Grand music of the horse opera

Keith Gallasch

Along with Nino Rota, Ennio Morricone is one of the great composers of the Italian cinema. Best known for his defining contribution to the spaghetti western, for which he created a musical spaciousness and idiosyncratic sonic vocabulary to match the widescreen operatics of the genre developed by director Sergio Leone, Morricone has also composed for many other film directors including Pasolini, Polanski, Malick, Fellini and a host of commercial operators.

One of the first assessments of the significance of Morricone materialised in John Zorn's versions of the spaghetti western scores, which fully acknowledged not just the unique melodic invention but especially the sonic punctuation and add-ons so characteristic of and integral to the scores. Zorn being Zorn, these sounds are taken to new extremes but still with a jazzman's fidelity to the original conception. Melbourne's The Ennio Morricone Experience stay much closer to the ground in their exhilarating and inventive recreations, but at the same time manage to yield other insights into the master's creations. This is echoed in the very theatricality of their presentation and the absence of any film excerpts. We watch and learn, but it's the music-making we learn from, something we can take back to the films with a greater appreciation of both image and score.

With whistling, musical saw, trigger samples and an array of things to crack, whack and crunch (including a one-off bite of an apple and some body-slapping), the 5-strong ensemble (playing keyboards, drum-kit, timpani, marimba, vibes, trumpet, all kinds of percussion) recreate the Morricone sound world with the dexterity of jugglers and all the acuity of expert musicianship. The young, initially wary audience (“What, no film?”) soon warmed to the visual thrills and to the droll hosting of trumpet player Patrick Cronin with his slo-mo, say-everything-twice delivery so appropriate to the Leone western mood. Versatility likewise appealed with Cronin, keyboardist Boris Conley and bassist Dan Witton singing in top form, and percussionists David Hewitt and Graeme Leak excelling on musical saw and strung can respectively.

Even greater pleasure was to be had from the performers speaking the original dialogue: guttural, breathy, strung out, punctuated with strange sounds, and inherently musical, a horse opera no less. It was this dramaturgical sensibility that gave the performance its peculiar powe—alertness to timing, to the power of silence, the musicality of language and instrumental performance as inherently gestural and dramatic. There are plenty of aural thrills, from the chill of arching melancholic solo lines to the full ensemble in choral mode with timpani thundering.

The evening concluded with an hilarious, rousing, audience-participating rendition of the song from the poorly regarded Seven Guns for the MacGregors (1967), a bit of silliness after the high drama of A Fistful of Dollars, Once Upon a Time in the West and many more unforgettables.

The Ennio Morricone Experience offer one of the most satisfying music theatre encounters of recent times, frequently funny, often insightful and right up there with the same musicians' collaboration with composer Gerard Brophy on Chamber Made Opera's Phobia (RT 59).

The Ennio Morricone Experience, The Studio, Sydney Opera House, June 24-26

RealTime issue #62 Aug-Sept 2004 pg. Onl

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 August 2004