Monday, 24 October 2016

Oh, the horror: part 1

Title: Un tranquillo posto di campagna (A quiet place in the country)
Year: 1968
Composer: Ennio Morricone

This time we’re moving towards horror territory with Elio Petri’s supernatural film featuring a challenging score by Ennio Morricone. The film tells a story about an artist who retreats to the countryside in search of inspiration. However he is driven insane by an apparition that haunts the place. Morricone provided a score that combines two different styles inspired by modern classical music.

As I mentioned, the score feels greatly inspired by 20th century contemporary classical music and Musica per undici violini actually IS exactly that. The piece was written originally in 1958 as a classical work but was recorded for the film in 1968. It is a very demanding listen if you’re not used to modern classical works and might just sounds like a bunch of screeching violins. However I think it’s a brilliant opener to the album with a lot of structure and thought behind it, and it just painfully introduces the brutal tone the rest of the album will have.

The first original tracks reflect perfectly what the opening piece set up to do. They all rely heavily on strings that are played in extremely menacing ways. Many of the chord structures seem to derive from the classical work. Il fantasma di Wanda and I sogni dell’artista feature the ghostly voice of Edda dell’Orso providing atonal melodies on top of the bed of strings. L’automobile della contessa provides the only pleasantish atonal harmonies that are the closest thing the score might come to sounding somewhat ‘normal’.  Fantasma is an upgraded version of the original string work with added percussion and the eerie voice that is first heard in the distance slowly becoming more pronounced as the piece progresses. This version manages to outshine the original work providing more colours with the expressive vocal performance.

For the pieces following Fantasma, the instruments start to get sparser. Do naturale has just one long note played in unison. Delirio primo is just a piece for short percussion phrases with a lonely voice in the empty space. Frenesia drops the vocals and just has the plain percussion. Delirio secondo however adds a devilish string chord to the piece which sends shivers down my spine. The last two tracks before the long suite are just short slow moving string chord structures.

After the string-heavy preparation of the album’s first half, we’re introduced to the other side of the score which is the 34-minute suite written and performed by Gruppo di improvvisazione Nuova Consonanza which Morricone was a part of. It was an avant-garde group of 6 members which made music both by playing traditional instruments in unconventional ways or using unconventional things as instruments. The result is partly bonkers, partly extremely unnerving. I actually think the other presentation of the film score by GDM records where the suite is divided into smaller parts that are presented among the other material might improve the listening experience. However the suite by itself is a strange journey into the mind of a madman and I think it’s the most enjoyable part of the album.

The cue’s first part is a strange cabaret piece for out-of-tune instruments with a childlike vocal performance and whistling solos that are interrupted by a moment of suspense (and also an excerpt of a classical piece that I just can’t recognize at the moment). The next part goes further into madness and has a weird toy whistle and barking trumpet played against a dark honky-tonk piano. That part is followed by some truly horrific material that consists of several screeching noises among gong-like percussion effects that might be produced out of landfill trash. After a short crescendo the sound calms down for a while to some ‘natural’ sounding piano playing amid the chaos followed by the introduction of different kinds of plucked instruments. However the calm doesn’t last for long when the loudest moment comes in form of rattling percussion, all kinds of screaming brass instruments joined by pounding piano playing and the shouting of the group members. The rest of the track is rather subdued experimentations with all kinds of rambles and hisses including for instance what sounds like marbles being dropped onto piano strings. The last part of the track starts with a series of bell- and glass-like sounds that are slowly developed into something more sinister and mad before fading away.

Horror isn’t just monsters and jumpscares. It can also be subtle and psychological and hence much scarier. Morricone’s score proves that brilliantly. It’s very ballsy music. The middle tracks are the most unstartling pieces but luckily they are gone in a short while to make way to more interesting material. No modern director would dare to have music this challenging in his film. The score pays homage to Morricone’s origins in classical music but also looks forward into the future with the avant-garde material. An unprepared listener should approach this score with caution because it takes many listens to fully appreciate. However if I think of Morricone’s purely atonal soundtracks, this one is strangely captivating and enjoyable almost for its whole duration.

Rating: *****

1. Musica per undici violini (06:51) *****
2. Vuoi essere felice? (00:38) *****
3. Il fantasma di Wanda (01:59) *****
4. L'automobile della contessina (01:15) *****
5. I sogni dell'artista (01:59) *****
6. Fantasma (06:51) *****
7. Do naturale (00:39) **
8. Delirio primo (02:36) ****
9. I sogni dell'artista II (01:58) *****
10. Frenesia (00:58) **
11. Delirio secondo (02:37) *****
12. Lo spirito di Wanda (00:55) ***
13. Un amore violento (01:02) ***
14. Un tranquillo posto di campagna (suite) (34:39) *****

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