The Bird With the Crystal Plumage (OST)

Ennio Morricone
Bruno Nicolai
Cinevox, 2008 (CD/LP)

A large part of what made the soundtracks to the Italian giallo thrillers of the 1970s so effective was the sometimes jarring disconnect between the beauty of the music and the brutality of the film it accompanied. Rarely is that juxtaposition so prominent than in Ennio Morricone’s score for Dario Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (L’uccello dalle piume di cristallo). Morricone’s score is highlighted by themes that are sweeping, lush, romantic, even sweethearted. Argento often pairs them with scenes of shocking tension and violence. This sort of clash of moods was prevalent a decade earlier when Morricone started writing music for spaghetti westerns. His signature style, typified by his work on the films of Sergio Leone, has become so identified with the western after the fact that modern listeners can lose sight (or as much as you can lose sight while listening) of how controversial and iconoclastic Morricone’s western scores were. It was, after all, a genre defined by grand if disposable orchestration, and all of a sudden Morricone is breaking out the fuzz guitars, sighing women, and jaw harps.

The music for The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (composed by Morricone but conducted by his frequent collaborator, Bruno Nicolai) isn’t all sensual romance and breezy fun. Morricone was just as adept at creating music that was discordant, aggressive, and even upsetting. The pastoral beauty of “Violenza inattesa,” with vocals and harmonies that sound like the Mamas and the Papas run through a baroque filter, is immediately subverted by the title (which translates to “Unexpected Violence”) and the fact that, given the context of the film, we know terrible things are about to happen. Subsequent decades of imitative clashes between sight and soundtrack haven’t drained Morricone’s theme of any of the lurking menace that waits just below the chorus of breathy male and female vocals. “Non rimane piu nessuno” is a similarly breezy song very much in the vein of what we expect from Morricone. Once one has been tempted into a carefree state of mind, one is hit by “Corsa sui tetti,” an assault of avant garde jazz punctuated by desperate female breathing, gasping, and chanting.

The score maintains this blend of offbeat styles that still manage to operate as a cohesive whole, becoming tenser and more threatening  as the music (and the film) progresses. It makes perfect sense in a film that is about the unreliable nature of perception and interpretation. Argento and Morricone were not strangers. Both men had worked previously on westerns, and in fact on the same film (Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, which Morricone scored and Argento helped write). It was a golden age, perhaps never to be surpassed, for composers of Italian film music, and at the middle of it all stood Ennio Morricone, one of the original members of the Gruppo di Improvvisazione Nuova Consonanza, a collective of musicians formed by composer Franco Evangelisti in 1964 and dedicated to exploring new musical techniques. Morricone, along with Evangelisti, Egisto Macchi, and a host of other musicians were appreciative of classical compositions but thought they could be tweaked by the introduction of more modern styles, instruments, and philosophies. Thus, fuzz guitars, pop, rock, electronics, jazz, psychedelia, and funk mingled with more traditional orchestration, emerging as a new musical style that helped define Italian music and movie scores throughout the 1960s and ’70s.

Like many soundtracks to Italian cult films, there are several versions, though the definitive one was the CD issued by Italian film music specialists Cinevox in 2008. It contains all ten of the original tracks from the soundtrack as well as ten bonus tracks (variations and alternate versions of the main themes). More recently, Italian label AMS Records released a remastered edition on vinyl, containing the same ten tracks as the Cinevox release but none of the bonus tracks. As always, you are well served by getting whichever one you can find, or both. Morricone flexes the musical philosophy of the Il Gruppo (and the talents of Bruno Nicolai, Alessandro Alessandroni, and of course Edda Dell’Orso) on The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, bringing it all together in the film’s hypnotic theme, “Piume di cristallo.” This might not be Morricone’s best soundtrack (that’s an awfully high bar), but “Piume di cristallo” is one of his best songs. He would go on to work with Argento on several more films (Cat o’ Nine Tails, Four Flies on Grey Velvet, and The Stendahl Syndrome) as well as contributing many more scores for giallo films made by other directors (the best being his score for Who Saw Her Die?). The Bird with the Crystal Plumage represents his best collaboration with Argento, a point at which composer and director both set out to make something that undermined expectations and toyed with audiences.

Targets Acquired

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