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July 20, 2011 / Siobhan Argent

The Spaghetti Western Orchestra

Published July 2011 at Arts Hub


The venue for the Spaghetti Western Orchestra’s (SWO) one-off Melbourne show is oddly appropriate. If you look up in the Elizabeth Murdoch Hall at the Melbourne Recital Centre, the enormous light features are reminiscent of some kind of flying spaghetti monster. It suits the wacky and theatrical tone of the performance, during which the cast members are required to twitch, grin, whistle, peek, bob, blow and stomp their way through a selection of Ennio Morricone’s classic spaghetti western soundtracks, written during his famous collaborations with director Sergio Leone.

Admittedly I know very little of the music or films produced during the Leone/Morricone collaboration, but I can safely say that even without prior knowledge of most of the tunes, the SWO is an energetic blend of iconic sounds. What’s more, it’s all down to just five men – Boris Conley, Jess Ciampa, Graeme Leak, Shannon Birchall and Patrick Cronin.

Rather than employ an orchestra of hundreds, as Morricone did for his wild-west symphonies, SWO makes do with five people and a cacophony of unexpected instruments. There are the usual suspects, of course – timpani, drums, vibraphone, piano, double bass, but it’s the unorthodox choices that steal the limelight. Two boxes of cornflakes, for instance, are used to great effect and in multiple ways to emphasise a sight and sound gag, while rubber gloves have a starring role in a hammy but hilarious sound-effects pantomime. The pace of the show does slow down towards the middle, with the odd decision to link several slower-paced tunes and segues, but overall the structure of the show ensures that it is, in general, a lively affair.

It can sometimes get a little bewildering, particularly in terms of the theatrical element to the show, which trades largely on the well-trodden spaghetti western scenarios. This involves plenty of terrible script-writing and vaguely American accents, and if you’re not wholly familiar with spaghetti westerns, being suddenly assaulted with it feels a little like culture shock. Soon enough, you’re in a The Good, The Bad and The Ugly-style sing-off.

Whatever you do, don’t ask about ‘Bob Robertson’. As Leone’s American pseudonym, SWO has incorporated the moniker into their loose storyline as the typical ‘hunted man’, enabling most of the group to ramp up the hammy performances.

SWO certainly have fun with a unique idea, but it’s not all about cliché. If anything, SWO has opened my eyes to the heaving, masculine, tempestuous nature of Morricone’s soundtrack, henceforth removing my understanding of his music from its almost ubiquitous association with hammy acting. Oddly enough, there’s plenty of the latter in the SWO’s show, but it’s never in the lead role. The music always carries the fastest guns in this town.


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