Whatever your opinion of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Theorem, which is showing at the BFI South Bank in London over the next few weeks as part of a season devoted to the director’s work, there’s no denying the quality of its soundtrack. Mozart and Morricone are the names on the credits, and both play significant roles in Pasolini’s 1968 drama of a family whose bourgeois lives are torn apart by the passage through their household of a mysterious stranger (played by Terence Stamp).
But the first music you hear, after the newsreel-style prologue set outside the gates of a factory and over a credit sequence shot on the dusty slopes near the crater of a volcano, is actually “Tears for Dolphy”, a beautiful ballad written by the American trumpeter Ted Curson in 1964 to mourn the passing of his friend and sometime bandmate (in Charles Mingus’s Jazz Workshop), Eric Dolphy. Mystifyingly, it’s uncredited, leading the viewer to assume that it’s by Ennio Morricone, which it certainly isn’t. It was recorded by Curson with Bill Barron (tenor saxophone), Herb Bushler (bass) and Dick Berk (drums) in the year of Dolphy’s death, and initially released a year later in Dutch Fontana’s memorable series of New Thing albums before being reissued first on Arista/Freedom label 10 years later and then by Black Lion in the mid-1990s. (It’s out of print again now, but you can hear it here.) Curson died last November, aged 77; let’s hope he saw some benefit from the use of his piece in a much studied film.
It was certainly a great choice. As I listened to it while the credits rolled last night, it brought to mind the creative use of post-bop jazz in the scores for several important European art movies in the early 1960s, such as Antonioni’s La Notte (Giorgio Gaslini) and Blow Up (Herbie Hancock) and Polanski’s Knife in the Water (Krzysztof Komeda) and Repulsion (Chico Hamilton). Elsewhere in the film, excerpts from Mozart’s Requiem are used effectively to underscore the anti-clerical aspect of Pasolini’s message, while Morricone earns his fee — and reminds us that from the age of 12 he studied composition at the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia in Rome — by providing jagged post-serialist pieces for string orchestra to accompany scenes of psychological turmoil. But it’s Ted Curson’s piece that carries the greatest emotional weight, its spare contours providing the perfect evocation of the discontents that accompanied Italy’s post-war reconstruction.