Thursday, June 9, 2016

The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (Morricone, 1970)

   Several years after pioneering the spaghetti western musical style, Morricone also trail-blazed music for Italian Giallo B-films (thrillers), using unusual instrumentation and employing improvisation as a structural device.  The first mature example of this is probably "The Bird with the Crystal Plumage" (Italian: L'uccello dalle piume di cristallo).

     For this film, director Dario Argento's first feature, Morricone developed two very different compositional tactics: a female lullaby ("la-la") theme song, and a semi-improvised, atonal "indeterminate" piece, which uses free-floating rhythms to create a sense of unpredictable tension.  The lullaby "Crystal Plumage theme" is first heard in the opening track, and is mainly used for flirtatious sleuthing scenes between Sam and his girlfriend Julia back at their apartment.  The improvisational tension theme is titled (appropriately enough) "Phrases Without Structure", and is used for all scenes featuring the killer's presence (POV stalking scenes, off-screen phone calls, gloved hands preparing knives, etc...).  Most likely, several versions were recorded and Morricone and the music editor used the material as library music to fit the dramatic contours of various scenes.

     "Fraseggio senza struttura" (Phrases Without Structure) is basically built on these gestures, or "phrases" (though not all are present in every version):
  • Held organ and ringing chimes.
  • 3-note ostinato (synth/vibraphone/celeste/piano/harpsichord), developing into cascading scales.
  • Tension theme (atonal, nervous theme on piano/synth/harpsichord/clarinet/acoustic guitar), also developing into cascading scales.
  • Female "la-la" chant, female and male sighing/moaning/whispers (female vocals provided by the always-delightful Edda Dell'Orso).
  • Free jazz drums and muted trumpet.
  • Sparse ornamentation from electric guitar swells, noirish sax, and ethnic percussion.
  • Acoustic bass and guitar tremolo figures and accent rhythms.
     It's possible that the musicians were provided with partially-notated elements without rhythmic markings, and were then cued in and out by conductor Bruno Nicolai (that's my guess anyways).  In any case, the score for this film is strongly flavored by Edda Dell'Orso's haunting, wordless vocal performance, as well as the floating, improvisatory statements from the studio "jazz band".  On the album, tracks 2 and 4 are source music tracks, and these stand out in stark contrast (as "normal music") to the rest of the underscore.

Trk Dur Title Music Elements/Film usage
1 4:10 Violenza inattesa
(Unexpected Violence)
The "Crystal Plumage theme" is sung and developed in female and male "la-la" figures over an acoustic guitar-driven soft rock rhythm.  Chimes, bells and organ textures also first appear here, sometimes with harpsichord. 
The first part (using female voices) is featured in the opening credits as a woman is photographed by a stalker.  The second half (featuring male vocals) is used in the ending credits.
2 3:19 "Non rimane piu nessuno" Source music: samba in triplet rhythm with acoustic guitar/percussion/strings/synth, joined by various layers of vocals/metal percussion ornaments/electric twang guitar.
Radio music when Garullo arrives at Sam's place.
3 5:02 Corsa sui tetti
Jazz-rock fantasia featuring free jazz drums and muted trumpet, female "la-la"/sighing ornaments and synth/computer, all using elements of Phrases Without Structure, but played WITH Structure (ie - a rhythmically-tight episodic structure, with more unison ensemble presentations of the atonal Tension theme and with accented rhythmic cadences).
Sam and Julia are chased by a car.  A man in a yellow jacket chases them through the streets and through a bus parking lot.  Sam eventually loses the assassin
4 0:48 "Se sei stonato" Source music: piano polka rhythm with male vocals ("Se Sei Stonato" and "la-la's").
Background music for the union laborers meeting where Sam loses his assailant.
5 2:45 Svolta drammatica
(Dramatic Turn)
Phrases Without Structure variation: opens with tremolo strings and vocal sighing, subdued and suspenseful, with accented cadences and brief unison episodes, no trumpet or 3-note ostinato motif.
Sam enters a darkened room and stumbles around, not seeing the tied up Julia.  He finds out the killer is the insane Monica and pursues her.
6 4:18 Fraseggio senza struttura
(Phrases Without Structure)
Phrases Without Structure (described above), opens with held organ and 3-note ostinato motif and builds from there, includes Tension theme developed in acoustic guitar/bass, sparse noir-ish sax, and cascading layers of vibraphone and synth, but no trumpet.
This and its versions below are used for various suspense and stalking scenes.
7 3:10 La citta si risveglia
(The City Awakens)
Slow suspense figure in electric bass/bells/drums with muted trumpet ornaments, soon leading to the 3-note motif and a subdued Phrases Without Structure variation with very restrained drums and no brass.
After Ranieri falls to his death, Sam looks throughout the city for clues to where Julia disappeared to.  He walks up a staircase. (also Sam receives a threatening phone call).
8 1:25 L'uccello dalle piume di cristallo
(The Bird with the Crystal Plumage)
Heartbeat/rubbing sounds (increasing in tempo) with choked female gasping.
Unused, probably for the scene where the killer terrorizes the girl in her bedroom.
9 2:12 Silenzio nel caos
(Silence In Chaos)
Phrases Without Structure variation: opens with organ, 3-note motif, vocal sighs, noir-ish sax and restrained drums, leading to cascading piano and female "lala" chants, building to a soft climax.
10 5:14 Piume di cristallo
(Crystal Plumage)
Crystal Plumage full theme: bells (crotales) and metal percussion with organ tones and Crystal Plumage La-la female vocal theme, joined by electric guitar/bass/synth accents, La-la theme continues in male vocals with acoustic guitar rhythm, organ/crotales/female vocal theme resumes, male vocal arrangement with guitar resumes and develops.
11 2:29 Fraseggio senza struttura (#2) Phrases Without Structure 2: opens with organ, 3-note motif, vocal sighs, noir-ish sax, then 4-note ostinato in acoustic guitar leads to high metallic triplet figures (no drums, trumpet).
12 1:42 Piume di cristallo (#2) Crystal Plumage 2: short version.
13 2:22 Silenzio nel caos (#2) Phrases Without Structure variation: version with ambient textures/tremolo figures/accents (synth/percussion/lala vocals, etc), joined by falling 5-note electric bass motif, ending in cascading texture (no drums or trumpet).
Knives and photographs are prepared by someone wearing black gloves.  Later, Sam is followed at night and almost beheaded by a mysterious attacker.
14 4:10 Fraseggio senza struttura (#3) Phrases Without Structure 3: opens with organ, layers of the 3-note motif moving rhythmically apart, includes marimba, lala/whispers, noir-ish sax, cascading piano, building 3-note motif textures (no trumpet or acoustic guitar).
15 3:58 Piume di cristallo (#3) Crystal Plumage 3: version with solo female vocal (supported by acoustic guitar rhythm/chimes/organ, slightly developed).
16 2:24 Svolta drammatica (#2) Phrases Without Structure variation: opens with female and male sighing (dialed out in final film), then accent leads to cascading piano and lala's, builds to an ending climax based on the 3-note figure (no trumpet or acoustic guitar).
Monica traps Sam under the sculpture and terrorizes him.
17 4:51 Fraseggio senza struttura (#4) Phrases Without Structure 4: version led by spare acoustic bass 4-note ostinato figure in high register, joined by various ornamental textures, tremolo accents, falling 5-note electric bass motif, and lala's, builds to an ending climax based on the 3-note figure (no trumpet or acoustic guitar).
Sam creeps towards a decrepit house at night to meet a contact.  He enters and finds no one at home.  He finds a syringe, and then a dead man.
18 3:10 Piume di cristallo (#4) Crystal Plumage 4: version with hesitant pauses.
Used in scenes where Sam and his girlfriend Julia discuss the case at home.
19 4:18 Fraseggio senza struttura (#5) Phrases Without Structure 5 (similar structure to track 6): opens with held organ and 3-note ostinato motif and builds from there into the usual phrases, has a somewhat roomier sound mix than the other versions (no trumpet).
20 2:10 Piume di cristallo (#5) Crystal Plumage 5: version with rhythmic synth/organ/chimes, followed by male vocals over soft rock with tuned percussion ornaments/acoustic guitar.
Sam in antique store sequence.

     In 1971, Morricone used a similar technique when scoring Argento's second film, "Cat O' Nine Tails".  In this film, Morricone incorporated clipped, syncopated bass grooves (with simple drum rhythms on brushes and hi-hat) to support newly-composed selections of rhythmically-floating "phrases" (atonal themes/motifs, ostinato patterns, ambient textures, etc...) using similarly unconventional instrumentation.  This concept of groove structures to support avant-garde thriller textures would continue into many more classic Morricone-scored Giallo films (such as in Massimo Dallamano's 1972 "What Have You Done With Solange?") and have a lasting influence on the genre itself. 

Ennio Morricone Wiki
The Bird with the Crystal Plumage iTunes Listing 
Film Score Monthly Message Board Thread on "Crystal Plumage"

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