Exploring the CD Collection, #4

In my post honoring Jerry Goldsmith on the occasion of his passing, I commented that the event left John Williams and Elmer Bernstein as the “grand old men” of film music. This, of course, constituted several errors of omission: John Barry, for one; and as Michael Brooke pointed out in comments, Ennio Morricone.

In both cases, I fell victim to not really thinking things through when writing the post, since both men should be so named. But in the case of Morricone, something else is at work: basically, I’ve never liked the guy’s music. He’s amazingly prolific and influential, but as a listening experience, he does nothing at all for me.

There was a time, in college, when I enjoyed his score to The Mission, but I think this played into a more general taste at the time for “ambient” and “atmospheric” music, the kind of stuff we used to play late at night with the lights off in order to ease the passage into sleep. As music, The Mission made little real impression on me. And Morricone’s work on those Clint Eastwood “Spaghetti Westerns” I find actually unpleasant, and they are a major factor in my general distaste for those films. Yes, they’re different, they’re minimalistic, they’re unique and all that. But I still don’t like them. (Morricone’s score for Once Upon a Time In America is often cited as one of the very greatest film scores; I’ve never heard a note of it, to my knowledge.)

Which brings me to Morricone’s most recent high-profile score, Mission to Mars.

I have to be blunt here: Mission to Mars is one of the worst movies I have ever seen. It’s bad in that breathtaking way that kept me watching, in total awe of its badness. It was paced like a funeral, and had all the subtext of one; the central mystery wasn’t all that interesting; and the science was absurd. Here was a film that tried blending the “Hard SF” of 2001: A Space Odyssey with the gonzo-origin-of-life theories of the Fortean Times. Here’s a movie that tries to give me a plausible look at what a flight to Mars would be like, and then turns around and gives me the “Face on Mars” as an actual face on Mars. Ugh. Ugh, ugh, ugh.

And then there’s Morricone’s score.

I have to admit that I don’t hate it as much as I did when I first saw the film, but when I saw the film, I really hated the score. I mean, I detested it. Think of playing a Dr. Dre CD for a person whose musical tastes stopped evolving when the Bee Gees stopped recording, and you’ll roughly have my reaction to Morricone’s score to Mission to Mars. I found it thick, ponderous, dominated by slow melodies backed by a chorus helpfully oohing and ahhing in an unending series of “Feel wonder NOW!” gestures. Add to that some spectacularly bad orchestral playing (did nobody notice how out of tune the clarinet was in that long solo at the end?), and I wrote this off as one of the most unpleasant scores in film history.

Well, at the time, I was active on Usenet’s rec.music.movies (which is little more than a graveyard now), and a number of posters there kept insisting that I should give the score another chance, that it worked better on CD, that “it made their souls take flight”, et cetera. So, in the interests of intellectual honesty and all that, I bought the thing and listened to it.

I ended up not hating it as much as before, but I still don’t like it; Morricone’s stature in the film music world is to this day a mystery to me, and this score still does nothing to dispel that mystery. It’s full of very strange details that never add to anything. There is a rising, arpeggiated motif that sounds very similar to the “Rhine” motif from Wagner’s Ring cycle, except that Morricone appends this weird, two-note “lick” at the end of it, usually played by a glockenspiel that stands out like a sore thumb. There is a descending, chromatic motif that erupts at seemingly random points in the score. And there are odd instrumentations throughout, which is a standard for Morricone but which also make no sense at all to me. The electronica in the score works, for the most part; what doesn’t work is a pipe organ seemingly played with one stop selected and with a single hand, the worst oboe and (afore-mentioned) clarinet playing I can recall, and a part for — of all things — a piccolo trumpet, supplying some incredibly odd baroque-ish effects over the lower strings. To be fair, there are some wonderful melodies in this score, but they’re fragmentary, seemingly always stopping in order to open things up for some really odd effect of Morricone’s.

I admit that my knowledge of Ennio Morricone’s music is very limited, but almost exclusively my impression is that Morricone just takes a big pile of ideas, some of which are remarkable and some of which are remarkably awful, and just mixes them together. Sometimes, I suppose the approach works. But I’ve yet to find the Morricone score where it does.

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