The screen fades from black to screaming light over the crackle-laden thump of a breakbeat. A sweeping vista appears, grain blowing in the wind as the sun in the center of the screen grows ever brighter. With each downbeat bass drum hit, a bell tolls. Then, the voiceover begins; “In 1925, we created a model beer…”. Another beer commercial, this one advertising a certain Mexican variety; but the music is the real star of this ad. As the commercial continues, a very familiar melody is laid over the images of golden beer and light – it is Ennio Morricone’s composition “The Ecstasy of Gold”.
Originally written for Sergio Leone’s classic 1966 western The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, the piece has become somewhat of a cultural landmark. Much like how selections from composers such as Vivaldi and Pachelbel have been appropriated for venues other than concert halls, Morricone’s piece has been used in arenas far beyond the darkened cinema. The Simpsons used it as the background for a sandwich-making scene. At every show, Metallica enters the stage to its haunting wail. The Portuguese soccer side Sporting CP entered the Estádio José Alvalade for each home match to its pounding rhythm. The list rolls ever and on. “The Ecstasy of Gold” itself is grandiose. It is haunting yet triumphant, with a melody that transcends setting and a structure that builds into a crescendo that can elevate any event into a spectacle.
But what about the composer? Morricone is certainly not a diminutive name in the art world. With over 500 film and television scores credited to his name as well as a mountain of awards, including an honorary Academy Award in 2007, the 87-year-old composer has a body of work that rivals the most legendary in modern composition. Yet the mention of his name outside of film or music circles often is met with a quizzical glance. This is a man who has refused to relocate to Los Angeles or Paris, preferring to remain in his native city of Rome. He uses a translator for interviews, having never learned English. He is not one to care about his own fame. An average passerby would never know him when walking on the street. Play “The Ecstasy of Gold” though, and the number of people who will recognize it increases exponentially. This begs the question; how does music, or for that matter art in general, transcend its creator?
At its root, art is transcendence. This is part of a much larger question, but for many people, art is about attempting to create something that will live on beyond its creator. In a sense, all art is the work of a mortal god. We create to express aspects of our humanity that strive to present a higher vision of existence, even in the mundane. As a composer primarily for film, Morricone is a master of this elevation. Before it was an anthem for everyday life, “The Ecstasy of Gold” was the soundtrack to one of the defining moments of cinema. In one of the final scenes in The Good, the Bad and The Ugly, the character Tuco, played by Eli Wallach, has been knocked from his horse by a cannon blast. As Clint Eastwood’s character gazes on, Tuco realizes that he has stumbled upon the graveyard wherein lies $200,000 in hidden gold.
Cue Morricone’s masterwork.
The cemetery is massive, and as the main melody line (sung by Edda Dell’Orso) erupts with the tolling of a bell, Tuco runs off madly into the avenues of graves in search of the gold. The scene is a masterclass in the fusion of music and film. As with Hitchcock’s classic Psycho, the soundtrack makes the scene. Just as the staccato violin stabs shape the murder of Marion Crane as all the more visceral, slowly building strings and horns heighten the tension as Tuco wildly sprints through the graveyard. An excellent film score does not draw attention to itself. Rather, it functions as part of the grand narrative that the film conveys. Think of The Lord of the Rings. The Hobbits’ theme, or that of the Rohirrim as they charge across the Pelennor, is inextricably linked to the images that the film has conveyed. The same goes for countless other pieces of programmatic music. In composing these scores, the artist as an individual is actively striving to be forgotten. The music is meant to serve the greater narrative of the film. In this, the two mediums work together to eliminate the creator in favor of a higher existence…even if it is simply a good tale.
But what about outside of film? In an interview with CNN, Morricone described the natural state of music as one that “needs to breathe”. Music needs space within which to spread itself, almost like wine’s bouquet.
“In music what is very important is temporality of space and length, based on the breathing space the director gives the music within the film, by separating the music from various elements of reality: like noises, dialogues… That’s how you treat music properly, but it doesn’t always happen this way.” – Morricone, in an interview with CNN
This idea of music is one in which the creator plays no part once it has been released. While the modern music industry focuses heavily on artist image, there is still magic in the disembodied nature of a song. When a piece plays on the radio, there is no face to attach it to, no movement, no album art — the listener is simply faced with the art itself. Morricone’s music embodies this philosophy. Stripping film scores away from the visuals, pieces such as “Love Theme for Nata” from Cinema Paradiso are still just as powerful as when paired with their intended visuals. In this way, Morricone’s music (as well as music in general) has an ability unlike any other art form to evoke responses in its audience that were never even conceived by the composers, transcending the artist in the purest form.
Given the prevalence of Morricone’s music in society’s artistic psyche, it is inevitable that his work has influenced countless others, whether they know of the man or not. Aside from its uses outside of music and cinema, “The Ecstasy of Gold” has been appropriated by many other musical artists. The most prominent genre to make use of Morricone’s composition is hip-hop. Artists ranging from Jay-Z to Immortal Technique have sampled the piece in their own beats. Music is a protean creation. Its history is one of influence, of borrowing from other artists to create new sounds and styles that push the entire form forward. The usage of “Ecstasy” as the basis over which these rappers create their own new tracks lies at the heart of the music’s autonomy. Legally, it may be the property of its creator. Certainly it is the composer’s. But on another level it is its own.
The autonomy of art allows it this freedom to exist outside of its creator’s frame. A work, once released, is laid bare to the infinite possibilities of human observation. How one responds to a single piece will never be replicated by another due to the multifaceted nature of thought. In this sense, we’ve stumbled upon both the ultimate death of the creator as well as their lasting legacy. This paradox exists because inherent in any piece of art is the influence of its creator. Yet influence does not preclude autonomy. Every usage of a piece of art, whether it is a Van Gogh painting viewed in a museum or a composition surrendering to a film scene, takes on the meaning of both its observer and its context. In this way, Ennio Morricone’s music is at home in both the epic and everyday. His music has taken on more than a life of its own; it has taken on a million lives and more, molding itself to the moment. Take another, or a first, listen to “The Ecstasy of Gold” and see where it takes you.