Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Spaghetti Western Orchestra


How the west was won

Carolyn Webb
A quirky local band finds global success with spaghetti western-inspired music.

EVEN if you haven't seen the 1960s spaghetti western movies, you have almost certainly heard Ennio Morricone's soundtracks. The theme song to the ABC radio footy show The Coodabeen Champions is from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and Morricone standards pepper the Quentin Tarantino films Inglourious Basterds and Kill Bill and countless TV commercials.

A five-piece Melbourne band, the Spaghetti Western Orchestra, has found international success playing Morricone in concert. On August 12, they will play the BBC Proms at London's Royal Albert Hall, which is broadcast to millions.

The act is not simply a playing-through of the evocative pieces from the series of movies directed by Sergio Leone such as A Fistful of Dollars and Once Upon a Time in the West. Orchestra founder Graeme Leak says scenes from the movies are not screened: they want the audience's focus to be on the music, and also their own stage act, a curious pastiche of a music concert, wacky cabaret show, and - through use of white-face make-up, sideburns and saloon clothes - silent film.

Co-founder Patrick Cronin says five musicians trying to re-create the sound of Morricone's 80-piece orchestra ''is where a lot of the theatre and humor comes into it''.

Even the more conventional instruments the orchestra plays are offbeat - mandolin, bassoon, double bass, tin whistle and vibraphone. Leak's favorite is the theremin - the eerie sound device, patented in 1928, played with hands moving in an electronic field.

Cronin loves an improvised segment called ''Gun Fight Foley'' in which they use dialogue and music to ''create a lot of tension musically and with different sound effects, from nail clippers, to asthma inhalers and cornflakes - even we're not sure what's going to happen next and we play off one another''.

Just as the wackiness peaks, Cronin will let loose with a grand Mexican trumpet solo that sends chills down your spine.

He says the mayhem is faithful to Morricone, now 82 and still composing, who loves to combine beautiful melodies with the unexpected. ''You would hear a twanging guitar with Bulgarian singers, orchestral strings and an ocarina.''

Leak says spaghetti westerns were often satirical: ''They were sort of taking the mickey out of the American westerns, which at the time were much more clean-cut. John Wayne never had blood when he got shot.

''These [spaghetti western] characters were filthy, grungy, violent, dishonest and backstabbing, but there was humor and irony all through it, and it's kind of inherent in the music.''

The orchestra takes up 10 to 20 weeks of their year and a lot of sweat has fueled the on-stage high-jinks.

It began with Cronin, Leak and other friends discovering that Morricone's music was great background for their card nights. They started jamming the music, leading to a first gig in a St Kilda Cafe in 2001, as The Ennio Morricone Experience.

After wowing crowds at small local venues and then the Port Fairy, Melbourne and Adelaide arts festivals, in 2005 the band members pooled their savings to fly to Edinburgh for the fringe festival.

They were a hit and started working with Glynis Henderson, the original co-producer of percussion dance show Stomp, and Canadian director and designer Denis Blais.

''We kind of re-branded the show, changed the name of it to the Spaghetti Western Orchestra, and worked on presenting it more as a music theatre show, in a theatrical context, rather than just a band,'' Cronin says.

''What we do now is present the music, but we have really strong lighting, stage design and costuming that is evocative of the films. We use lots of silhouettes and shadows.''

Gigs in Paris, Milan, Montreal and London's Southbank Centre culminated in 2009 with an appearance on the hit British TV music show Later … with Jools Holland.

Though helped by the ''beauty'' of Morricone's work, they feel they have earned their success. ''For the past five years, we've been getting back to Europe every year and trying to expand our audience there. And it's slowly but surely working,'' Leak says.

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