A Bleak Picturesque: Nicola Piovani’s score for Le orme

Le orme

In the 1970s, Nicola Piovani was dogged by rumours that his name was just a pseudonym for Ennio Morricone – something he liked to make great play of at after-dinner speeches. If true, it would’ve meant that the one man, Morricone-Piovani, was responsible for 675 film soundtracks. But one thing the two Roman composers do share is the suppleness to switch seamlessly between auteurist productions for Fellini or Marco Bellocchio, and the grislier fare of gialli and nunspoitation films. Luigi Bazzoni’s Le orme, also known as Footprints on the Moon (released on DVD by Shameless as Footprints), fits into the latter category, albeit not unproblematically. The film is concerned with the peculiar lunar dreams of a professional translator-interpreter, Alice Cespi (Florinda Bolkan), who seems to have lost several days from her memory.

About twelve minutes into the film, Cespi starts to recall the events leading up to her fugue. The image switches to black and white and we find ourselves in a large conference centre as a deep organ drone enters on the soundtrack with a series of discordant notes added in the middle voice of the keyboard, offset only slightly by a sparse, gentle melody on the piano. As the camera pans across a series of cubicles containing translators for different languages, strings enter tremolando with a grating sound verging on scratch tone. We hear a series of glissandi played – by the sound of it – using the screw of the violin bow, recalling Helmut Lachenmann. A flutter-tongued flute briefly enters, and the percussion drifts and rolls softly as if somewhere in the distance. It’s only a brief composition, played low in the mix under a number of multilingual voiceovers saying things like, ‘Our computer has also shown us that in the year 2000 it will be almost impossible for men to live on planet Earth’, but in its brief span of minutes this piece showcases several extended instrumental techniques then being popularised by modernist composers like Lachenmann, Krzysztof Penderecki and Luciano Berio, to startlingly atmospheric effect.

The score to Le orme was one of those cited (in numerous interviews) by director Peter Strickland as inspiration for his recent Berberian Sound Studio (it’s name an homage to Berio’s wife, the singer Cathy Berberian). But it was the melancholy opening theme which inspired James Cargill and Trish Keenan of Broadcast in the composition of their own score for Strickland’s film. The principal melody for flute and acoustic guitar is used at several moments in Le orme, its instrumentation evoking the folk records of the time – or perhaps rather the odd combination of folk and easy listening that was becoming a feature of albums of library music at the time. But there is a sadness to it, suitable for that bleak picturesque peculiar to beach resorts out of season, the setting for most of the film. It sounds nostalgic, but with a sort of cloudy, sunken feeling, like a half-forgotten memory.

Over the opening credits, however, this instrumentation is augmented by a steady pulse beat on a drum and bursts of organ, suggestive of church music and, in its trills, particularly reminiscent of certain works of Bach, but in the context of the film also associated with images of the moon. Also, we find again that flutter-tongued flute – a technique popular with the 60s avant-gardists (Berio’s first Sequenza, in particular, makes great use of it), which first entered the mainstream of classical composition at the turn of the twentieth century, with works like Richard Strauss’s Don Quixote, Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, and Pierrot Lunaire, Schoenberg’s moondrunk monodrama from 1912. ‘Piovani’s central flute and string chord progression lulls one into the loneliest of reveries,’ wrote Strickland of the score in a blogpost back in 2011, while his Berberian Sound Studio was still in production. ‘Brooding and full of yearning for something that maybe never was, this is a tender and beautifully understated soundtrack.’

Robert Barry