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_October 2006 _

Presenting Stelvio Cipriani


Unlike his peers, Stelvio Cipriani's largely been absent from soundtrack magazines in interview or profile form, and over the past 30 years, most of his soundtracks were released in Europe and Asia. Cipriani's dilemma may have been the result of his own success as an arranger, composer, conductor, and pianist, and a personal style that often hovered between lounge music, easy listening jazz, and orchestral-pop fusions, with small injections of funky rhythms before the evil influence of synth-disco during the late seventies/early eighties altered his otherwise light, urban-cool sound.

Marginalized, somewhat ignored, and regarded by critics as a tepid film composer, it's an unfair view that's been sadly enhanced by better-known and distributed albums like Tentacles / Tentacoli (1977), which hardly represented his best skills. When CAM launched their much-heralded Soundtrack Encyclopedia, the first Cipriani score to be remastered in Dolby Surround was Tentacles, minus any new cues. CAM's series was admirable, but their series failed to go beyond the original album masters that often ran around or even below 30 mins., and sometimes contained dialogue and sound effects.

It took another decade and the efforts of newcomers like DigitMovies, Easy Tempo, and Dagored to enter the music vaults of the major Italian labels, and through cooperative agreements, release expanded albums with previously unreleased and rare alternate cues by many lesser-known and neglected composers.

Not dissimilar to Goblin's work, Cipriani's early scores, like the Anonymous Venetian / Anonimo veneziano (1970), established his reputation as composer with a fresh and accessible sound. Goblin wasn't nearly as prolific as Cipriani, nor did the group tackle as many genres during the waves of spaghetti westerns, giallo, sex comedies, and crime thrillers, but their top albums - Deep Red and Suspiria - remained in print long after the films' release, while the success of Venetian was less consistent. (That album, like several of Cipriani's crime scores, enjoyed LP and CD releases in Italy and Japan, but few albums managed to crossover and enjoy a formal release in England or America.)

Alongside the recent spate of expanded and premiere score releases on CD are several DVDs that have brought Cipriani's music back into the marketplace, allowing fans and critics to reappraise the composer's music in its intended role as functional underscore.

Video labels Blue Underground and Anchor Bay have brought some long unavailable titles back into circulation - many for the first time available uncut to English language audiences - but NoShame [NS] has kept an almost exclusive eye on Italian titles - classics, unsung treasures and routine genre programmers - and treated them with great fondness and respect.

Among NS's more recent releases are Death Walks on High Heels / La Morte cammina con i tacchi alti (1971), Colt 38 Special Squad / Quelli della calibro 38 (1976), and Convoy Busters / Un Poliziotto scomodo (1978). As cited in a previous column, High Heels is part of the Luciano Ercoli Death Box Set, which also comes with the follow-up film, Death Walks at Midnight / La Morte accarezza a mezzanotte (1972), and a bonus compilation CD of Cipriani's best-known scores.

Of the two films in Ercoli's oddball giallo diptych, High Heels was scored by Cipriani, and Midnight by Gianni Ferrio. Using the same shapely lead actress (Susan Scott) and actor (Simón Andreu), both films also benefit from luxurious cinematography, dynamic locations, and jazz-lounge soundtracks.

Ferrio's approach (released on CD with alternate cues by Easy Tempo) is part Piero Piccioni and Quincy Jones, while Cipriani's take is typical in his sparing use of themes. Cipriani's score also uses idiomatic variations in smooth jazz (for romance), trippy-hippy (for striptease and hip jiggling), and wordless vocal versions (for the Main Titles and shots of Scott looking pretty), and the composer employs his familiar structure of repeating several bars for extended periods, adding minor background variation (like a boost of strings, some minor woodwind business), and maybe a brief pause before repeating the lot again for an overall cue length of 3-4 mins..

High Heels does contain some straightforward and dramatic underscore - for the stalking, murder, and near-rape sequences - but in writing a score primarily based around singular theme variations, one has to acknowledge the style of the period, and the practice of writing variations that could easily be spun off into commercial singles for radio play.

The same approach also governed Piranha 2: The Spawning (1981), which Cipriani composed around variations of a singular theme. Like the original LP, DigitMovies' CD (expanded with an alternate single of the main theme) pretty much represented the whole score, with several source cues barely heard in the film, plus theme versions aimed for easy listening ears, and not the actual movie.

Cipriani's true underscore is surprisingly effective in the finished film, and manages to keep a straight face with the use of heavy strings, and modest pop instrumentation for a movie about piranhas with wings that arise from the ocean and take bites from bare-breasted babes.

Prior to DigitMovies' premiere CD of the composer's complete score to Mario Bava's Bay of Blood / Reazione a catena (1971), only the film's Manciniesque main theme was released as a 45 single. Some of Cipriani's idiomatic theme variations from other films - as well as material by other composers - were also archived and distributed by CAM as part of their stock music library on LP collections like Sentimental Modern and Thriller Sentimental. The question these library sets raise is whether a score was sometimes composed with complete attention and fidelity to a film's needs, or as a balancing act between the requirements of a film and the needs of beefing up a profitable stock music library.

In any event, NoShame's High Heels DVD showcases Cipriani at a pivotal period in his career, because 1971 would also kick-start a collaborative relationship between the composer and director Mario Bava that would include Baron Blood / Gli Orrori del castello di Norimberga (1972), and Rabid Dogs / Cani arrabbiati (1974).

Ignoring the blatant replication of the popish "Evelyn Theme" in Bay with "Felicita" in High Heels, Cipriani's approach to the former was suitable for a film made by a director with a notably wicked sense of humour. The bizarre and darkly funny moments within the otherwise shallow and bloodless Five Dolls for an August Moon / 5 bambole per la luna d'agosto (1970),  illustrate how mordant Bava could be, with scenes stylized with kitschy lounge-jazz cues by Piero Umiliani.

In Bay, Bava seemed attracted to Cipriani's own lounge style, and seemed to feel the lush approach provided the ideal counterpoint to the film's ridiculous gore and murder sequences. Predating modern comedy-horrors like Sam Raimi's Evil Dead, the murders in Bay were bloody and outrageously nasty; some short, ominous suspense cues were generally snuggled between the film's silky title theme and its rare variations; an overly romanticized secondary theme tilted sympathy for the film's first murder victim into tangible bathos; and a rather sappy closing theme, with lilting strings and singing children.

NS' 2-disc edition of Colt 38 Special Squad is notable for including a brief intro and theme performance on piano by Cipriani, and a 25 min. Q&A between composer and off-camera interviewer. Once you get past the label's sometimes crudely structured interview featurettes (with separately interviewed subjects on their Convoy Busters DVD unnecessarily repeating material on that film's charismatic star, Maurizio Merli), there's some meaty facts to enjoy, and Cipriani's own featurette is the best item on the disc because it has the composer talking about several aspects of his career.

An interesting anecdote has the composer recalling his first encounter with Bava. Cipriani suggested the opening murder of Bay be scored against type - through the use of a Rachmaninov-styled concerto from a background phonograph - an idea Bava loved, because it went against the standard dramatic underscore buildup and shock-stab most horror films employed. The schmaltzy quality of the concerto also recalls Carlo Rustichelli's own romantic "Windsor Concerto" for Bava's masochistic Whip and the Body / La Frusta e il corpo (1963), although in that film, it was sometimes hard to figure out if Bava was teasing us, or indulging in some personal bits of weirdness.

In Bay and his next effort, Baron Blood, Bava had Cipriani go against convention and score scenes without the traditionally grand shocks; in the latter case, that didn't please U.S. distributor AIP, so house composer Les Baxter was commissioned to write a more dissonant and orchestral score. (Since the film's release on DVD, the Baxter-scored version, like prior re-scored Italian imports from AIP, has dropped out of circulation.)

In the DVD interview, Cipriani admits he was aware that some of the films he scored were part of the industry's habit of beating a genre to death, and reconstituting elements into another genre. The composer had already scored a handful of spaghetti westerns, and he well recognized the familiar pattern of rebellious gangs fighting like testosterone-high youths in the wild, wild west environment had been transplanted to the present day in Colt 38.

The police form a special gun-toting vigilante squad that covertly and collectively track down top baddies using means that often go against protocol. Cipriani knew the conventions of the genre - simplistic characters, action, violence, and a token woman in peril - and wrote a light pop-rock theme, with electric bass, drums, and some pulsing strings performing a semi-tragic phrase that comes in handy when characters are frustrated or traumatized, and to bookend the film and compliment the detective's morally wobbly sense of victory.

An excellent theme variation plays during the film's ridiculous conclusion, as evil Ivan Rassimov heads for the airport with the detective's son. With an army of squad cars and daddy running through traffic, Cipriani scales down the film's main theme and accentuates low strings, congas, drums, and buzzing synths; it's a use of colour and percussive texture that was prominently featured in his 'chase' cues in Bava's brilliant Rabid Dogs. Violins rise and perform a full thematic rendition, with electric bass bobbing between a pair of pulsing notes. The effect perfectly matches the onscreen chaos of characters and vehicles in constant movement from shot to shot.

Cipriani uses an electronic pulse motif in place of the strings (the latter already evoking a kind of impressionistic chorus), which spawns a more detailed variation with acoustic guitar, electric bass, and subtle percussion. It's a multi-purpose cue that conveys the bonding spirit among the new members of the gun-happy squad (all tall, athletic, and always displaying their long gun barrels when dueling meanies), or when the detective fearfully dodges traffic, driving to his apartment after hearing the lives of his son and wife have been threatened.

Unique to the film is a song Cipriani co-wrote with Hal Shaper, "I'll Find My Way To You," that's performed in a disco by Grace Jones. Cipriani also recalls Jones in the DVD interview, plus some of the other artists he met and worked with during his long career, including Ray Charles, and his receiving a trio of albums indirectly from Dimitri Tiomkin (which came in handy when Cipriani was asked to score his first film in 1966, El Precio de un hombre / The Bounty Killer, a spaghetti western starring Tomas Milian).

By 1976, Cipriani had already scored 76 films (with 10 credits in 1976 alone), so he knew the problems editors would encounter when scenes needed trimming, the music budget was tight, or when a script was more than lacking in substance to keep audiences caring, let alone interested in a film. That's certainly a worry Colt 38 editor Antonio Siciliano had when shaping the movie's scenes, and in his own interview featurette, he acknowledges the lack of a plot-solid script, which meant scenes were reworked and shuffled around until the movie seemed to function properly. It's fair to say that Cipriani's music sometimes fell victim to the editing, as portions of cues are repeated throughout the film, filling out montages or smoothening the end of a ridiculous escapade by repeating a thematic fragment to remind us of the film's core characters and conflicts.

Aware of the beast's nature, the repetitiveness of Cipriani's thematic structure may have been the simplest method to avoid extra tweaking while scenes were being edited; the seventies were his busiest period, and the time allotted for writing and recording may have been very limited as studios and producers cranked out genre entries each year.

Another aspect raised in Anchor Bay's DVD of the Cipriani-scored Solamente Nero / The Bloodstained Shadow (1978) is the quirks of payment at the time for composers. In the disc's interview featurette, director Antonio Bido explains how composers didn't get paid until the box office receipts started to come in, and not after they delivered a recorded score - thereby leaving the composer in a most unusual position of trusting the producer's accountant

If the history of a film company or producer often yielded late payments, then it gave composers less reasons to transcend a film's limitations and write a master work with precise cues that perfectly fitted each scene and character. With such a system in practice, utilitarianism was a better angle when writing cues, variations, and those idiomatic alternates, so the filmmakers had their material, and the composer could move on to the next project or cinematic derivation.

Bido also explains that he wanted Goblin to score the film, but found the band had been turned away by the film's producers when label Cinevox wanted a fee worthy of the group's current popularity. Bido consulted with band member Claudio Simonetti, and he offered a collaborative choice to the producers, with Cipriani and Goblin crafting a score; the former would write the score, but the latter would arrange the material, exploiting their own stylistic qualities. The result was a marvelous giallo score with myriad cues and good thematic variations. (The score never appeared on vinyl, but briefly emerged on a limited CD from Lucertola, sourced from the film's isolated mono music stems, with cuts and fades.)

(If anyone can elaborate on this peculiar payment practice in Italy, or finds Cipriani's situation with Solamente more of an infrequent occurrence, please let us know, as some details on the business of scoring movies in Italy at that time would be of interest to our readers.)

Around the same time, Cipriani must have been engaged to score Convoy Busters, another crime thriller rescued from oblivion by NS. Cipriani wrote a up-tempo main theme for the film, but the picture may have had a rushed post-production schedule, and chunks of the Solamente score were substantive used in the film, notably over action and suspense montages, including the detective's assault on an apartment building, and a beautifully shot sequence at a sports arena, with malevolent thugs riding their motorbikes and raising a ruckus. Cipriani's Convoy theme fulfills the emotional thread lacking in the Solamente extracts, and it's an oddly suitable mix; had you never heard the latter's score, the film's soundtrack would feel like an acceptable genre effort.

In any event, Convoy emerged in 1977, while Solamente, with its fully original score, was released the following year.

Each of NoShame's DVDs offer above-average entries in two popular genres that emerged from Italy: the giallo, with its operatic combination of sex, intimate trauma, revenge, and onscreen nastiness; and the crime thriller, with Colt 38 being more of a spaghetti western hybrid, pitting cartoon archetypes against terrorists, thugs and anarchists, and Convoy riffing the Dirty Harry template of a man who catches underworld crooks like an acrobatic superhero with Teflon skin.

With some of his films slowly making their way to English language audiences, Stelvio Cipriani's music can finally be heard as functional and effective underscore, and re-assessed and enjoyed by fans and the curious, after having been marginalized for a very long, long time.


Mark R. Hasan (2006)

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