Ennio Morricone was born in Rome in 1928. After graduating from the
Santa Cecilia Conservatory, he operated as a "hired gun" in the Italian
Cinema, playing the trumpet, stitching together arrangements, or assisting
the conductor in a Sisyphean round of dubbing sessions, until he began
composing regularly in the early 1960s. By his own reckoning, Morricone
has scored over 300 movies. As versatile as he's prolific, he has composed
for thrillers, comedies, horror movies, and Biblical epics. Some of his most
resourceful, dashing, and touching music was written for Bernardo
Bertolucci's 1900, for Elio Petri's Investigation of a Citizen Above
Suspicion and The Working Class Goes to Heaven, and for Gilberto
Pontecorvo's Battle of Algiers and Quiemada [Burn]. A character
modeled on Morricone was played by Jean-Paul Belmondo in Claude
Lelouch's Un Homme qui me plait [Love Is a Funny Thing].
Morricone had already scored two westerns [Ricardo Blanco's Gunfight
at Red Sands and Mario Caiano's Pistols Don't Argue ] before he hooked
up with Sergio Leone in 1964 for A Fistful of Dollars. Leone had been
unaffected by Morricone's early soundtracks, which he regarded as
indistinguishable from routine Hollywood patchwork- and he was surprised
to hear that the composer agreed with him; but an odd discordant
reworking of the American folk tune "Pastures of Plenty" that Morricone
had produced the previous year impressed the director as a daring and
startling musical analogue to the crafty, subversive, revisionist westerns that
he was interested in making. Yet, even later, when they were well into the
Dollars trilogy, Leone still found Morricone a tricky, unsettling presence.
He's recounted to more than one interviewer how "unnerving" it was to sit
next to Morricone in the viewing theater: it seems that he laughed at
everything, roaring and sniggering through gunfights, love scenes, and
location shots, as well as at the calculated comic passages.
Morricone's resplendent horse operas sound and function unlike any
previous film music. Like Bernard Herrmann's work for Orson Welles and
Alfred Hitchcock, Nino Rota's for the Fellini films, or John Barry's for the
James Bond movies, Morricone's writing for Leone marks one of the
pre-eminent composer-director collaborations in which the music does not
so much follow and illustrate the filmed sequences as explain, expand, and
comment on them. And more actively and closely than any of his
distinguished colleagues, Morricone shaped the final outcome of both the
shooting and the editing process.
Often Morricone mocks the action- In A Fistfull of Dollars, the Man's
laconic, hard-boiled patter is punctuated by high-pitched trills; jubilant
bullfight music accompanies the exchange of hostages; or, in The Good, the
Bad and the Ugly, there's a psychedelic whirr each time Indio fires up a
joint. And sometimes the soundtrack provides the only clue to what these
enigmatic characters are really up to- the twittering trill that cues us that the
Man isn't drunk in A Fistfull of Dollars; the grating harmonica and electric
guitar that in Once Upon a Time in the West discover Charles Bronson in
Jill's barn long before we actually see him. Electronic "concrete" sounds and
amplified background noises [dripping water, buzzing flies, gyrating water
wheels] frequently bridge otherwise discontinuous episodes and substitute
for dialogue in the marathon tracking sequences and extreme close-ups that
are among Leone's most disconcerting gestures.
Once Upon a Time in the West pivots on a brazen inversion, in that
Morricone's score, based on an ultimately discarded scenario by Bertolucci,
was completed before any footage was filmed. As Leone recalls,
"throughout the shooting schedule, we listend to the recordings. Everyone
acted with the music, followed its rhythms, and suffered with its 'aggravating'
qualities, which grind the nerves." Leone's masterpiece is a fitful ballet de
mort, choreographed to Morricone's pestilent maelstrom. Each character
glides by on a leitmotif. And the music at once mimics the quasi-parodic
exchanges and matches the iconographic, screen-filling faces of Bronson,
Henry Fonda, Jason Robards, and Claudia Cardinale.
John Zorn's foxy, intrepid arrangements latch onto these soundtracks
to crack them open. Zorn never merely embellishes or fleshes out the
originals; instead, he engages them in a careening, whiz-bang conversation
whose tone is sometimes sportive and mischievous, at other times inquisitive
and skeptical, but which always resists condescension and mockery.
Although Zorn is too savvy to settle for parody here, his music bristles with
wit- the chorus from TV's Rawhide ropes Clint Eastwood, the brightest star
of the spaghetti westerns, and drags him into "The Big Gundown." Zorn
zooms in on the hints of Burt Bacharach in the soundtrack of Giu la Testa
[aka Duck, You Sucker! ] and giddily supplant the mournful vocal, "Sean,
Sean...Sean, Sean" with an effervescent, light-classical refrain, "shoop
shoop." If Morricone's "Milano Odea" sashays like a mechanical horse,
Zorn carefully dismantles the mechanism and redesigns it so that all of the
parts don't quite fit together- his light touches are prodded by shrewd
calculations. On "Giu la Testa" the Japanese shakuhachi and Tsugaru
shamisen underscore Kurosawa's Yojimbo as the eminent ur-text behind all
of Leone's movies; and the instrumentation on "Once Upon a Time an
America" tantalizingly investigates wrinkles in that quirky, hybrid film as an
"American" harmonica is pitted against a grinding "Italian" accordian.
Often Zorn intensifies aggressions in Morricone's already contentious
scores. In the original "Metamorfosi" [from The Working Class Goes to
Heaven] harsh squawk and squeals, suggestive of a factory or a
slaughterhous, alternate with moody chamber music and spectral moans;
and both strands ultimately are woven into a somber "Sinfonia." Zorn's
adaptation is all abrasive, ominous rhythms and chilling banshee wails; it's as
if his workers wake up in hell. For the "Battle of Algiers" Zorn double-times
Morricone's martial drumming and undermines his heroic theme with
agonized bursts of orchestrated noise and scattershot effects- screams,
whistles, chants, cavalry calls; this is history as James Joyce saw it, "a shout
in the street." In Morricone's soundtrack for Henri Verneuil's Peur sur la
Ville [released in the U.S. as The Night Caller, the film focuses on a
psychopath who calls up women on the telephone and then throttles them in
person], a sweet airy melody is gradually choked off, as it were, by
tightening bands of dissonance- gurgling strings, twisted horns, what
appears to be an orchestra tuning up or clearing its throat. What Morricone
accomplished horizontally, Zorn acts out vertically, piling up his manically
constricted guitars, saxes and vocals in a full tilt heavymetal stranglehold.
Astonishing clusters of sounds also galvanize the amibitious suite that
concocted from the score to Sergio Sollima's The Big Gundown, as Zorn
enterprisingly translates Morricone's references into his own idioms. The
inspiration for this track actually came from a dream. Zorn initially
envisioned a Brazilian rendition with a layer of surf guitars for added flavor.
Before recording, however, he had the first dream in his life that was pure
music. He woke in the middle of the night and wrote down the music he had
heard, and it became the introduction not only to the song but also to the
entire record. Here, among other dramatis personae, a Brazilian batucada
ensemble dodges bullets and play leapfrog with chopped-up phrases from
Beethoven's Für Elise and peppery guitar squalls. Not only does he
toughen the original [as cooing mourning doves become clanging bells, and
snare drums change into bass thunderclaps], he deepens its mood of
frustration and menace by discharging the main theme in tense, spasmodic
fragments that, by turns, seem mocking and desperate.
Yet Zorn also stakes ou more plaintive, elegaic terrain. He frames his
account of the confrontation between Frand and Harmonica in Once Upon
a Time in the West such that the epic space of Leone's camera work is
invoked continuously in the music; this seems to distance them in time as
well, and the two mythic super-warriors fade away like the last of their
"ancient race." Leone once told and interviewer, "You had there the end of
the world." And in Zorn's mournful, brooding chronicle, that's exactly what
Perhaps the surest index to the authority and verve of Zorn's achievement
The Big Gundown is "Tre Nel 5000," his original composition that steams
along as a score Morricone might have written, not like a pastiche of those
he's already composed. The piece echoes the restless, probing temper of
Morricone's work without aping his specific tricks and flourishes. "Tre Nel
5000" convenes its sources only to transcend them.
Zorn understands that there's nothing innovative about re-enacting the
triumphs of another generation's avant garde. Zorn catches the vitality of
Morricone's music because, finally, he's at the center of every performance.
Notes on John Zorn
In the beginning, John Zorn did not want to make this record. First
Zorn is a composer and an improviser, not an interpreter. Second, Zorn
remembers, "I kept thinking, 'I can't do it. Morricone's music is too
But in many ways the project was ideal for Zorn. He credits Morricone
primary musical influence and, as producer Yale Evelev, who first suggested
the idea to Zorn, knew, "John's own stuff was so free that there was no
chance he was going to put all his people together and have them stay within
the originals. He would be a catalyst to change things."
Born in New York in 1953 and raised there, Zorn has developed his own
performance spaces and worked with a wide range of musicians on the
Lower East Side since 1974 [it was at one point suggested that this album
be called Once Upon a Time in the East Village]. Though his background
encompasses classical, jazz and rock, his primary focus has been a series of
compositional experiments based on game theories in which the content of
his pieces is improvised according to complex instructions. The "rules" of
such works as Lacrosse, Pool and Archery establish structures without
dictating outcomes, much as the rules of baseball determine the conduct of
the game but not its final score.
It is Zorn's choice of musicians that decides the actual sound of his
In any given performance, blocks of cacophonous free improvising, horror
movie themes, bucolic Japanese folk melodies, bebop jazz lines, squealing
duck calls or roaring metal guitars might hurtle past. The effect is like
watching a chameleon rece through a paint box.
"That style of improvisation is a true American hybrid music, like rock
hybrid music," says Zorn. "No generation of composers has been exposed
to as much different music as we have, thanks to the technology of
recording and the resulting boom in the quantity of music available." Zorn
has a gigantic record collection, and everything he has been exposed to has
contributed to his style. "Twenty or thirty years ago you had to bend over
backward to find a record from Bali," he says. "Today, media's gone nuts.
We're just trying to incorporate all these different elements that are available
Zorn's compositional structures grew ever more elaborate and his pool
players expanded. His collaborators play traditional instruments in
unconventional ways and adapted tape processors, microcomputers and
even turntables to produce music they carried in their heads. As a result,
Zorn not only developed new methods of composing but also assembled
kaleidoscopic palette of musical materials: he knew where to get virtually
any sound he could imagine.
In 1983, Zorn was asked to contribute a piece to producer Hal Willner's
recorded tribute to Thelonious Monk in which a diverse group of musicians
re-interpreted Monk's music in an eclectic variety of styles. He agreed to
arrange a relatively obscure Monk tune, "Shuffle Boil."
"Monk always meant a lot to me and it was kind of an improvised situation
anyway, not like Morricone, which would have to be written and arranged,"
Zorn says. "I make a list of the things that Monk meant to me: humor,
outrageousness, the blues, timing, his use of space and silence, and I used
those themes to guide my arrangement of the music."
The experience paid unexpected dividends. "I got to spend time in a
studio, and it was a pleasure," Zorn says. "That process of getting
everything so perfect, being able to overdub- even in the improvisation, we
could layer the sound."
This method of working, so common in pop music, was a revelation to
Zorn, who had been creating one-take improvisational structures that were
performed and recorded in real time. "I realized, here were all these
incredible musicians I'd been working with, and I'd been using one-tenth of
their capabilities by restricting the music to whatever was happening in that
one hour the tape was rolling."
Zorn's success with "Shuffle Boil" revived earlier discussions regarding
Morricone project for several reasons. It enabled Zorn to think seriously
about the interpretive process: "I was totally happy in that 'Shuffle Boil' was
faithful to Monk but faithful to me at the same time. And it was a way into
my music for an audience I'd never had, a way for them to approach me, to
see how I would deal with this subject. It was like a dictionary: people
could see my definition of words they already knew."
But most important was the fact that the Morricone project would enable
Zorn to return to the recording studio. For Zorn, the Monk sessions "were
like learning to play the piano all over again. The studio is that kind of tool
now," he says, "a way of composing, of documenting music on tape rather
than score paper. It is the twentieth century's notational revolution. With all
the graphic notation of the sixties and all the other alternative notations,
including my own game scores, the most revolutionary idea is being able to
get these musicians, whose sounds cannot be written down, notated on
tape. For me, that idea was totally new, and tremendously exciting."
During the recording of The Big Gundown, Zorn was again asked to
contribute a track to a tribute album, this time honoring Kurt Weill. His
interpretation of Weill's "Der kleine Leutnant des lieben Gottes" distilled all
he had learned about the studio and displayed his new compositional ideas,
his ability to "hear vertically" and orchestrate the sounds of the musicians he
had worked with and listened to for so many years. It influenced everything
yeat to come on The Big Gundown, especially the title track.
The cast of musicians assembled for The Big Gundown represents the
adventurous edge of New York's new music community. "I wanted each
track to be very different and one of the things that made that possible was
the people that play on the record," Zorn says.
Many of the musicians have played with Zorn for years, though most are
also composers and group leaders in their own right. Violinist Polly
Bradfield, drummer Mark Miller and keyboard player Wayne Horvitz can
probably claim to have worked with Zorn longest, but others, including
Anthony Coleman [keyboards], Christian Marclay [turntables], Carol
Emanuel [harp], Bobby Previte [drums], David Weinstein [sampling
keyboard], Bob James [tapes], Michihiro Sato [Tsugaru shamisen], Guy
Klucevsek [accordian], Jim Staley [trombone], Luli Shioi [voice], and Vicki
Bodner [oboe] have been indispensible participants in Zorn's recent
One of Morricone's most prescient innovations was his use of the electric
guitar on his spaghetti western soundtracks in the early sixties.
Appropriately, The Big Gundown features six of the most heralded
guitarists in new music: Bill Frisell, Fred Frith, Jody Harris, Arto Lindsay,
Robert Quine, and Vernon Reid. They scrape and scream and whine their
way through "Milano Odea," "Once Upon a Time in the West," and
"Metamorfosi" in ways that might even make Morricone nervous.
Other downtown musicians include drummer Anton Fier of the Golden
Palominos; possessed vocalist Diamanda Galas; Ned Rothenberg [ocarina,
shakuhachi and Jew's harp]; Shelly Hirsch [voice]; Melvin Gibbs [bass];
Tim Bern [saxophone]; and the batucada ensemble employed on the title
Those familar with Zorn's work may be surprised to find Blue Note-era
organist Big John Patton on the aptly-named "Erotico," while legendary
harmonica player Toots Thielmans makes an appearance as the harmonica
soloist and whister on "Poverty," from the most recent Morricone/Sergio
Leone collaboration, Once Upon a Time in America. On the other hand,
those familiar with Zorn shouldn't be surprised at anything that happens on
one of his records.
Near the end of Zorn's work on The Big Gundown, he created one more
tribute piece, for a compilation album released in France. This time it was a
composition of his own, inspired by the films of French director Jean-Luc
Godard. Its impressionistic narrative structure, carefully composed and
remniscent of Zorn's arrangements for The Big Gundown, suggests that he
has found a new method for creating his music. "I hadn't been hearing
written music. I was hearing something else," Zorn says. "I had to improvise
to find out exactly how to do it. Now I have all these sounds floating around
in my head and I think I can move forward using that vocabulary. It's very
clear that this is the way I'm going to be working for a long time."