The bizarre, mythical, lost album of Ennio Morricone
by David Thrussell
Hidden deep within Ennio Morricone’s vast discography, far from his overground cinematic successes and accomplished pop dalliances, far from the sheen and glare of Cinecittà and Hollywood, lays the maestro’s most singular and most strikingly beautiful recording.
Never commercially released, Controfase was issued as a micro-press library/production LP on the Italian Gemelli label in December 1972. Decidedly unknown to the wider world, a small coterie of music obsessives and collectors have spoken in hushed and reverent tones about the near-mythical LP for decades.
Recorded during a particularly busy period for the congenitally prolific composer, Controfase interpolates and expands upon the concrete stylings, 20th century compositional techniques and morbid analogue synthesis of celebrated avant film scores and chronological neighbors (L’Attentato, Il Diavolo Nel Cervello, Un Uomo Da Rispettare, and Il Serpente), while being prescient of impending para-political masterworks (La Proprieta’ Non E’ Piu’ Un Furto and Milano Odia: La Polizia Non Puo’ Sparare). Spare, spacious and dextrous, Controfase acknowledges the numerous early 1970s Morricone tropes (avant sound design, musique concrete grit, modernist dissonance), while never being slavish to any.
What sets Controfase most notably apart is its brooding, mediative beauty. Freed from the cinematic tethers of action/reaction—onscreen cause and effect—Morricone sculpts a languid, hypnotic landscape of distressed strings, modal tuned percussion and mesmeric chromatic audio-linguistics. Neither confined by filmic pacing nor suffocating under pop formalism, the maestro exploits a rare opportunity to engage in an adventure of pure calisthenic sound.
Unique in the Morricone canon (aside from the also-mythical Dimensioni Sonore LPs), this LP was designed from birth solely as a library/production recording—there are no retooled film cues or manipulated pop arrangements—simply gracious (and freestanding) extended compositions that lithely weave in and around each other— vibrant, calm and hauntingly lyrical.
The Gemelli label was founded in the late 1960s by Morricone’s frequent conductor and collaborator, Bruno Nicolai. It became a home for orphaned film scores and subterranean production music that still remains tantalisingly undiscovered (even in the post-google era). Archeologists of audio arcana have excavated a slew of submerged (but stellar) Gemelli LPs by Nicolai himself (Tutti I Colori Del Buio and Marquis De Sade), Morricone pal and key Gruppo Di Improvvisazione Nuova Consonanza percussionist Egisto Macchi (I Futuribili and Bioritmi) and a further cast of marginal Italian film score and jazz glitterati. Even deeper into the rarefied, dark Gemelli vaults lurk sonic mentalists/alchemists like the pseudonymous Zanagoria and noted composer/experimentalist Vittorio Gelmetti.
Reportedly composed between 1970 and 1972, Controfase fits squarely into the Morricone/Nicolai factory-production-nexus. Prodigious to the point of pathology—1970 is an illustrative year—Morricone signed over twenty film scores in that year alone (in addition to chamber works, pop arrangements and other musical activities). Rarely attending studio sessions at the time, Morricone would write copiously at home in his office (sans piano, metronome or any other melodic/compositional aid) pen to paper, 9 to 5, and then hand the completed scores to trusted conductor (and busy composer in his own right) Bruno Nicolai.
All the available sonic evidence tends to suggest that much of the 1968–1975 Morricone/Nicolai recording aesthetic comes channelled through Nicolai (the Nicolai penned and conducted scores of the same era, often for Jess Franco’s fleshy euro-potboilers, do nothing but confirm this). And the eagle-eyed will certainly notice that after Morricone and Nicolai parted acrimoniously in 1975, both composers’ output was dramatically delineated.
Controfase also owes a pronounced stylistic debt to Morricone’s long-term sparring collective Gruppo Di Improvvisazione Nuova Consonanza. And whilst definitive LP personnel credits are often thin (as in this instance), it is difficult to account for tracks such as “Follia” as anything less than rebranded “Gruppo” sessions (haunted mightily by the twin ghosts of percussionists extraordinaire Egisto Macchi and Renzo Restuccia as they are).
Side one opens with the eponymous Controfase, a jarring celli motif that cascades into polymorphous percussion, peristaltic pizzicato and oozing clusters of swooning strings before resolving into an elegiac minuet and subtle, drifting electronic dissonance (the later courtesy of Walter Branchi). Masterfully wrought and compositionally impeccable, Morricone simply has no plausible equal in this domain.
Second cut, “Tempo,” is a smouldering build and lulling epilogue stasis of tuned percussion, harp, harpsichord and organ clusters—an arctic, cyclic lullaby for the sentimentally disenfranchised.
Track three, “Soli,” rides on waves of bowed cymbals, plucked giallo electric bass and breathless exultations/vocalism from canonised diva of backstage Italian cinema, Edda Dell’Orso. A menagerie of tormented (and reasonably unidentifiable) instruments crescendo at strategic moments before being dispelled and cast to the margins by the siren’s otherworldly call.
“Come Sommarsi” is a transcendent elegy for harp and Roland Space Echo—the later as intrinsic to the piece as the former. Oblique yet inviting, side one ends enraptured and enveloping in curious and investigative space.
Walter Branchi’s skeletal web of processed VCS3 duets with a mournful violin announcing the beginning of side two. “Con Ferma Ostinazione” builds with ominous strikes, stalking orchestral pulse and resolves formally in a delightfully sombre coda.
The afore-mentioned “Follia” steps and sidesteps with a comfortable set of G.I.N.C. gestures—prepared piano, duello-trumpets (from the maestro) and caterwauling demonstrative percussion (from a protagonist most likely to be Egisto Macchi). Careful demarkation in the stereo field renders each component’s fealty and fidelity absolute.
“Degenerazione” is a virtuoso moment for Walter Branchi, his electronic processing of Egisto Macchi’s graceful cymbal bows rising with ominous sustained swells over a remarkable ocean of understated harmonics.
Ordered, precise yet melodious and serene, “Eclissi Seconda” could be mistaken for an improvisation were it not so improbably perfect, so indisputably and profoundly aligned. A rotunda of abbreviated solos and minimal gestures marshalled into pacific force and infinitely shaped, refracted and sculpted.
Controfase, the precious (almost lost) LP you hold in your hands, is an unknown masterpiece. A shadowed giant of compositional skill and deft application—a moment when all the stars and their cycles align—unique, harmonious, undeniably perfect.
Controfase is now available on vinyl via Light in the Attic.
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