Only a handful of film music composers have attained popular recognition, and among these Ennio Morricone is arguably the most famous (with Bernard Herrmann his only serious rival). His secret? The ability to write catchy and atmospheric melodies, for sure, but Morricone is also an accomplished musician whose versatility has allowed him to address a wide range of forms.

Fame arrived with Sergio Leone’s first spaghetti westerns in the early 1960s. A couple of notes from the whistled melody for Fistful of Dollars (1964) brings the entire tune to mind, but a second listening reveals the piece’s sophistication. While the lighthearted tone chimes with Leone’s demystification of the western tradition, the use of non-orchestral sounds such as whipcracks and church bells demonstrates Morricone’s own interest in experimentation. In these years the composer was involved in avant-garde circles, experimenting with musique concrète and other approaches that enriched his cinematic repertoire. Think of the eerie, lonely harmonica in Leone’s Once upon a Time in the West (1968), which provides the perfect complement to Charles Bronson’s character. In a different genre, Dario Argento’s first horror thrillers relied on Morricone’s daring blend of jazz, lullabies and screeching non-melodic lines.

In the 1960s and 70s Morricone worked with several up-and-coming young directors and the cream of Italian art cinema queued up for his services: Bernardo Bertolucci, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Elio Petri, Marco Bellocchio and Gillo Pontecorvo. He rarely collaborated on foreign films, though the exceptions of Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven (1978), Roland Joffe’s The Mission (1986), Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables (1987) and Barry Levinson’s Bugsy (1991) all earned him Oscar nominations but no golden statuettes. Indeed, Morricone’s absence from the roll of Oscar-winning composers is so inappropriate that only an honorary award could redeem Hollywood’s reputation as a credible prize-giving institution. Fellini and Antonioni had to wait for retirement before enjoying Academy Award recognition and Morricone may need to store up a similar fund of patience.

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Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)

Despite an involvement in more than 450 cinema and television projects, at the age of 78 there is no sign of Morricone retiring yet. Recent scores include Giuseppe Tornatore’s The Legend of 1900 (1999) and Malena (2000) while the inclusion of some of his old pieces in Tarantino’s Kill Bill films is the ultimate postmodernist tribute. His schedule is packed with a mix of independent compositions, film projects and conducting engagements, including a live performance of selections from his film scores in London [in July 2006]. No doubt the CD of the event will prove a popular addition to collections that have brought him the equivalent of five Platinum and 26 Gold Records.

Morricone still lives in Rome, and the interview that follows was conducted by telephone. Despite a slight disturbance on the line, his answers moved fluently from a slow, meditative start to a bold crescendo. Fans can be assured there is still plenty of music to pour out of his sharp mind.

How did you come to work for the film industry?

When I was studying composition in Rome I didn’t think of becoming a film composer. But I had to earn a living so I started to work on arrangements of pop songs, theatre pieces, radio and later television music. I particularly liked working with an orchestra: it taught me a lot and it was valuable to be able to listen to an orchestra playing the music I’d just written.

It was a process of self-discovery, too, which allowed me to be daring and experimental. This got me noticed by some film directors who asked me to collaborate with them. And of course I took a liking to it.

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A Fistful of Dollars (1964)

Did you admire film composers from previous generations such as Max Steiner, Dimitri Tiomkin or Nino Rota?

No, not really. When I started composing for film I didn’t think about those who had preceded me. If I had any models, they were in the field of classical music.

Have any of your film commissions proved particularly inspiring before work began?

When I compose I always have a clear idea of the tone and mood of the film. I get it from the director’s views about the story, from reading the script or treatment, sometimes from seeing images. But often I don’t get to watch any scenes before I start work.

What about Sergio Leone? You knew each other from the time you were children, didn’t you?

We went to primary school together but only for a year and I can’t say we were great friends. It was only later on, when he asked me to do the music for Fistful of Dollars, that our friendship developed. Friendship and mutual trust are essential to a successful collaboration.

How about Leone’s strategy of having loudspeakers belt out your scores while he was shooting Once upon a Time in the West? Whose decision was it to write the music before filming?

On that occasion Sergio asked me to write and record the music before he shot the film. I then found out that he’d played it while shooting on location.

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The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966)

So you didn’t have any input into everything but the dialogue non-musical side of the soundtrack? I’m thinking of the amazing opening sequence based on the dripping of water onto Woody Strode’s hat.

That was his invention, though I remember I had talked to him about an experiment in Florence where musicians had theorised that any sound or noise taken out of context and totally isolated would acquire a new meaning. His idea of the 20-minute sequence based on the waterdrop was, I think, inspired by that conversation.

In general do you tend not to be involved in the non-musical side of soundtracks?

I leave that to the director, the sound engineer and the special effects people. My idea is that the music scores should be listened to in their purity, free from the friction of other sounds, which only confuse the audience.

Of the hundreds of films I’ve worked on, there is only one in which I was responsible for the entire soundtrack – music, noises, everything but the dialogue – and that was L’ultimo uomo di Sara (1973), a strange sort of noir by Virginia Onorato. The idea – at the time the expression was musique concrète – was that every sound had to be considered as music. So I used an orchestra as well as non-musical sounds such as footsteps, the phone ringing, dripping water, all treated by me as an integral part of the soundtrack.

What is the relationship between your work for film and as a composer of chamber and orchestral music, which you like to call “absolute music”?

They are two different worlds. Film music is subject to a number of influences: the director’s, the film itself, and the ear of the audience, too, their musical culture. My other work is not a service provided for a particular purpose; it exists only because I feel the need to create it.

Yet there are instances where the two meet, such as in your recent piece for orchestra and choir Voci dal silenzio, which contains a quotation from The Mission.

I began to write Voci dal silenzio with the 9/11 massacre in mind. Then I changed my project when I realised that this terrible tragedy was only the latest in a long line of other massacres that had never had the same shocking visibility. Massacres take place every day around the world and we never learn about them. And the same counts for massacres in the past: we just have to think about the terrible genocide of indigenous peoples in America, in Asia, in Africa. So at that point I decided to dedicate Voci dal silenzio to all those never-mentioned massacres. And in this context the quotation from The Mission helped to remind people of the film’s images of the massacre of native South Americans by the Spanish and Portuguese.

Do you ever compose in collaboration with other musicians or do you prefer to be in absolute control of every aspect of the orchestration of your pieces?

From my point of view a question of this kind could be treated as an insult, but I understand why you’re asking it. To my knowledge, neither Beethoven nor Bach nor Stravinsky would invite anybody to work on the arrangements of their pieces. If you want to call yourself a composer, then you follow every single step of the instrumentation. I can’t understand how some people can have collaborators finishing the work for them.

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Jeremy Irons plays the oboe in The Mission (1986)

How do you approach films that are set at a particular time and in a particular place in terms of adapting your compositions to other musical traditions? Once more Joffe’s The Mission comes to mind.

For that film there were some fundamental givens. First, Father Gabriel played the oboe, so clearly I had to write pieces for oboe. Second, the film was set in the 1750s, so I took into account the state of instrumental music at the time and the fact that liturgical pieces had to follow the edicts laid down at the Council of Trent. And third, I had to consider the native South American tradition.

These were constraints that I had to blend in different degrees. They also allowed me to create three different strands that worked in opposition but at the same time shared a number of elements.

Can you tell us something about your collaboration with Dario Argento?

I worked on Daria Argento’s first three famous thrillers: The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1969), The Cat O’Nine Tails (1971) and Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971). We then took different paths and didn’t work together for a number of years. This was because my music pieces in those films were so experimental, so full of non-melodic, dissonant sounds, that Daria and even more his father Salvatore [his producer at the time] thought they were too similar to each other. It was only some years later that he realised his mistake and asked me to write the score of The Stendhal Syndrome (1996) and The Phantom of the Opera (1998).

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The Stendhal Syndrome (1996)

Your film music has also been sung by pop and rock artists. What was your relationship with Joan Baez for the beautiful ballad in the political-outlaw film Sacco e Vanzetti (1971) and, more recently, with Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters for the closing song of Tornatore’s The Legend of 1900?

I can’t really talk of collaboration. I sent my music to Joan Baez and she added the words and sang it. I had met her previously and we had talked about it – we met in Cannes where she was by a swimming pool, with her son. As for Roger Waters, I sent him the music and he added his words and his voice.

But who decided to have Eddie Van Halen play the guitar solo?

He did. He did all the arrangements for that piece and produced something that had almost nothing to do with the rest of the soundtrack I had composed. That’s why it only appears with the closing credits.

As one of the most prestigious composers in the industry, you must be able to pick and choose your projects. What are your criteria?

I choose directors I already know and appreciate. If they call me and I have the time to do it, I take up their offers.

You’ve also worked a lot for television. What are the differences?

For me there are no different ways of approaching music, whether for the big or small screen.

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Once upon a Time in America (1984)

What projects are you currently working on?

I’m working on the music score for Tornatore’s La sconosciuta, a beautiful film of which I’ve now seen half the scenes.

What is the theme for your forthcoming London concert?

It’s based on a selection of my most famous pieces for cinema and will feature The Legend of 1900, Once upon a Time in America, The Mission, La classe operaia va in Paradiso and perhaps Malena. But I haven’t finished selecting the entire list.

Finally, are there any films of which you ‘re particularly fond?

Yes, many, but I won’t tell you which ones they are. It wouldn’t be fair since I would inevitably leave some out. I prefer to avoid answering these kinds of questions.