How Do You Make Music for Giallo Films? Composer Curtis Heath Explains

For this extra special guest Viewfinders post, composer Curtis Heath (STUMPED, HELLION, 1985) offers his insights on the techniques composers used to score for giallo films. Heath will join us this Friday for a one-time-only introduction for THEY’RE COMING TO GET YOU, where he’ll bring in some of these very instruments and do a live demo before the film. Fans of giallo films and film scores will not want to miss this one. Get your tickets here

THEY’RE COMING TO GET YOU (TUTTI I COLORI DEL BUIO) is a different type of giallo. Director Sergio Martino attempts to replace the genre’s standard black-gloved sociopath with the Devil himself, à la ROSEMARY’S BABY, which had been a box-office and critical success the previous year. Occult themes, with all their psychedelic paranoia and sexual tension, provide the perfect backdrop to Bruno Nicolai’s unsettling score. But, what exactly are all these weird sounds?

Nicolai got his start in film as a music editor for Ennio Morricone, with whom he attended conservatory in Rome. Eventually their collaborations, with Nicolai orchestrating and conducting, would create an iconic sound that defined Spaghetti Westerns. In 1964, they joined other notable Italian composers in founding Gruppo di Improvvisazione Nuova Consonanza (also known as The Group or Il Gruppo) which was a collective dedicated to developing new, avant-garde musical techniques, sometimes by modifying the instruments themselves! This creative period matched perfectly with the irreverent, jarring giallo style.

Here are some of Bruno Nicolai’s instruments and techniques:

Prepared guitar and piano:
Inspired by John Cage, Nicolai would place utensils, scrap metal, screws and paper clips in the strings of pianos and guitars. This turned them into unpredictable percussive instruments.

Baritone Silvertone Danelectro:
Popular in Country and Western music, Nicolai used this instrument to conjure the American West in his orchestrations for Spaghetti Westerns. However, the gritty, dark low-end also works well for giallo.

Tape echo:
The Binson Echorec is an Italian invention that allows sounds to echo and loop on top of themselves ad nauseam. With the right sound input and the right knob twiddling, an entire new universe could be created. Pink Floyd would later adapt this machine and associated techniques to create many of their iconic sounds in the 1970s.

This transistor-based keyboard had switches to emulate strings, horns, woodwinds, and organ… none of which sounded remotely like they’re named! PERFECT for giallo! (Especially considering you could save money by not hiring an entire string section.)

Like the Farfisa, only the Mellotron had ACTUAL recordings of flutes and choirs on a series of tape machines hidden inside the unit. These pieces of gear are engineering marvels, or nightmares depending on who you ask.

Musical Saw:
Just a standard saw for cutting wood! Bowed properly, it creates a queasy sound similar to the sci-fi Theremin of the 1950s.

Invented by Richard Waters in 1968, the instrument is a metal bowl, filled with water or oil, with long tines welded along its edges. The tines can be plucked or bowed creating an eerie effect.

  • Contributed by Curtis Heath