Ennio Morricone: Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)

July 7, 2008

The most stunning film I’ve seen in a long time is Sergio Leone’s “Once Upon a Time in the West.” Ennio Morricone provides mystic cowboy music for the score with haunting, unforgettable leitmotivs. Every shot in the film is one I would be proud to blow up and hang on my wall. Every shot has a fantastic sense of perspective, texture, and clutter. Yes, clutter. He jams stuff into every shot. It is really western baroque in its attention to detail — detail made up of little things, and shapes. The textures are breathtaking. Pause any frame in the film and you’ll see what I mean. (The representation on YouTube is a lower resolution than what you will see on the DVD.)

Many composers in the 20th century were driven to explore alternative sound sources. “Musique concrete” was such a music put together from bits and pieces of sounds: sounds made by familiar and ambiguous sources. The sound is then manipulated and can be played backwards or sped up or slowed down. This is all common practice nowadays, but then it was done by cutting up and splicing pieces of audio tape. French composers, Pierre Henry, and Pierre Schaeffer were the pioneers in this field. Here is Schaeffer’s first work in this genre, “Etude aux chemins de fer” (1948).

In “Once Upon a Time in the West” Ennio Morricone uses musique concrete to provide a chillingly original and effective film score.

Sounds are collected and looped In the opening scene, we hear a drip, and then something that is probably a bird. An unusual bird. But then it changes. We don’t find out what actually is making the sound until 5 minutes into the movie. (It is a squeaky windmill.) This use of sonic found objects from the scene of the shoot is an organic approach and highly effective. There are no pitches or melodies or harmonics in the opening of the film. (Morricone evidently wrote some but it was discarded.) We hear water dripping, insect buzzing, train sounds, bells, a mysterious choral chant, escaping steam, along with the mysterious bird call that opens and closes this amazing scene.

And then the first “music” enters — it is the harmonica leitmotiv.

We don’t find out what it means until the end of the film, and I won’t tell you, but this little tune is used continually throughout the film. The main orchestrational palette in the film is the harmonica, the solo banjo, and strings.

There is a love making scene that is accompanied by a solo viola that is not to be missed.

Morricone was Leone’s composer of choice. Contrary to tradition, Leone asked Morricone to compose the music FIRST, so that all the actors could get the feeling of the movie and reflect it in their work.

His controlled sense of patience in pacing is palpable. Everything unfolds and flows slowly. The music and sonic creatures drift in the air. No scherzo, no danse macabre, no moto perpetuo. It just hangs in the air, like gunsmoke in a bright New Mexican sky.

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