Interview: Composer Claudio Gizzi

A conversation with the Italian composer on his scores for Paul Morrissey’s Flesh for Frankenstein and Blood for Dracula

In Paul Morrissey’s eccentric and utterly unhinged 1974 Italian horror classic BLOOD FOR DRACULA (often erroneously credited as the brainchild NYC art guru Andy Warhol under the name ANDY WARHOL’S DRACULA), the opening imagery of Dracula (played by iconic German weirdo Udo Kier) painting his face kabuki-white has always haunted me. The sequence is the spine and soul of the picture, showing the good Count as a tired, lonely showman who has long been forgotten by time and by the audience he once terrified.

And as eerily gorgeous as that bit of credit-crawling business is, it’s the delicate piano waltz playing in the background that truly sells it.

Like Morrissey’s 3D companion film, the previous year’s FLESH FOR FRANKENSTEIN, the music for BLOOD was composed by Italian musician Claudio Gizzi. It’s orchestral, elegant, full of melancholy mourning and sadness. And truthfully, it’s that dichotomy between the excessive gore, sex and general insanity on screen and Gizzi’s sophisticated, sometimes Wagnerian soundscapes that – I firmly believe – have given both films their enduring and evolving cult status.

Whether it be experimenting with progressive electronica with his fascinating Automat project or sculpting oddball stanzas for Roman Polanski’s eccentric and often neglected WHAT?, the music of Claudio Gizzi has always been a sort of secret handshake in cult cinema soundtrack circles.

A few years ago – way back in 2009 – I had the pleasure of speaking with Gizzi in an interview for the now long-scorched archives of Fangoria.com. I’m very pleased to resurrect and re-present that conversation here.

Tell me a bit about your childhood experiences with music…

From my earliest childhood I was very attracted to music. My parents told me that in the earliest days of my life my favorite tune which made me convulse with laughter and made me beat time to the music, was the Overture to William Tell by Rossini. In other words, music had to be lively and jolly for me. I belong to a family of amateur instrumentalists. In my family I am the only one who has adopted music as a profession. From being a few months old, I listened with pleasure to the violin, the banjo and the accordion and then at school I started to learn to play the piano, so as to continue in the family tradition, my parents realized that I was really fascinated by music, and so I studied composition, orchestration and everything else.

How did you become involved in composing for film?

My teachers had noticed that from the beginning, from my earliest lessons, I preferred, when seated at the piano, to improvise rather than to study and that it was easy for me to compose little pieces in a required pattern and so my way of life was indicated. Not as a pianist – even though I preferred piano and it was my favourite instrument- but as a composer. Anyway, in my way of thinking, the music more expressive and pleasing to write and to perform for an up-to- date composer is music for films and therefore at the first opportunity that came in my way I was there to collaborate with famous directors and it was incredibly important that my first appearance in the cinema was with Luchino Visconti with the film DEATH IN VENICE , a film completely infused by music. But then Roman Polanski arrived and wanted me for the sound truck of WHAT?

What was Roman like at this time? It was I presume, a strange film for him to make at a very volatile point in his life.

For me Roman was like a magician, a fairy, an elf…a genius, a creator of a dreamlike atmosphere, lively and a very knowledgeable person about music both entertaining and profound…every moment that I spent with him (from the very start of the work at Cinecitta’ to the eating of spaghetti together at his villa on Appia Antica is stamped on my memory.

And to think that he immediately had faith in me, even though I was then just a young boy.

Your work in FLESH FOR FRANKENSTEIN is incredible. Who really directed the film? Antonio Margheriti or Paul Morrissey? There has long been some debate as Margheriti gets credit on the Italian prints…

You know, the soundtrack for FLESH is due to Roman Polanski. He had listened to some of my compositions at piano and he introduced me to Paul Morrissey. That meeting was the beginning of the collaboration with him, followed then by the soundtrack for BLOOD FOR DRACULA. Both the principal themes of this films I had played on the piano and then with my orchestration I was able to create that atmosphere of horror and romance that I considered necessary for the films. Really, I was always interested in this style of horror, fantasy and Science Fiction in literature as well as in the cinema so, to be able to work at these two strange films – elegant, witty, intriguing – involved me and delighted me. I had artistic connections at all times with Paul Morrissey, whom I consider is a most cultured, refined and creative person. I remember that Margheriti intervened to bring his skill and experience in the splatter scenes and in the tricks of some scenes.

How much freedom were you given with FRANKENSTEIN? Were you aware ahead of time that it was a 3D film and did that influence your compositions?

It has been a very good experience because I was not conditioned by Paul, who trusted my musical intuition, especially my collaboration with Visconti. Before writing Frankenstein’s soundtrack Paul had listened to Frankenstein’s theme played on the piano and was very impressed. For the rest I had been able to present and to realize all my musical ideas as I wished to do and in the style that I had originally chosen. With reference to the 3D, I can remember having been able to see only as far as the end of my work, so I could not have been influenced at the time at all by the gimmick.

With BLOOD, you created one of the most gorgeous pieces of music ever used in a horror film….that overture…haunting. Was that composed while staring at Udo Kier’s face in post production or was it composed before the film was edited?

Effectively this theme for Dracula, especially in its version for solo piano,  is one of the most complete and efficacious things of my career. This is a demonstration that the simplicity and power of melody makes it superior and the most important thing in the musical world. I remember that this theme was born spontaneously by the magnificent images of the titles of the film while they were being shown on the screen. Udo’s sadness, composure and elegance in front of the mirror really struck me and guided me towards this musical experience…

Have you received letters and love for these scores over the years?

In fact, I received a great number of messages of approval and enjoyment from all over the world, especially from the U.S.A. There were also some people who wanted to have the score and to some of them I sent a score that I had written and signed. I hope I have made someone among my admirers happy. Basically, music is a wonderful, universal language which unites us and creates friends.

Why did you stop making music for movies?

Italy is a strange country, where both the most marvelous and the most unbearable things occur. As you know, from the great world of the Italian cinema after the second world war, we have come to a time that was less favorable to our productions. In these years the so called “cinema of style” has vanished and also the greater part of Italian films have been comedies, or at least entertaining or dramatic works (obviously apart from the work of Fellini and other talented people). So, the conditions for being able to write music of international value is greatly reduced and there is space only for the great Italian composers, above all, Ennio Morricone. In other ways even my way of life as a musician has not helped me to find a place in my country and so, during these years of my career, I have been working in the world of commercial music… in the world of the TV, easy listening and music for the theater. However, even in this sphere I have been able to achieve international success under the pseudonym “Jean-Pierre Posit ” doing classic- romantic music , dreamy and elegant,  or “Automat” which is more electronic and aggressive.

I also enjoyed your work in David Gregory’s PLAGUE TOWN. Why did you decide to make that piece for the film?

I have been sorry not to have known sooner David, a man of great experience and knowledge of the cinema-music world who immediately became my dear friend, by then the work of his splendid film was already completed and the music already recorded…the elegance and the atmosphere created in his film would have been perfect for my way of making music. Anyway, when David had sent me a rough cut of his film I was struck immediately by the pictures, especially the expressiveness and skill of the lead actress Josslyn DeCrosta and the sight of that girl with the eyes drawn , the one in the advertisement of the film) and suddenly the theme was born. I then sent it to David – once more the piano, as you can hear – and he liked it and to my great satisfaction has included in his film. I hope to be able in the future to collaborate again with David Gregory, because I am sure of being able with my music to contribute to his excellent work as a film-maker and because, with David, I have a great feeling of agreement and also a feeling for filming and for music.

Who are some of the great composers for film that you love?

A great number of them. Often, when I watch a film just about I don’t understand the plot as I cannot listen to the dialogues, being so involved with the music. However, my favourite, without a doubt, is John Williams, who I consider to be a master because of the strength of his melodic talent and at the same time an incomparable builder of forms and orchestrations. Here, in Italy I like Nino Rota because no other composer is able to invent simple melodies that are very beautiful and unforgettable. I always think that the greatest attraction in music is due to that incomprehensible skill that you don’t study, you don’t learn, but that is born in you, the melody.

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