Ennio Morricone, who died in Rome on July 6, aged ninety-one, will justly be remembered for his groundbreaking scores for films by Sergio Leone, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Brian De Palma, and countless others. The “Maestro,” as he was so often called, had been a writer of pop songs in the 1960s for chart-topping singers such as Mina, Rita Pavone, and Gianni Morandi, and his melodic writing is among the most distinctive in cinematic history.
From the immediately recognizable coyote howl of his theme for The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly to the stately romanticism of the track “Chi Mai” (originally written for Polish director Jerzy Kawalerowicz’s film Magdalena, later reaching number two in the UK charts following its inclusion in the BBC’s Life and Times of David Lloyd George), Morricone’s tunes have consistently succeeded both in immediately summoning up a whole world and permanently lodging themselves in the listener’s memory.
What is less often remarked upon is the important part played by the composer in Italy’s mid-century avant-gardes. The child prodigy who whizzed through the Rome conservatory’s four-year harmony course in six months, aged twelve, would later participate in the Darmstadt Ferienkurse für Neue Musik in south-west Germany, and took cues from Viennese dodecaphony — not just in concert works like the tense, febrile Musica Per 11 Violini, but even in pop songs like “Se Telefonando.” It was at Darmstadt, as he told the Spectator’s Richard Bratby in 2018, that Morricone “really understood what it was to write contemporary music.”
Founded in 1946, the Darmstadt summer school was established as one flank in the American military’s cultural cold war with the Soviet Union. As the British historian Frances Stonor Saunders has written, during the Cold War, “the US government committed vast resources to a secret programme of cultural propaganda in western Europe” encompassing art exhibitions, magazines, and music festivals.
Though it is somewhat of an exaggeration to suggest, as Saunders does, that Darmstadt was the sole initiative of American forces, it nonetheless received substantial material and financial support from the occupying power and the first years had performers and composers stamped and approved by the US military government. In spite — or, perhaps, on account — of this, the festival very quickly became a bastion of the most radical trends in Western concert music. Uncompromising European composers like Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen treated it as their personal fiefdom and by the mid-fifties the very name “Darmstadt” had become a byword for outré-sonic experimentation.
In the year 1958, a thirty-year-old Morricone — then still a jobbing jazz trumpeter and arranger — first made his way to the Hessian city, representing a crucial year in Darmstadt’s history. It marked the controversial inaugural appearance there by John Cage. Already notorious for his “silent” composition 4’33’’ and use of chance procedures, Cage’s concerts and lectures raised hackles amongst his audience, but Morricone would remember them as peculiarly rousing. In the book Ennio Morricone: In His Own Words, coauthored with Alessandro De Rosa, he recalls a walk into the woods the following day with a group of his compatriots, all still “disoriented” from the previous evening’s performance.
“At a certain point we reached a small open space, at the centre of which was a rock,” he recalled. “We decided to gather in a circle around the rock and each one of us would have to produce a sound.” With Morricone himself conducting from a perch on the rock, the group began a collective improvisation with their voices alone, producing “curious calls” in the clearing. “That episode started the journey we could continue for several years by the name of Gruppo d’Improvvisazione Nuova Consonanza.”
Nuova Consonanza, which Morricone joined officially in 1965, carried on making curious animal-like calls until they disbanded in 1980. Founded by Morricone’s friend — and the initiator of that strange ceremony in the Darmstadt woods — Franco Evangelisti and featuring at various times the contributions of such celebrated composers as Frederic Rzewski, Egisto Macchi, Mario Bertoncini, and Roland Kayn, the group’s recorded output ranges wildly from the pioneering free improvisation of their 1966 debut to the richly atmospheric electronics of 1969’s “Credo” to the wild psychedelic funk of their 1970 album The Feed-Back.
Throughout there is a thrilling sense of collective freedom, a kind of sheer exultation in the pleasures of sound itself. On one album they made compositional decisions based on moves in a game of chess (Morricone himself supposedly played to a professional standard); on other tracks you can hear what sounds like the rustling of paper as one of the principal instrumental forces. Piano strings were played with violin bows, lighters and plastic bottles; wind instruments were employed as resonators for whispered voices.
They called their sound a kind of “anti-music.” And in truth, the group’s consistency was defined mostly negatively via a series of interdictions imposed by Evangelisti at the group’s inception: no standard orchestral timbres, no recognizable melodies, and no individual instrument should ever dominate the group. As Morricone recognized, this amounted to a radical democratization of music in which individualist forms of expression were firmly off the menu and anyone could take part.
Nuova Consonanza’s influence has been wide-ranging, from Sonic Youth and John Zorn to the swirling free improv of Evan Parker — not least upon Morricone’s own more well-known film scores. He used the group, improvising once more under his baton, on the soundtracks to the giallo thriller Cold Eyes of Fear and also on the deeply strange Elio Petri picture A Quiet Place in the Country.
You might also detect a note of their radical approach to instrumentation in Morricone’s decision to employ what he called “instrumenti povere” (with a possible nod to the contemporaneous arte povera movement in sculpture and fine art) in the later Petri film, Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion. But in retrospect, the group stands apart as a strange kind of singularity. As David Toop wrote in his Ocean of Sound, “It was as if the ideals of open artworks and open society converged for a moment.”