The Ecstasy of Gold

(…addendum to last month’s post,Soundtrack“)

Composer John Zorn penned a tribute in The New York Times this week to the great Ennio Morricone, who passed away on Monday at the age of 91. Here is Zorn’s opening paragraph:

Ennio Morricone was more than one of the world’s great soundtrack composers—he was one of the world’s great composers, period. For me, his work stands with Bach, Mozart, Debussy, Ellington and Stravinsky in achieving that rare fusion of heart and mind. Dare we compare the five notes of his famous “coyote call” in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly with the four opening notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony? Morricone’s music is just as timeless.

I certainly agree. And those of you who know me understand that I am far from qualified to offer appraisals of orchestral music, which comprises a very tiny portion of my library. Nor am I any kind of an expert on film, having watched far fewer movies in my lifetime than the average citizen. But I do know what works for me.

I’ve always found the Westerns of Sergio Leone to be quite absorbing…in a manner that I have not experienced with other films. I believe that Morricone’s soundtrack is the magical ingredient responsible. Leone’s visuals are striking, and their marriage with the Maestro’s music creates a chemistry that draws my full attention to the screen. There are moments in these films that hold me in a transfixed state—not with tension, but with something more akin to awe and reverence.

Whether or not the Western film genre is to your liking, you may still appreciate the beauty and the power of Morricone’s music, and I encourage you to enjoy the samples of his work that can be found online. Here are two of my favorites to get you started…

“The Ecstasy of Gold” from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, conducted here by Morricone, and featuring vocalist Susanna Rigacci:

Click above to hear “The Ecstasy of Gold” (YouTube video)

And the title theme to A Fistful of Dollars, performed by The Danish National Symphony Orchestra:

Click above to hear “A Fistful of Dollars” (YouTube video)

Morricone had a unique ability to bring drama and fire to a scene, along with that haunting beauty which makes his compositions so very special. Wanderers of the desert and the plains could hope for no better composer to score the desolate majesty that surrounds them. Farewell, Maestro.

Soundtrack

Radio is not a practical source of music when you’re driving across the vastness of the open prairie. Fact is, my Pontiac’s stock AM radio died before I ever bought the car. During those first years on the road, I ran a 12-volt hookup to the back seat where I had perched a large boombox that could play tapes and CDs. After that unit died, I had a Pioneer CD player installed under the dash. When the road dust finally clogged up that player after many years of solid service, I replaced it with a modern car stereo that plays MP3 files on USB sticks, eliminating the need to drag along dozens and dozens of CDs every time I hit the road. I now have hundreds of my favorite road songs and albums available at the touch of a small remote control.

Music has always been a critical component of my road adventures in the LeMans. And as I started venturing deeper into the unfrequented areas of the continent, I noticed that my listening habits were shifting accordingly. Such spaces demand music with its own spaciousness…a sparser approach to studio production, with just the right amount of reverb and ambience to open up the sound. The singer-songwriter genre has come to the fore of my playlist; the strum of an acoustic guitar superbly compliments the hum and the feel of rolling wheels. And the ultimate musical expression on a twilight drive through the grasslands is the cry of a pedal steel guitar—the closest that humans have come to simulating the plaintive song of the coyote.

It will come as no surprise that the hours centered around sunset are my favorite for rural exploration. Adding the beautiful colors of the evening sky to the intoxicating blend of aural and visual delights, and the freedom of an open and desolate road, brings the enjoyment to a level that is difficult to describe. I’ll just say that it is a spellbinding and deeply satisfying experience to be caught in that feedback loop…the scenery magnifying the impact of the music, the music heightening the glory of the scenery. Fahrvergnügen, indeed.

A few songs are so powerful when heard in the splendid isolation of the Great Plains that I refuse to listen to them at home or in other vehicles; those tracks are reserved solely for use in the Pontiac while I’m basking in that solitude. To hear them in any other setting would be a dreadful anticlimax.

Artists such as Neil Young, Johnny Cash, Bruce Cockburn, Emmylou Harris, John Prine, Lyle Lovett, Rodney Crowell, Cowboy Junkies, Gordon Lightfoot, Nick Drake, Townes Van Zandt—to name but a few—have a keen ability to capture the freedom and romance found in wide-open spaces and behind the wheel on roads less traveled. Their music is the ideal accompaniment to open air and forward motion, their lyrics are devastating in such wild and lonely places.

Over many years of driving these roads and revisiting various locations and moods, there are several songs, albums and artists that have come to be paired repeatedly with certain elements of the journey, as they fit so well together—the weather or the appearance of the sky, a particular time of day (there’s one large folder of tunes dedicated to night driving), the surrounding terrain, or a specific place on the map. Gordo rules the stereo when I’m riding through Canada’s boreal forest; Neil’s classic album Harvest Moon is played each year during the celestial event of the same name; Stevie Ray Vaughan is the perfect choice for those long, lonely roads in western Texas.


The songs from those vintage tapes and discs that I’ve loved for so long are not the only tunes that travel with the Pontiac…I’m always adding newer titles to my library as I discover them. One of the greatest gifts to the world of driving music in the past decade has come from The Barr Brothers. I was already familiar with the Barrs from the imaginative albums of their first band, The Slip, whose music I aired often during my weekend shifts at a local radio station. (Unfortunately, I left the station around the time when The Barr Brothers released their debut album; had I stayed on, they’d have gotten some serious exposure in this market.)

Earlier this month, on a Sunday sunset/twilight tour through some remote corners of my area code, I put in enough miles to enjoy all four of their albums back to back…

The Barr Brothers  (2011)

Sleeping Operator  (2014)

Alta Falls  (2015)

Queens of the Breakers  (2017)

Click above to hear “Wolves” by The Barr Brothers (YouTube video)

Like The Slip before them, The Barr Brothers have crafted a unique sound. Their creative instrumentation appeals to me, and the spacious quality of their music certainly amplifies the exhilaration of riding across beautiful landscapes under a big sky.

Looking back at my travels over the last several years, I recall many parts of the continent where the Barrs have provided a wonderful soundtrack to the passing scenery, including my premier journeys to northwestern Colorado (May 2019) and northern Quebec (September 2019).

No doubt I’ll be enjoying their albums yet again later this year when, once more, I head westward into the Great American Desert.

Riding with John (Prine)

One of the (many) ideas that I’ve had on the shelf for years is to write a long post about the songs and artists that I listen to in the Pontiac when I’m rolling through the beauty of rural North America. Someday, I’ll get around to it; for now, I’ll name one songwriter whose music gets played frequently on each and every road trip—the great John Prine, who left us yesterday at the age of 73.

John’s lyrics range from deeply moving to fantastically humorous—sometimes both at once. His songs are a perfect soundtrack to the visual splendor and the joyous freedom that I experience on the road.

Even if you don’t spend time driving around the countryside as I do and prefer listening to music while you relax at home, be sure to explore the wonderful tunes in John Prine’s 50-year discography.

Farewell, John, and thank you.

~

When I die let my ashes float down the Green River
Let my soul roll on up to the Rochester Dam
I’ll be halfway to Heaven with Paradise waitin’
Just five miles away from wherever I am

“Paradise” by John Prine