Music For Writers: The Good, The Bad, And The Soundtrack


‘So Many Ideas Coming At Me’

The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly is just the one you know off the top of your head. Hundreds of film scores later, a 24-hour marathon of music by Italian film composer Ennio Morricone, has provided a compelling opportunity for authors to dip into the world of “contemporary classical” music and see just how stimulating it can be in their writing lives.

As regular #MusicForWriters followers know, we feature the Album of the Week selection at Q2 Music, a free 24-hour streaming service of New York Public Radio and WQXR. A quick way to access the Q2 Music player is here.

The most recent composer in our series is Gregory W. Brown, whose Missa Charles Darwin is part of his new album release, Moonstrung Air.  You can catch up with that one here in Gregory W. Brown’s Natural Selections. And there’s a write-up in the works for later this week on the new release from composer Michael Gordon.

This special edition of #MusicForWriters, however, highlights what Q2 Music calls its 24 on the 24th programming. That’s a 24-hour marathon of music on the 24th of each month.

And this particular entry, the Morricone marathon, originally aired early, on Sunday, to time with the Oscars: Morricone was given the 2007 Honorary Academy Award for his contributions to what Garland tells us in his occasional narrative during the marathon is more than 500 film scores.

Today, Morricone is 86 and still stands as one of the most pivotal figures in the world of film music. It’s curious how easy it is for many people to overlook film scoring as a source — and destination — of remarkable creativity. This goes well beyond the Academy Award for Best Song. What we’re talking about here is the entirety of a film’s score, which in many cases stands as its own very well as its own artistic achievement.

The reason you may not be entirely aware of a great score if you’re not accustomed to “listening to a film” is that, like lighting and makeup, a film’s music is generally tasked with supporting the visual storytelling needs of the show, not to call attention to itself. And yet, as soon as you think of some of your favorite films, you may find you remember its score — at least musical effects like the basso-chugging attack theme from Jaws (composed by John Williams) or the piercing-violin shower-stabbing music from Psycho (Bernard Herrman).

Not for nothing did composer Howard Shore create an impressive symphonic evening’s work from his Lord of the Rings scores in 2004 and tour it, conducting it with major orchestras in many cities.

Granted, some filmgoers are more attentive to film music than others.

Once, I was at a cinema in Atlanta watching Amadeus, which is, of course, about Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and his music. During one of the scenes in which Tom Hulce as Mozart conducts the court orchestra, two kids behind me were making a lot of noise talking. I asked their mother to have them be a little quieter, and she looked at me and asked, “Why? It’s just the music.”

And an entertainment editor at a major news medium I was with at one point was surprised to learn that I have collected many soundtracks and use them very successfully in writing sessions.

Most people who love films, however, love Hollywood’s music, too. And it was great to see French composer Alexandre Desplat win the Original Film Score Academy Award on Sunday evening for The Grand Hotel Budapest — at long last a win

It was Desplat’s eighth nomination, including one for another film nominated this year, The Imitation Game.

‘Shake Things Up And Shift Things Around’

As Garland tells us in his commentary during the Morricone marathon, a part of the pleasure in this composer’s great canon of music for film is the license he gave himself — and was given by directors — to create highly unusual, distinctive sounds.

As Garland puts it:

He is entirely himself in all occasions…a unique sound… he likes to shake things up and shift things around in terms of the genres he’s writing for. But  he does it in his style.

A great collaboration for Morricone began in 1964 with filmmaker Sergio Leone. The two had been school friends, and their collaboration on the film A Fistful of Dollars did a lot to popularize the “spaghetti western” in American culture, and led to Morricone’s scoring of For A Few Dollars More in 1965 and The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly of 1966. The trilogy star Clint Eastwood.

Those films also established an unusual way of working between director Leone and composer Morricone: So taken with Morricone’s scoring was Leone that he would have him write the music before the scenes were shot. He wanted, as Garland tells us, to be sure that the music was “in the actors’ ears” as the played their scenes because he found so much impact in the musical language that Morricone was bringing to the work.

That musical language, as Garland stresses well, has a lot to do with why Q2 Music’s marathon is titled Anything’s Possible: The Wild Imagination of Ennio Morricone. Garland tells us:

Morricone has been able to combine instruments that no one else had thought to combine…celebrating that sense of possibility.

For example, the lonely, edgy whistle that leads the main theme for The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly? That’s the work of Alessandro Alessandroni, and you’ll hear that whistle during the marathon at its most achingly beautiful in a piece called “Harry’s Ranch: Main Theme.”

Some more moments to listen for:

  • One of the most arresting pieces you come across during this 24-hour immersion in the composer’s work is called Pazzia in cielo or “Madness in the Sky.” There’s a dies irae, the chant for the dead, being softly hummed beneath this hair-raising sequence, as a choir of sopranos belt out a kind of tribal vocalise over persistent percussion.
  • Cosě mentre si fa sera (“So While It Is Evening”) features the fondness that Morricone seems to have for waltzes, but with a twisted, edgy, plaintive quality, at once beautiful and unnerving. Listen for the bandoneon and a sharp bird whistle over an angry little ratchet. As Garland says, it’s that combination of instruments you just don’t expect.
  • As much of the work you’ll hear in the marathon is “character music,” there are straight-ahead sequences of shimmering beauty, as in “A Dimly Lit Room” — viola, sensitive and gentle, hovering over a soft bed of strings. “Falls” is simply one of the most truly “Hollywood-sounding” pieces you’ll hear in your lifetime, its final chorale the sort of thing you could advertise any “motion picture feature” to in a grand preview. “Shape” rolls with massive, heaving strings, the weight of the sea lifting and subsiding in oceanic splendor.
  • And “On Earth As It Is In Heaven” is pretty much music to win the Olympics by — an English horn and strings giving over to a triumphant choir’s anunciation of short, thrilling bursts of victory-chords over a rollicking tomtom.

If you can free yourself of conventional expectations, Garland tells us, you’ll find that “anything is possible” in Morricone’s work.

“His music is vivid and goes well with vivid images” whether on a screen, in your mind, or on the page you’re writing right now.

The “24 on the 24th” marathon from Q2 Music focused on the work of Ennio Morricone is one of the best yet, and will do a lot to give your Tuesday a richly unique soundtrack.

As Garland tells us:

Morricone’s music frees my mind.