contrabassoon and then the trumpet, and in the end, the male voices — I wanted to de-traumatize the dramatic content of the music,” says Morricone. “To add something lighter, more curious, more interesting. The contents of the theme remain tragic and dramatic, but the way these instruments are played, to the extreme ranges of their timbre, makes them quite lighter and ironic.”
-Article: Ennio Morricone says a hands-off Quentin Tarantino let his ‘Hateful Eight’ music flow

When I first saw this quote, I couldn’t believe it. Lighter? Ironic?! What in the brewin’ blazes is he on about?

But then I realized that whenever I write with this track, I am writing a scene with my villains from my heroine’s perspective. We are sizing up the villains through her wise-ass frame of mind, so in a way, Morricone’s music fits even better than I expected. He creates the unbeatable menace, yet also defies it with a glint in the eyes and a smirk on the lips.

Il Maestro gives writers the music of dire emptiness, where a setting must not only be seen, but felt. Heard.




Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

28 thoughts on “#writing #music: #EnnioMorricone

  1. You’re 100% right. I was talking about the structure of a melody and the all-important ‘build’ – no matter how slow/gentle to opener – with someone the other day. It’s a/the vital thing whatever the music genre – even just voice and guitar. Builds can climb mountain tops, or just a mole hill. It’s about knowing what keeps the melody happy. So, even though the build process is – arguably – stereotypical of anything that isn’t sound art, it doesn’t matter when you have Morricone’s gift. He’s the painter, most are scribblers by comparison. I enjoyed this read. I could right about construct for ages.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, thank you! Though I recently read a book that tried to do the slow burn in a ghost story and really cheesed me off in how long I had to wait for anything ghosty to happen. I think fiction’s gotta watch itself more when it comes to these builds…though Bo likes to say Progressive Rock songs never know when to end, either (see early Yes and Genesis, apparently, for songs that can easily run for 16min or more)


      • If I ever took up teaching – dyslexia denies me that job – I think I’d start out new students with Bridge Over Troubled Water. Not my favourite song, but in simple terms it shows how both voice – in particular – and melody build in the popular song genre.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Ooo, that’s a good one. And never say never about teaching! I don’t think I could teach a regularly term of creative writing, but I do think a summer term, or an extracurricular course, could be fun. Less grading and looser curriculum. 🙂


      • Paraphrase it to… you can learn an awful lot from the ponies… Cos you can. I mind my girls had a song on My Little Pony. it was something crappy about how the world refreshes with/or a new coat of paint–cannae mind, nae wonder. (No pun intended on the nae/neigh…..Just Scots for no.) This song was way back ok which is why I can’t remember. But even now I sometimes think of that crappy song and yeah, it’s true, the world and life does. xxxxx

        Liked by 1 person

  2. A great post, as ever, Jean:). I love writing to Morricone, too – but I hadn’t worked out just why his music so very effective. And WHY is it that the knobheads who design children’s TV, complete with dreadful music, think it’s acceptable to provide them with such PAP?? And even if you try to explain to them that they are being handed something substandard, they still want to listen to it… The only consolation is that I found that phase didn’t last long, because they grew through it and wanted something better, too…

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Ah, but you failed to mention one of my favorite movies/soundtracks of all time: The Mission, with Robert De Niro and Jeremy Irons. The Morricone soundtrack cinches it for me as one of the best movies ever made.

    Liked by 1 person

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