His Dark Exotica

Ennio Morricone - "Rite of Magic"/ "Great Bird in the Sky"

by Jason Cook

4 October 2010


Reedy and sustained, “Rite of Magic” and “Great Bird of the Sky” both make for Ennio Morricone’s most focused coda-laden contributions to his soundtrack for the ill-received 1977 horror psychedelia sequel Exorcist II: The Heretic. Guided by bells, tensely shuffling percussion, and a soft lone voice representative of Regan, the film’s possessed protagonist of sorts, “Rite of Magic” first delivers the film’s coda on the 1977 soundtrack—second in the film to “Great Bird of the Sky”, which plays only 20 minutes into the film and at its first dramatic point, a moment when Richard Burton, sweaty and orange-faced as ever, is handed a portrait of himself illustrated by a not-so-little Linda Blair as Regan.

“Flames… Flames. They’re getting bigger. We’ve got to put the fire out”, he says. Morricone’s piece begins and the weird aria starts amid buzzing strings like George Crumb’s Black Angels gone soft.

“Take it easy. It’s probably an after-effect of the hypnosis”, Louise Fletcher tells Burton.

They’ve been experimenting with a remote-viewing device, and when they do find the fire, somewhere in a basement and to the tune of silence—Morricone’s piece drops out after the soloist’s first few bars, Fletcher sees Burton standing before it, crowned with flames, and the film gets a little sillier. But the coda returns in a scene almost an hour later, emerging again with Burton in Ethiopia, praying to God in, remotely speaking to Blair who lays in bed, possessed and sweating like Burton, speaking to him: “Call me. Call me. Call me by my dream name.”
“Pazuzu, prince of the evil spirits of the air…”, Burton starts. Meanwhile the Crumb-like strings ring on, the vocal part begins again, and together, at least in an astral sense, they chant some demonic name, and Morricone’s intent for these pieces becomes quite clear. They’re not suspense-fodder, but ritual songs. They plod slowly, echoing 20th century avant-garde with some ceremonial intent, and finish with the kitschy flair and inflection of Les Baxter or Arthur Lyman. There’s even a bird-call in “Rite of Magic”. Exorcist II isn’t quite camp, but you could call it that.

This series, “His Dark Exotica”, persists because Morricone is a master of style.  He imbues all of his work with the flair from what he channels. Though a composer most often for film, piggybacking the artistic intent of others, he is an artist still, and foremost an originator. His work bristles claims of derivation because Morricone composes what his contemporaries mime and interpolate. In “Great Bird of the Sky”, he doesn’t simply let “Rite of Magic” repeat with different timing, he replays the piece almost entirely, raising attention to the vocal piece, to the strings, compressing what was relaxed and changing tone by controlling volume. The tonal mention of exotica is a precursory mention; the album’s ensuing piece, nested between “Great Bird of the Sky” and “Rite of Magic” is exactly this.

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