He had learned the worst lesson that life could teach – that it makes no sense. And when that happens the happiness is never spontaneous again. It is artificial and, even then, bought at the price of an obstinate estrangement from oneself and one’s history.
American Pastoral, Philip Roth
Nino Rota composed scores for over 150 films in 46 years. That’s quite some output. He’s probably best known to English-speaking audiences for his work on the Godfather films, but perhaps his most admired work amongst music critics and scholars was done for the films of his friend Federico Fellini, who spoke of him the best collaborator he ever had.
Film composing is a tremendously complicated affair, particularly in the era before musical mechanisation, MIDI, and so on. As well as creating a rewarding, substantial piece of music, you have to do it in sync with the film: your crescendo might have to coincide with the clash of swords in the middle of a fight and so occur precisely one minute and 17.5 seconds into a scene, or you might need an arresting chord change just at the moment that two characters meet. To work as a film composer, working every day under these kinds of technical considerations for 40 years, would require tremendous discipline, technical facility, imagination and good humour.
Nino Rota had all of these things and more. He was touched with something indistinguishable from genius. His first oratorio was performed in Milan and Paris when he was just twelve. He studied music in Milan, Rome and Philadelphia, and received a PhD in literature from the University of Milan. He was a man of many talents and accomplishments. He was adept at pastiches in many styles, even before he began composing for the screen; his early works sometimes recalled Dvorák, but he experimented too with twelve-tone technique. And so, when tasked with writing a score for Fellini’s dreamlike, impressionistic Il Casanova, Rota took the opportunity to do something a little unusual.
Rota produced a score for instruments not normally found in the orchestra. O Venezia, Venaga, Venusia features the contemporary electric piano (it sounds like a Fender Rhodes to me) as well as discordant string drones and the first appearance within the score of tuned percussion, used frequently throughout the score to create a music box-like sound. Pin Penin, perhaps the most famous piece from the score, adds glass harmonica and what sometimes sounds like electric bass guitar to this mix, as well as the subtle use of deliberately out-of-tune instruments. On some pieces, the electric piano is panned so that it ping-pongs around the stereo field, while reed organs, harpsichords and harps play off-kilter waltzes
The result is a score that is playful but sinister and vaguely surreal. It lives in the space between the lulling and the nightmarish, in a space the normal the rules of logic don’t quite apply – a fertile territory in other forms of music.