Morricone, Nyman, Vacchi: three different paths to composing for the cinema.
Music and cinema have many elements in common: an orchestral conductor is, in fact, the director of his own interpretation. He manages the narrative tension in the performance of a symphony, he chooses the color and the point of view from which to exhibit each phrase, he can play with the “depth of field” between the main themes and the accompaniment (that is to say, “the background”), exactly as a discerning director of photography would do. And, no small point, a true conductor knows how to draw out the best from each of his musicians: in the case of opera, he is able to put the singers at ease and let them express themselves naturally, while at the same time imposing his own interpretation: just as a film director does with the actors.
But even when there is no orchestra, that is in chamber music or solo performances, the idea of musical interpretation always passes through an approach that we might define “directorial”. When I prepare a piano recital, my main priority is precisely to achieve a clear and convincing management of the dramatic tension, of a narrative line (at times also several superimposed lines) that can best communicate the poetic idea of the composer, arriving straight to the heart of the listeners. And, in doing so, there are many details that need attending to: not only specifically linked to playing, but also in the purely visual aspects, such as the gesturality and the way of entering the stage, and, not to be underestimated, the management of the silences and pauses.
Ever since the birth of cinema, music has been a core element of the “seventh art”. To appreciate its importance, try watching a film without its soundtrack: the dialogues seem empty, they completely lose their narrative tension. And the non-talking scenes seem even more emptied of meaning. Why is this so? Maybe because music is the mirror through which we look inside: and while watching a film, it is precisely our listening to the sound track that lets us become immersed in the states of mind aroused by the film.
I have had the opportunity to work with various cinema composers. I like to remember three in particular, with whom I have also had the chance to discuss the music-narration-image relationship: Ennio Morricone, Michael Nyman and Fabio Vacchi. Ennio Morricone is an absolute master in underlining each emotive state of a film through music. This he achieves by means of even the most disarmingly simple of solutions, often involving unusual timbres and uncommon instruments such as the ocarina or the Jew's harp: thus confirming that what counts is the a priori idea that a true composer has, long before writing the score. On the other hand, Morricone has always stressed the importance of study and constant research. He is certainly not an instinctive composer. The class and extreme refinement of his orchestrations are the fruit of unrelenting stylistic inquiry, that never gives into facile solutions, nor retreads paths already taken. Unfortunately today Morricone's music is known only for the soundtracks he wrote for the most famous films, whereas it would be worthwhile to appraise the value and originality of many other of his cinema scores, especially those in which the Maestro explores more complex styles, turning, for example, to dodecaphony or to Stravinsky's neoclassicism. Taking a general view of Morricone's output, one is in fact struck by the eclecticism with which he alternates romantic melodism (of the finest level) with extreme experimentation. And yet, in each of Morricone's soundtracks a distinctive trait can always be recognized. That is difficult to describe in words. We could perhaps define it as “truth”: that pure truth, by which each musical phrase allows the listener to perceive an emotive situation, or a thought, or vision, that comes to life with disarming essentiality. Speaking with Ennio Morricone, it is incredible how he tends to separate his film music from his purely instrumental output, which he calls “absolute music”. And those who only know his most memorable soundtracks (like those of Mission or Il pianista sull'oceano, for instance), would probably be disoriented on hearing the rugged and dissonant contours of much of his “absolute music”. However, this apparent divergence is nothing other than the reflection of the immense culture and technical knowledge of the composer, who, moreover, even in his applied music is not afraid of complex languages. It comes as no surprise, then, that when composing within the constraints of a narrative plot, Morricone is able to roam still more freely between tonality and atonality and experiment with timbres and harmonic regions that are even more remote.
Morricone himself, concerning the (presumed) difference between absolute and applied music, points out, though, how these two contexts are actually two sides of the same coin. It is no mere chance that a great deal of so-called “classical music” results from the need to write music for external situations: suffice it to think of Bach's Cantatas, conceived to accompany the Mass, or the incidental music to A midsummer night's dream, which represents the apex of Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy's musical creation. In any case, every musical score stems from a given idea of narration. And, by shifting the point of view, also the same film can be set to music by many different composers in just as many different ways. It could therefore prove interesting to take a look at the language of another two important composers of cinema music, to understand how various different approaches are possible, while maintaining the excellence of the result.
Michael Nyman, an English composer considered by many as the inventor of minimalism, lives the experience of film music in a manner quite different from that of Morricone. Whereas Morricone's music seems to spring from what happens in the film (in reality this is not so, but it is the impression I generally get from his music), Nyman works in the opposite direction. His language is always bound to a strong stylistic identity, whether he is writing for the cinema, or for independent scores. The interchangeability of his musical ideas is confirmed by the fact that part of his music “transits” from one environment to another. An example of this is his Piano concerto n. 1, titled The Piano, which is actually the concert transposition of his music for Jane Campion's film of the same name, known in Italy by the title Lezioni di piano. Some years ago I played this concerto in the presence of Nyman, at the Teatro Bellini in Catania. It was a particular experience for me, as most of the musicians and the audience knew the film well, and were involuntarily influenced by it. So, even if there was no visual reference, it was like seeing again some scenes from the film, which our memory associated with a particular snatch of melody or a certain characteristic rhythm. It can happen, then, that listening to that music brings the cinema along with it, even if it's not there. This is possible only thanks to the extraordinary power of the musical idea, which, despite its harmonic simplicity (or maybe on account of it), installs itself in the memory of the listener and stays there for years, ready to resurface on hearing a motif from it. This is what happened in the performance of “The Piano”. Another aspect typical of Nyman's approach to cinema composition is his stylistic continuity. Unlike Morricone, Nyman's language remains almost constant, even in films that are totally different in their narrative tone and the director's choice. This means that Nyman's music provides each film it adorns, with a typical “outlook”, with disenchanted hues and poetic fatalism, thanks also to the regular rhythmic pulsation and the multiple metric aspects of Nyman's musical texture.
Different again is Fabio Vacchi's approach to cinema composition. Vacchi is one of the most acknowledged Italian composers of our time, and has only in the last few years turned to writing film scores, thanks to the artistic collaboration he established with Ermanno Olmi. I actually took part in the recording of the music for Olmi's Centochiodi, and in this case the relation between music and the director's idea was reversed: in the sense that some of Vacchi's music, like the Trio Orna buio ciel that I played in, already existed before the film was made. The composition of the music for Centochiodi thus developed through a process of re-emergence of ideas already partially fixed on a score, and, as Vacchi himself confirms, in an absolutely equal and reciprocal creative relationship with Ermanno Olmi. I like to think, going one step further, that some of the atmospheres inherent in Vacchi's music gave the director the idea for the setting of some scenes. After all, the cause and effect relationship between music and image, between the musical and narrative elements, is complex and mobile, and its reversibility is one of the most fascinating aspects in the creative process of a great film.