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Film Scoring in Italy

By Cesare Cioni

It all began in January, at the Future Film Festival, which under the direction of Giulietta Fara and Oscar Cosulich brings every year to Bologna the best of animated and fantastic cinema from all over the world, with special attention to new technologies. Thanks to the efforts of film critic and journalist Marco Spagnoli, seven representatives of the new generation of Italian film composers met for the first time at the same table to discuss between themselves and with the public the gratification and the frustrations of a very special profession. Although most of them had never met, there was immediate understanding, and their unexpected verve gave way to over two hours of information, stores and anecdotes, ending with the promise that this would only be the first of many similar events. The engagement was sealed that same evening with an unique and unforgettable jam session in a cave in the old town. The composers put on display their skills as performers, playing together and improvising in a very special performance that will remain in our memory for a long time.

The promise was kept on the 4th of July. At the Genova Film Festival, directed by Cristiano Palozzi e Antonella Sica, Marco Spagnoli repeated his achievement and brought the musicians together again, in a slightly different group because of work schedules. In an ideal “independence day,” the artists prepared the first draft of a “manifesto” of the Italian composers of music written to accompany imagesfor cinema or television. As in the best tradition of artistic and literary statements, the document was drafted in the course an animated discussion at the table of a local restaurant, before being officially presented during a press conference just a few hours later.

What follows is an extract of some of the statements of the composers during the two meetings. Taken together, these comments and remarks give an eloquent picture of the status and the conditions of the composers that today write musical scores in Italy, sometimes similar but often very different from these faced by their colleagues in Hollywood.

Cinema Is Also Made Of Music

"Movies are complex works, and everything contributes to their success," explains Marco Spagnoli. "We often hear about the 'miracle' of Italian cinema, but I cannot think that only a few people can work miracles, and that they are not the result of a group effort. One of these miracles is film music. Apart from the fact that it gives us the gift of emotion, we must acknowledge that today in Italy we have a group of musicians that does not exist anywhere else, with the possible exception of the United States, where conditions are quite different. No other country has so many active musicians, and with such a variety of talents. This is indeed a miracle. Cinema is an art, but it is also a business: and a business that does not recognize the value of its contributors is incapable of excellence."

"The thing that brought us together," adds Riccardo Giagni, author of the scores for Marco Bellocchio's movies as L'ora di religione and Buongiorno notte, "is the fact that we all really love movies, and not just because of our profession, but because we feel part of that collective work that is called a movie. We do not always see the same love in the other professionals that work and live and invest in cinema. I believe that this is why we met today, so that others would have a better understanding of the meaning of the composition of film scores -- not just for art movies but for the cinema in general, by focusing our attention on the work, the movie, and on all the elements that compose it."

In this spirit, the "manifesto" -- still a big word for the first draft of a document on which further work will be necessary -- purports to be the statement of a few common beliefs on which to identify. Ezio Bosso, composer, virtuoso performer and musicologist, author of the unique score for Gabriele Salvatores' Io non ho paura, warns that "much work on clarity and intent is needed before declaring a manifesto. Many points need to be discussed in such a document. As far as I am concerned, I would only sign a manifesto written about composers and intentions, rather than a list of grievances."

"We should also extend our attention to the meaning of the word composer," adds Paolo Silvestri, author of music for the theatre, before he moved to movies with directors Marcello Cesena and Peter Del Monte. "I wish that somebody could explain what it means exactly, not just in film music, but in general in the Italian music world. Most people would immediately mention the 'cantautori,' those singers who write the songs they perform, but they are quite a different thing. And then of course there are the arrangers, whose function nobody knows exactly. This is a country of singers: composers are considered technicians, and the concept of composition needs to be explained. Is somebody who writes just the melody a composer, or one who writes the melody and the chords, one who orchestrates or writes the instrumental parts? DJs make music, but are they composers? The profile of the creator of music needs to be redefined, and then we can discuss the specifics of fitting music to images."

This is unfortunately a sore point: even many cinema professionals do not understand the function of music in a motion picture, even to the point of assuming that ideally a movie could dispense with it. Recently, a professional film critic wrote in a national magazine that a movie was "so beautifully filmed that he could have done without music." The mention of this review causes quite a lot of commotion with the composers of the group. They all know that their scores do not only create an aural background for images, but they play with our emotions, enhancing the images or giving them a discreet counterpoint that adds new layers of meaning. In their best examples, scores give wings to the images, as Giagni confirms: "We need to discredit this myth, this often-quoted banality that the perfect film score is the one that does not attract attention. Music that goes unnoticed is useless. It is important that in a movie the music be beautiful: this is its role. What is often not noticed, sometimes rightly so, is the way it works, its entrances and exits, the nuances of the synchronization with images, but we must live the beauty of music, because this is its most significant aspect."

The Role of the Composer

In its first draft, the manifesto centers on the role of the composer as one of the artists that collectively create a motion picture, and one who gives a contribution more significant and crucial than a simple technical advice. Together with the other creative professionals he is at the service of the movie, adding his personal and individual voice to the collective identity of the finished work. In order to do this, he must add to his experience and craftsmanship his own sensibility, maturated through his own journey of growth and research; with its help, and together with the others, he will try to make each movie unique.

"According to the Italian legislation," notes Bosso, "the authors of a movie are the writers of the story and the screenplay, the director, and the composer. In fact, the composer is often not considered as part of the creative team, for many reasons: production problems, lack of money, lack of time, and because very often the music is the last thing to be considered, and we record it when the movie is finished. The problem is the planning of the music, although with Gabriele Salvatores [director of Io non ho paura] I was quite lucky."

"Too often in the cast sheets the composed is listed as part of the technical staff, rather than as part of the artistic team," adds Pivio, author together with his accomplice Aldo De Scalzi of some of the most original scores of the last few years, such as Il bagno turco by Ferzan Özpetek (which sold over 300.000 copies on CD), Casomai by Alessandro D'Alatri, and Per sempre by Alessandro Di Robilant. "Because of this, the composer is seldom asked to participate to the press conferences, although he would probably have a few interesting things to say."

Further confirmation comes from Giovanni Lo Cascio, performer for many years as percussionist in the field before he become a composer of film scores himself together with his wife Elvira. "The composer of film music is given very little consideration. Today writing for the cinema is one of the very few ways to do research while still remaining on the market, but in the industry we are not recognized as authors, we are not invited to press conferences, sometimes not even to the premieres. We can do much to change this, we can build a common ground to express ourselves, to have one voice."

The Relationship with the Director

For a composer of film scores it is certainly difficult to assert its authorial and artistic role: cinema is a collective art that is only achieved through choices and compromises between various strong creative personalities. In Europe, even more than in the US -- where composers and directors for a specific movie are often both cast by the studio according to market considerations and both depend from the producer -- the final saying is the one of the director, who "signs" the movie with his name. Not all directors are instinctively aware of the importance of music. Another element that has been evidenced by the artists is the necessity to have a correct relationship between composer and director.

"Why did we feel necessary to put it in writing?" points out Bosso. "Because it must be remembered by all those that do our job today. Americans distinguish between the "soundtrack," all the sound elements that are heard in a movie, and the "music score." We create the latter, and address directly the intimate consciousness of the moviegoer. At present this has been somewhat forgotten, and many new directors begin to work with a cultural background in which music has no part. To mention a recent experience, in a film festival we organized a meeting with young directors -- and none came! By writing down our beliefs about ethics and aesthetics, we also want to help those who begin in our profession, which consists in dedicating ourselves to cinema, sometimes anonymously. We choose to remain in the background, as Luigi Pintor said, to 'embrace somebody without suffocating him until we disappear.'"

"Of course, as musicians, we are at the service of the movie, but this does not mean that we are just executing what we are told or ordered," states Giuliano Taviani, the young composer of the scores for Tutta la conoscenza del mondo and Ora o mai più. "The relationship with the director must be one between two individuals who meet, and might fall in love or part their ways: trust is important, otherwise any relationship can be broken. Both my father and my uncle are directors, but I am a musician -- it is a different profession. Although it is a great satisfaction to work in the same places where I used to go with my father when he was recording the scores for his movies, with a director I am like any other composer. Luckily, I have never been in major conflicts -- a lot of contrasts, of course, but never to the breaking point."

According to Giovanni Venosta, who has written the scores for all movies made by Silvio Soldini, including the award-winner Pane e tulipani and Agata e la tempesta, "the problem is that the director, not knowing music, does not trust himself and his own choices in this matter. Listening to the music he likes and setting it to a piece of film is one thing; discussing in abstract terms an idea that might be suitable for his images is quite different. First of all he should trust himself on the choice of composer, which should not be simply a friend or the first one who was available, but somebody that, also on the basis of his previous works, was judged to have the necessary qualities; and then he should give him the possibility to be propositive. This seldom happens, also because of production issues, as often 70% of all the budget for music has already been spent to acquire the rights to use existing songs and only the remaining 30% is available for everything else, including the fees of the composer and of all the performers. It is difficult to have the time and the possibility to experiment, to work in one direction and then perhaps abandon it in favor of another. This anxiety undermines his confidenc."

Andrea Guerra, composer of La finestra di fronte, Le fate ignoranti, Prendimi l'anima and quite a few other movies for foreign directors, states: "In the course of his career a director might make four, five, six movies, while if we are lucky we can work on 30 or 40 of them, and therefore we often have more experience. But we still face foolish situations, like when a director told me "here we will have yellow music" -- it has happened to me, really -- because he did not have the experience necessary to explain himself. In these situations, either we understand what the director means, or we might simply say "okay, we will make it yellow." But if there is a more collaborative relationship we can try to interpret, to reason, to understand the why and the how. Furthermore, I think that at least seven or eight different scores could be written for each movie, and there should be the possibility to experiment and make tests, still trying to avoid nonsense."

The Search For Common Ground

It is unfortunately true that the director often does not know the language necessary to communicate and understand musical choices; and because of this he finds it much more difficult to trust those who speak a different language than those of words or images in which he is fluent himself. But it is necessary to conquer a common ground, and whenever possible to develop it with time, so that the director will be willing to give his contributors the freedom to go in the directions that only they can explore.

According to Lo Cascio, "the less time you have available, the more the capability, the flexibility, the fantasy of the director in imagining what I propose are necessary, as I can only play some ideas on a keyboard, I cannot possibly orchestrate it. He should already be familiar with some of my work, as I have not started with film music, I have been playing and recording music for 20 years. Knowing each other's previous work is of much help when we have a limited time to make propositions and suggest how to realise them. For Rosa Funzeca, my wife and I had to prepare 99 tracks before we found 10 which were accepted by director Aurelio Grimaldi and actress Ida Di Benedetto. In other situations everything was much smoother -- not everything that we suggested was accepted but we always trusted each other, as I was working with directors who had an idea of what I was able to offer, and before starting I always watch the movies they have already made to understand their personal vision."

Things are easier when director and composer have built a relationship over time. "Concerning directors I was rather lucky, we are friends," admits Silvestri. "I had already worked in the theatre with Marcello Cesena, and movies came afterwards when we had already created a relationship. With other directors the relationship was not as strong, but it is always extremely important."

"I was probably lucky, too," adds Giagni, "as I worked with a director like Marco Bellocchio, whose ideas about sound and music are in many ways very close to mine. The double activity of the creation of original music and the selection of existing tracks has always been done together, under the sign of a very strong solidarity. Of course, there have been all the contradictions, the conflicts and the discussions that such a collaboration implies, but always within his powerful vision and his strong aesthetics which demand deeply emotional music.

Concerning Buongiorno notte, the final sequence of the movie is scored with a track by Pink Floyd, in a dialogueless finale accompanied only by the music. This choice was rather difficult for Bellocchio, who did not know Pink Floyd: his musical culture is quite different, mostly centered on Verdi, the Italian melodrama, and the Italian political songs of the '50s and the '60s. This was a departure from his style, from his usual way of using music. The reasons were borne out of the story, which represent his personal vision of a fact (the kidnapping and killing of Italian politician Aldo Moro) that had happened in the '70s, and therefore at that time; but also -- and this was the key element for Bellocchio, the one that finally made him decide -- the necessity to give a strong emotional background to the release of the prisoner, something that never happened in reality, and that can only be shown as real in a movie. Together with a strong image -- Moro that walks at dawn in a deserted Rome, and goes away on his legs -- we needed a counterpoint, an aural and musical solidarity that had power and emotion, and I think we achieved it."

Fabio Liberatori, from Rome, a cultured musician master of rarefied electronic textures, has built a special relationship with a director. "It was unexpected, but the association with Carlo Verdone has been continuing for a long time, with just a few interruptions. I could not say why: it's a very special relationship. I know that we like the same kind of music, and this director is also something of a musician himself. Very often his knowledge of the musical genres that we both like, like avant-garde electronic music, is superior to mine: I have maybe 2,000 CDs, he has over 5,000. Quite probably, this love he has for music makes me more willing to listen to him when he insists on something. I certainly perceive a certain weakness of mine in his regards from this point of view, but in turn he is often willing to listen to me on other matters, which is something not all directors do. I remember a director that on our first meeting told me 'I don't like music. But we must have it, as all movies must have music.' Maybe because of this, when one year later I met Verdone again, I almost hugged him: with him I can talk about Depeche Mode or Stravinsky, and I feel that we are doing something together."

Liberatori also has at heart the importance for a composer to be able to take advantage of his personal research, musical and aesthetic, when writing a film score. "It seems obvious: each movie is different, has a different screenplay and director, and therefore should also allow for an original approach to music. On the contrary, there is a desease that afflicts our profession: we do not have room to experiment, research and then express our own inner personality, which is the aim of every artist. The same right of the director not to have too many expressive constraints put on his work should also be recognized to us when we write the music. This seldom happens, not only for productive or economical reasons, but also for a cultural inability by many professionals to see in our composers the same creative capability of those from the other side of the ocean. They are always looking at external references, asking for a déjà-vu, or déjà-ecouté in this case, that could be useful as a first indication, but should not force us to impoverish our musical and artistic research."

"I am asked why I often use ethnic music," says Paolo Buonvino, composer of the scores for Il giovane Casanova by Giacomo Battiato and L'ultimo bacio and Ricordati di me by Gabriele Muccino. "I was born and lived most of my life in Sicily, which is close to the Arab world. Listen to the call of the vegetables seller in the streets of Sicily, he sounds like a muezzin -- with a different text, but he's identical. For my first score, La piovra 8, I wanted a stylized Sicilian song, and I used a Palestinian singer. Many elders from my region told me 'it's the same, it's perfect,' although he was singing in his language. It comes to me naturally, I do not need any effort to use ethnic sounds, as they are from my home, and I think that they often work on a higher emotional level, bypassing conventions of form, and reaching directly your guts. They are not bound by the rules of so-called classical music -- although that is also born from emotions, it is always constrained by these rules, sometimes unconsciously. When studying music composition, one of the first things to do is to try to forget what has been learned, otherwise one will be unable to do anything new; but some schemes remain. I believe that through the spontaneity of ethnic music we can get closer to sentiments and to the heart, and music is this more than anything else."

"I think my experience must be almost a miracle," says Ivan Iusco, who wrote the scores for Mio cognato and LaCapaGira by Alessandro Piva and L'amore ritorna by Sergio Rubini. "I was lucky because I worked with two directors, Piva and Rubini, who left me total freedom to approach their work as I wanted. I understand that it must not have been easy, not only because of what my colleagues have said, but because of the nature of the relationship between director and composer. In all these cases I proposed a starting point, which was fully accepted, and on that we built together a musical discourse. Maybe I was really lucky -- but so far my artistic identity has been respected; maybe in the future I will find myself working with directors that who want to impose their ideas."

"Yes, he was lucky indeed," confirms Venosta. "When the composer is called to write the score, he is often presented a movie which has been temped with other tracks by other composers, and asked to imitate their sound -- and this is a big problem for us, but I think we could turn it to our advantage. I also have a special relationship with one director, as I worked on all movies by Soldini. When he started his career he was also incapable of talking about music, now he is not a specialist but through our work together he can ask me something musical by referring to existing works without setting them to the images. He can tell me 'I listened to Janacek's quartets, I'd like to have something that gives similar sensations, not the same music, possibly a more urban sound…' By using existing works as a common reference on which to start the discussion, on which to imagine new music, the composer can preserve his own identity; when he is simply asked to imitate existing tracks, often produced with more resources than he as at his disposal, then there is no respect for artistic identity."

"There are no rules, each experience has its own life," concludes Pivio. "We all have been in situations of conflict, and each time there was a different outcome. Each of us has different personal, musical and temperamental characteristics, and will try to find a solution in a different way. Some of us will try to concede and find a reasonable compromise, others will not bend and continue their way. These reactions are both justifiable, I cannot say which is best. We must make sure that our counterparts understand our poetic universe and we must find a point of contact. As this is sometimes impossible, and as in cinema there are no marriages but only engagements, some engagements will be broken; it has also happened to us, not just because of artistic differences but also because of a difficult personal relationship. The main thing is to always maintain one's artistic dignity."

Stay Tuned for Part Two!

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