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REBECCA ROBERTS, host:

Forty years ago an Italian composer rode into America with the soundtrack for a Western titled "A Fistful of Dollars." His name was Ennio Morricone. His music had a way of sticking in your ear. It was a little bit classical, a little bit pop. A lot of it was just plain unusual. Today, some 400 film scores later, Morricone remains a busy man. He's earned five Oscar nominations over his long career, but never a victory.

Well, he's guaranteed an Oscar this year. For only the second time in its history, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is giving a lifetime achievement Oscar to a film music composer. Joining me to talk about it is WEEKEND EDITION SUNDAY's resident film music buff, Andy Trudeau. Andy, welcome.

ANDY TRUDEAU: Hey, Rebecca.

ROBERTS: So can you hear a Morricone score and know it's Morricone? What is it that stands out about a Morricone score?

TRUDEAU: There are a number of elements, and I thought we'd honor him with a little primer as to what it is that makes Morricone Morricone. The first and most important element is melody. The best of his scores - he has this wonderful ability to lay out just a fluid melody. And he often writes with very specific performers in mind.

In the 1960s especially, he had two that he liked. One was a gentleman who whistled named Alessandro Alessandroni. And the other was a soprano possessed of a crystal and pure voice named Edda dell'Orso. Here they are together in a cue from a movie, 1972, sometimes called "A Fistful of Dynamite," sometimes called "Duck, You Sucker."

(Soundbite of music)

TRUDEAU: There's our whistler. You'll hear his pop background now.

(Soundbite of music)

ROBERTS: Oh, that's very 70s.

TRUDEAU: That sure dates it.

(Soundbite of music)

TRUDEAU: And there she is. Very distinctive voice. You hear that throughout a lot of his scores.

ROBERTS: Beautiful.

(Soundbite of music)

ROBERTS: But no lyrics really. Just a suggestion of a sound.

TRUDEAU: The voice as an instrument, an abstract instrument.

(Soundbite of music)

TRUDEAU: Morricone was born in 1928. He wasn't a child prodigy but he was precocious. At a very young age, he was zipping right through the music school. He was very active in the Italian contemporary music scene, a trumpet player. Did a lot of work with vocal groups, which I think explains a lot of the vocal music that shows up in a lot of his music. And he made his living arranging pop songs, and I think you could hear that juxtaposition of styles in that last cue.

You know, when he talks about film music, he is boring.

(Soundbite of laughter)

TRUDEAU: I have read interviews with sympathetic audiences and they've just struggled to figure out what is this guy saying. But he can apply these and make them work in a film score context. I want to go to an example of really Morricone as a contemporary composer.

This is a cue from an 1987 score, nominated for an Oscar. It was Brian DePalma's "The Untouchables." Listen how he contrasts a very hard-driving percussion rhythm with a slow, slurring harmonica sound.

(Soundbite of music)

TRUDEAU: Notice he has the piano doubled with percussion there too to create that echo effect?

(Soundbite of music)

TRUDEAU: There's low strings in there too.

ROBERTS: Very dramatic.

(Soundbite of music)

TRUDEAU: Repeating the phrase.

(Soundbite of music)

TRUDEAU: Low harmonica.

(Soundbite of music)

ROBERTS: Sort of floating on top of that percussion.

TRUDEAU: And he's got these little blocks of notes in the strings.

(Soundbite of music)

ROBERTS: Now is that an evolution, do you think, from the "Fistful of Dollars" sound?

TRUDEAU: No. I think this is all in him and he just draws on it when he needs it. An incredible note to make about Morricone is he does his own orchestrations.

ROBERTS: Oh, really?

TRUDEAU: In the film music business - this is a business whose motto is we don't want it good, we want it Friday. And so they just - composers become used to using other people to actually orchestrate their scores. Not for Morricone. He really feels strongly about this.

Another part of his style, if you will, is this very quirky sense of humor. You either like it or you don't, and I happen to like this next one. I'll simply say as a set-up that he got his ideas from the title of the picture, which is "Two Mules for Sister Sara."

(Soundbite of music)

TRUDEAU: Typical Morricone. A nice long-limned melody over a very unusual accompaniment.

(Soundbite of music)

TRUDEAU: And here's the Sister Sara.

(Soundbite of music)

ROBERTS: (Unintelligible) chorus.

TRUDEAU: And don't forget the title is "Two Mules."

(Soundbite of music)

(Soundbite of laughter)

TRUDEAU: Little shameless there, I'm afraid.

ROBERTS: Oh, the musical hee-haw. Very nice.

(Soundbite of music)

TRUDEAU: For Morricone, when all the pieces come together, the melodies, that very personal orchestration, the way he can layer the sounds, the results can really be powerful. One of the finest examples is the 1986 score for "The Mission." Generally regarded as his best, he was nominated for an Oscar, lost to "Round Midnight." Here's a moment I really like from the score. You're going to hear a strong counterpoint of two themes, one instrumental and the other begins in the instruments and then moves to the chorus.

(Soundbite of music)

TRUDEAU: This motif is called Gabriel's Oboe. Very famous melody from this score.

(Soundbite of music)

TRUDEAU: Another one of those Morricone melodies.

(Soundbite of music)

TRUDEAU: Winds now are setting up the choral line.

(Soundbite of music)

ROBERTS: Another melody drifting over a more driving percussion.

TRUDEAU: Right.

(Soundbite of music)

TRUDEAU: And here comes the chorus taking over that melody.

(Soundbite of music)

ROBERTS: I'm getting a lesson in the music as Ennio Morricone, who's about to receive a lifetime achievement Oscar, marking only the second time that a film music composer has been so honored. The other, by the way, was Alex North. Andy Trudeau, does the choice of Morricone surprise you?

TRUDEAU: A little bit. It's a name that really isn't that well known over here. But when you think about it, he's scored every type of film possible. It's a body of work that demands respect. There's an integrity, an individuality there that you just can't ignore. This is really one of the times - I mean Morricone looks on the Oscar as a personal validation, and this is one of times I really agree that it's an award that is richly deserved.

ROBERTS: So this is not a guy who thinks, oh, I've achieved everything I want to achieve. The Oscar is just a nice little cherry on top.

TRUDEAU: No, he wants this.

ROBERTS: Andy Trudeau, thanks so much.

TRUDEAU: My pleasure.

ROBERTS: Next week, our annual Oscar overview gets underway. The scores nominated this year are for "Babel," "The Good German," "Notes on a Scandal," "Pan's Labyrinth" and "The Queen." I'm sure you'll have fun talking about those with Liane when she comes back next week.

TRUDEAU: As always, looking forward to it.

(Soundbite of music)

ROBERTS: A list of Andy Trudeau's ten favorite Morricone scores is at NPR.org.

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rebecca Roberts.

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