Monday, November 10, 2008


Today is the eightieth birthday of one of my personal heroes, composer Ennio Morricone, as well as the 107th anniversary of the birth of Carl Stalling, whose achievements are the stuff of legend.

Stalling scored Disney's Steamboat Willie, widely (though wrongly) reported as the first sound cartoon. What Stalling did invent was something called the click track, a method of synching music to film that's still used today. Stalling's precise rhthyms gave Disney's earliest shorts much of their brio, and he kicked around the business for a decade or so before he finally landed at Warner Bros., where he immediately got a gig scoring cartoons.

Stalling's work at Warners was hugely influential. His method of underscoring every movement is sometimes derided as "Mickey Mousing"--meaning it sounds like cartoon music--but really, Stalling's ability to leap from one style of music to another, to go from a frenzied rhumba to a quiet orchestral passage in two or three seconds, has lately been rightly regarded as avante garde. He might not have considered himself an experimental composer, but he sure was an innovator. And of course, for certain kids growing up watching Looney Tunes, his music became the first music we knew and loved.

Here's a randomly-chosen example of a fairly typical Stalling score, from Bob Clampett's dada classic The Big Snooze.

As for Morricone--where to start? The man's scores for Sergio Leone's Dollars trilogy messed with my mind when I first saw those movies on TV back in the seventies, and when I found the soundtrack to Once Upon A Time In The West, long before I ever saw the movie, it was like finding religion, the thing I would always turn to, that I had looked for my entire life without realizing it. It was Morricone who made me realize just how much music meant to me, how absolutely essential it is to life.

He has the amazing ability to write in any imaginable idiom, yet make it sound completely like Morricone. Consider this haunting piece from his impossibly lovely score for Days Of Heaven.

Then dig if you will this slashing, ecstatically weird number from the deeply unnecessary Exorcist II.

Finally, though it became a bit of a cliche for a time (it was used in a lot of trailers and TV commercials), this magnificent composition from The Mission.