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.