Stelvio Cipriani – born 20th August 1937, in Rome – is an Italian composer, mostly of movie soundtracks, many of which were for genre films, including, horror, gialli thrillers and crime films. Cipriani is still active, performing both live and recorded works, his output totalling over 200 scores. He has occasionally worked using the pseudonym Steve Powder.
Cipriani grew up in a decidedly un-musical household, the catalyst for expressing his musical talent actually coming from hearing the local church organ. The priest encouraged this interest and alerted his family to his passion and quick progress in learning to both read music and play keyboards. Although he covered all bases by initially becoming an accountant after school, he had followed the more traditional path for Italian composers and had enrolled at a Santa Cecilia music conservatory aged fourteen, studying piano and harmony. At this stage, it had become the pattern among many Italian composers for film to have specialised in either classical or jazz before finding their true calling. Bucking this trend, more contemporary sounds appealed to Cipriani, joining small bands to play venues from local ballrooms to cruise ships. On a break in New York during the latter period, Cipriani met and played for Dave Brubeck, the legendary band leader. Cipriani returned to Italy to be pianist to emerging pop singer, Rita Pavone.
Aged 29, he composed his first score, the spaghetti western El Precio de un Hombre (The Bounty Killer, 1966), a breezy affair which had all the trademarks of a Euro Western score and was likeable if not ground-breaking. During this early period working in the film industry, Cipriani composed for a variety of film styles and directors; of particular note are the erotic thriller Femina Ridens (The Laughing Woman, 1969); the early Jose Larraz film, Whirlpool; Radley Metzger’s The Lickerish Quartet (all 1970), before his output took a slightly darker direction from 1971 onwards.
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Even at this time, the likes of Ennio Morricone and Bruno Nicolai dominated the Italian film industry when it came to music, though Cipriani was able to compete, not only because of his deft touch with melody and rather more light-hearted tone to many of his scores (his contemporaries had often strayed nearer to experimentalism or jazz before even thinking of incorporating ‘modern’ sounds) but also because he stuck to the composers’ code – he was willing to compose for any kind of film, regardless of subject matter or lack of quality. In fact, Cipriani’s style was closer to Americans such as Henry Mancini than many of his fellow countrymen.
Cipriani’s lush, almost outrageously suggestive score to Riccardo Freda’s giallo, The Iguana with the Tongue of Fire (1971) is typical of his work in this period – a broad spectrum of instruments from piano to oboe, breathy, wordless female vocals – by Nora Orlandi, herself an excellent composer – and flashes of both tea-spilling stingers and punchy pop moments. Such scores had brought him to the attention of one of the masters of Italian horror cinema, Mario Bava; the pair combining on his early slasher, A Bay of Blood (1971), Baron Blood (1972, too experimental for American distributors, AIP, who replaced him with Les Baxter for their home release) and Rabid Dogs (1974). It has been suggested that his score for Bay of Blood was originally intended for The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave, eventually scored by Bruno Nicolai.
Such an association did little to slow down the pace of Cipriani’s assignments; his score to Death Walks on High Heels is in some senses the quintessential gialli score, initially flighty and breathy, lulling the audience into a false sense of security before angular dissonance signals the end of child-like frivolity and it’s black gloves and stabbing to the fore.
A milestone in Cipriani’s canon is his towering score to Roberto Infacelli’s The Great Kidnapping (La Polizia Sta a Guardare, 1973), the descending chords of the melody being reused several times over the years, most notably on the nearly-Hollywood blockbuster, Tentacles (1977). Plagiarism of oneself is not mentioned in the rulebook.
His reputation as being an easy composer to work with made him in demand throughout the 1970s and into the 80s, aided by his willingness to adopt new techniques; like other younger composers such as fellow Italians Franco Micalizzi, the de Angelis brothers or Bixio, Frizzi and Tempera, Cipriani readily embraced modern production, using synthesizers and guitars, as well as disco and rock, as time progressed. Although his output was not always of the very highest order, landmarks such as the taut, thrilling score to What Have They Done to Your Daughters? (1974) allowing you to forgive the slight misfires of The Great Alligator (1979) and the fun but daft, Papaya: Love Goddess of the Cannibals (Nico Fidenco was clearly unavailable!)
An oddity in his output is Bloodstained Shadow (1979), a score which was written by Cipriani but was actually performed by Goblin, a contractual issue neither party had any control over. This arrangement was repeated, with Goblin founder and keyboardist Claudio Simonetti performing on 1979’s Ring of Darkness.
Hollywood did call, although half-heartedly; Tentacles was no Jaws and Piranha II: The Spawning (1981, under the guise of Steve Powder) remains famous only as mega director James Cameron’s debut effort. Bizarrely, Cipriani composed scores to no fewer than three films about the mysteries surrounding the Bermuda triangle.
Cipriani continues to work in film and television (mostly in Italy) but has found many new fans due to his work being sampled by the likes of Necro and the use of cues from his older scores finding their way into Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof and to great effect in Larry David’s TV comedy, Curb Your Enthusiasm.
Daz Lawrence, Horrorpedia
1966 – The Bounty Killer
1969 – The Laughing Woman aka The Frightened Woman
1970 – Whirlpool
1970 – The Anonymous Venetian (winner of the silver ribbon awarded by the Italian National Syndicate of Film Journalists)
1970 – The Lickerish Quartet
1971 – The Lonely Violent Beach
1971 – Human Cobras
1971 – The Iguana With the Tongue of Fire
1971 – A Bay of Blood
1971 – Blindman
1971 – Death Walks on High Heels
1971 – The Devil Has Seven Faces
1971 – Deviation
1971 – Tragic Ceremony
1972 – Execution Squad
1972 – Baron Blood
1972 – Return of Halleluja
1972 – The Killer is on the Phone
1972 – Night Hair Child
1973 – The Great Kidnapping
1974 – Emergency Squad
1974 – What Have They Done to Your Daughters?
1974 – Rabid Dogs
1974 – Death Will Have Your Eyes
1975 – Evil Eye
1975 – Mark the Narc
1975 – Frankenstein all’Italiana
1976 – Colt 38 Special Squad
1976 – Deported Women of the SS Special Section
1977 – Tentacles
1977 – Stunt Squad
1978 – The Bermuda Triangle
1978 – Enfantasme
1978 – Skin ‘Em Alive
1978 – Cave of the Sharks
1978 – Papaya: Love Goddess of the Cannibals
1978 – Bloodstained Shadow (composed by Cipriani, performed by Goblin)
1979 – Concorde Affaire 1979
1979 – Encounters of the Deep
1979 – Ring of Darkness
1979 – The Great Alligator
1979 – Libidine
1980 – Orgasmo Nero
1980 – Nightmare City
1981 – Piranha 2: The Spawning
1982 – Don’t Look in the Attic
1982 – Pieces
1983 – The House of the Yellow Carpet
1987 – Beaks – The Movie
1988 – Taxi Killer
1991 – Voices From Beyond