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Film Scoring in Italy: Part Two

By Cesare Cioni

Continued From Last Week's Column...

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.

For photos of the event, see:

Production Dynamics

It is obvious that the cinema industry cannot ignore production and market dynamics, or it will endanger its own survival. As in any industry, the relationship between creatives and accountants is, at best, problematic. Time and budget restraints can become serious obstacles in the way towards the full realization of the musical potentiality imagined by the composer, and the cause of frustration that influence the quality of the score and its effectiveness in the movie.

Budget is the first big problem, especially in a country like Italy where the possibility of sales overseas is usually limited by language barriers. Music comes last, not just in the logical chronological sequence of activities, but also in the allocation of resources. Too often the production wishes to replicate the results of big international productions at a fraction of the cost. Inventiveness and skill can help, but only up to a point.

Even Claudio Simonetti, composer of Profondo rosso and countless other scores for Dario Argento and other directors, one of the few Italian composers that have attained international recognition, has to admit it: "One of the problems caused by the fact that resources are limited, and one of the differences between Italy and the U.S., is that in Hollywood the production allocates a budget for music. For Mel Gibson you need twenty million dollars, John Williams costs five. In Italy the music is subcontracted to music publishers that have nothing to do with the production of the movie. They make their calculations and evaluate how much they can spend and still make a profit. For the producer the music is an afterthought, done by a third party."

Also because of the fact that music is the last creative element that is added to the movie, often when the editing is already in progress or even finished, the other resource that is always lacking is time.

"Musicians need a few things: one is time," continues Buonvino. "You cannot ask a composer, as is often the case, 'this score must be ready yesterday,' and then maybe add 'do you recall that American movie, it had this and this'… I understand perfectly, but they had eight months to do that! I have no wish to start a comparison, but if I have to then I must point out that they had different schedules and budgets, while I have only ten thousand euros to do everything, including the music of the trailer for the next movie. Technology in this case has become a double-edged sword, because I am asked 'You have computers, what do you need an orchestra for? How much of it? If you really must have it, go and record it in Bulgaria…' this is a serious issue, because the only concern is money."

"We all need time," add Taviani. "I need at least one and a half, two months. I really do; other perhaps can do with less, but time is of essence if one has to try, experiment, build a relationship with the director, have him understand his ideas for the movie. I need the time to assimilate and process the content of the movie, its emotions, and translate them into music through my sensibility. Of course skills help, as in all things. And in television it is different, there's a lot of work to do in less time, but for a motion pictures one should try to give something new in each work, in each movie. We have learned the rules, we must be able to understand when it's time to contradict them."

The Dangers of Technology

Buonvino remembers: "One of the first contracts I signed had a clause -- it might still be there in all contracts, I am not sure -- whereby I had to deliver the original "perforated magnetic tape" of the music; I don't even know what it is exactly, because since I started in this profession we have always recorded on other media. I agree with Ezio when he says that technology is a pen that allows everything, but, as Andrea said, the danger of relying too much on technology is that one might forget the fantasy. Music is not just technology. I work in a studio that looks like NASA: four screens, two computers, a laptop, sound samplers and so on. But the search for the latest gadget, the latest software, the latest keyboard, the latest sound should not bring us off-course, it still remains a pen, although its range of colors increases. Compared to the use of the orchestra only, the addition of technology gives a wider palette, but in the end it is not the essence of music."

According to Bosso, "the main change is that through technology we can control all the aspects of sound. Multi-channel is not important for the music only, but for all the sounds in the movie. Sometimes we do not fully realize that the soundscape of a movie is not just the music, it is made by all the sounds that are heard, and also each noise that comes from any direction is music. There is a branch of my formal training as a composer, called psychoacoustics, that studies the effect of acoustics on the listener: the use of surround is really a great experience in this field. While writing, I can imagine specific effects of the music arriving from the front or from the back. Sounds originating from behind the listener influence a specific area of the brain and give a very precise emotional message: the emotional response is directly related to the spatial origin of each sound. This has been proven many times in the history of music: in the 17th century this effect was achieved by positioning some performers behind the audience, or outside the door of the room; and in the first symphony of Mahler, in the Adagio, the English horn plays from behind the audience, in the foyer even."

"In 1977, when Suspiria was released, Dario Argento had additional loudspeakers placed in the theater, to generate sounds from various directions," adds Simonetti. "We had neither 5.1 nor surround yet but we already understood that there would be changes in the way sound could be used. We already wrote our music to take advantage of these effects, although there was only stereo -- not Dolby yet, I don't remember what it was called then -- and with time the technology has evolved and the way we work with it. Even for Argento's Il cartaio, probably the most technological movie on which I have worked, I wrote the music knowing where to place each sound.
Today for a traditional musician it's difficult to work if he is not aware of the new technologies. With MIDI and digital systems we can work in a totally different way. Of course we must remain up-to-date, and this can be rather expensive."

"I think that there's another problem behind all these issues", comments Buonvino. "We talk about technology, and surround, but in Italy there are about three thousand movie theatres, and at least one half of them has just plain stereo, and perhaps not even that. It's a serious problem. First we mix the music, and then we mix music with noises, with the sound recorded on location, and with the dubbed dialogue, and create a reference track which usually sounds quite real… then we go to the premiere, or to the preview, and we have an heart attack.

I remember L'ultimo bacio: I was reasonably satisfied with my work, but at the premiere I almost fainted. We were in one of Rome's most modern cinemas, and I heard the multi-channel sound becoming stereo, and then multi-channel again, there was a technical problem whereby the sound instead of coming from all over the theater moved to the front and then to the back and so on. If there is a dirty head in the best theatre of Rome, in Scordia -- my little town in Sicily -- there is no surround at all, and in a theater in nearby Catania maybe they only have the right loudspeaker working… in the end our public watch our movies in all kind of theaters, not in the one where we made the mix. With a few exceptions, our cinemas are not adequate to the current technology. Because of this, when we make the final mix, apart from all the problems caused by the fact that the director is not fully aware of musical requirements, and is in the final phase of his work where he is under pressure from all directions, we must also face this issue. And even if the director is aware of it, he might be afraid that if he uses surround then when the movie is shown in Scordia it will be different; and in many other places like Scordia. If these are important emotional elements, they should be perceived everywhere. In the mixing room we end up trying to get a multi-channel mix that will also work in plain stereo, which is sometimes impossible, so we must reach a less-than-ideal compromise -- and all in a very short time, because if in the U.S. they have one month we must do everything in five days."

Aldo De Scalzi and Pivio also had quite a few problems in the mixing room. Aldo warns: "We both come from Genova, and they say that people from our city are "mugugnoni," always complaining. But I must say that we have worked on many movies, and I never saw one with acceptable sound."

"Unfortunately this is true," confirms Pivio, "and I believe that we are crazy if we do not take into the account that a movie could be seen in any theater. I still see movies made in the '60s, during the golden era of the Italian cinema, which have a perfect mono soundtrack where you can hear each and every sound element, while I cannot say the same of many modern movies with multi-channel mixes. I think there still is a generation gap. All the composers around this table today have also a technological approach to composition, and are attentive to the technical aspects of their work. When we reach the final phase of the production,  including the sound mix, we are often working with professional that have not assimilated yet the possibility of distributing sounds in a wider field. We are lucky when we find a technician who is really aware of the possibilities that the technology puts at his disposal -- surround, multi-channel sound, and so on -- and who tries to think in these terms. For this reason we must already attempt to reduce these risks when we write. It's the only way to protect our work."

Confirms Simonetti: "This is the problem that we had with Il cartaio. We started mixing and after a while, about halfway into the first reel, I asked why we had taken all the trouble to produce a multi-channel mix of the music, as there were no effects coming from the rear. The technician told us that we had to make a compatible mix, because the sounds that were only in the rear channels would have disappeared on television. When Dario Argento insisted, he was told that two separate mixes would be necessary, a stereo one for TV and a multi-channel one for the cinema, and only in the latter the effects would have been positioned in all channels. At this point the producer had to agree on the additional cost: but for most movies made in Italy there is no budget for this. Producers do not understand how much a movie can be enhanced by its soundtrack, by its sound, and to save on costs we get a strange hybrid, when we would need two mixes."

"When mixing the sound of Italian movies you must fear two main things: cars, because when they pass their noise will cover anything else, and the extras, or at least the bit players," adds Pivio. "The bit players have changed the history of Italian cinema. In our specific case, the movie was called L'odore della notte by Claudio Caligari, recounting the story of a gang called "the band of the clockwork orange," and starring Valerio Mastandrea. It was the key sequence of the movie, when Valerio, a former cop turned criminal, is captured by the police after his last robbery. Together with the director, we had planned the score so that the musical climax of the sequence would be reached when Valerio, shot, would fall on the pavement in an almost Christ-like posture -- there were a lot of specific elements that needed to be put in evidence.

What happened was that in the framing of the scene, very small in the upper right corner of the screen, two people were visible, staring at the scene from an open window and saying something like 'What's happening?' It is quite clear what is happening, the protagonist has been shot, falls on the floor and we can assume that he will be carried away. We had built a complex musical structure that would reach its apex at that point; but our dear friend the mixer said "no way, these people are in the frame, they must be heard"… so in the final mix you can hear, very loudly, the sentence spoken by those who look like two flies in a corner of the screen, wile our music fades away and reappears a few minutes later."

A Renewed Engagement

The meeting in Genova also ended in music. On the evening of the 4th of July, in the Cinema America, Marco Spagnoli and the Genova Film Festival offered to the public a musical meeting with the composers. In turn, each of them presented and commented extracts of his work, in the form of sequences from the movies or live performances played with his colleagues, a small string ensemble, and the splendid voice of Barbara Eramo. Another exceptional and unforgettable evening ended with the announcement of the release of a limited-edition CD with music by all the artists, which could not by ready in time for the festival but will be soon distributed, and with the promise of meeting again some time, possibly in Venice, or in Bologna again.

The artistic and professional commitment of these musicians continues, and so does their music, in one of the most interesting and -- notwithstanding all the problems -- most rewarding professions in cinema. As Pivio noted, "These are great occasions to discuss our work, our artistic worth, but I do not want to talk only and always in negative terms. Ours is a wonderful job, I do not even know if I should call it working, I feel privileged: my father worked in a factory, I have fun working on movies. But as it is a privilege, we must continue to have the possibility to deserve it."

The Meeting, January 16th

Ezio Bosso, Paolo Buonvino, Riccardo Giagni, Andrea Guerra, Pivio & Aldo De Scalzi, Claudio Simonetti
Moderator; Marco Spagnoli

The Manifesto of 4th July of applied music in Italy

Music is an essential component of the the cinematographic expression.
The composer is an integral part of the artistic team behind the movie.
Each composer has his own artistic identity.
The relationship between the director and the composer must be inspired by mutual trust and respect, in the common knowledge of the centrality of the movie.
The creation of a musical score requires the time necessary to ensure the quality of the movie.
Each author contributes to the value of the movie through his personal research and language.

Ezio Bosso, Paolo Buonvino, Riccardo Giagni, Ivan Iusco, Giovanni Lo Cascio, Fabio Liberatori, Pivio & Aldo De Scalzi, Paolo Silvestri, Giuliano Taviani, Giovanni Venosta

Crew: Giovanni Arcadu, Cesare Cioni, Oscar Cosulich, Marco Spagnoli, Norberto Vezzoli

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