For ‘Last of Us’ composer Gustavo Santaolalla, silence is key to drawing the audience in

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When composer Gustavo Santaolalla sits with a new script, the words on the page often trigger visual elements, allowing him to hear the musical journey as the story travels from scene to scene.

It’s a trait that’s served “The Last of Us” composer well in creating the music for both the acclaimed video game and its Emmy-nominated HBO adaptation, including a nod for Santaolalla’s music.

Santaolalla was never formally trained to read or write music, but his instinctual method has led him to create Academy-award winning compositions for Ang Lee’s “Brokeback Mountain” and Alejandro González Iñárritu’s “Babel.” His first Emmy nod was for AMC’s “Hell on Wheels” in 2012, a year before the release of the first “Last of Us” video game.

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Santaolalla says he never felt like he was “just writing music” for a video game. From the very beginning he said he knew that “The Last of Us” “felt like a great story” that could easily be retold through any medium.

“The music translated so perfectly to the series,” said Santaolalla who brought a sense of nostalgia to fans by reusing the game’s beloved theme song.

The video game is set in the aftermath of a global pandemic that has turned civilians into zombie-like creatures. It follows the story of a smuggler named Joel who finds himself escorting an immune teenage girl named Ellie across the United States. The television series stars Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey and received 24 Emmy nominations this year.

Santaolalla transports the audience into the dystopian nightmare with one constant sound: the warm twang of his ronroco —a stringed mandolin that he calls “this wonderful little instrument from the Andes Mountains.” It can be heard throughout the “Last of Us” theme song and in almost all of the composer’s projects.

“One thing that I really felt was very rewarding was that (writers) Neil Druckmann and Craig Mazin, they have said that my music, somehow, it’s part of the DNA of ‘The Last of Us,’ he said. “It’s like a character in the story.”

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Santaolalla’s Emmy nomination is for the third episode where the show expanded on the relationship between two characters named Bill and Frank — portrayed by Nick Offerman and Murray Bartlett. Bill’s sexual orientation was only implied in the original video game, without much explanation about his partnership with Frank. In the series, Mazin and Druckmann create a romantic backstory for the two characters, creating one of the series’ most talked about tearjerker episodes.

“I knew the impact that that episode had in the audience,” said Santaolalla. “I was surprised (about the nomination), but at the same time, it was something that I got the feeling that it could happen,” he said. “I’m so grateful.”

Santaolalla says that he took into consideration the way that silence “played a big role” in the soundtrack of Bill and Frank’s story.

“Bill is a guy that has been inside of him, you know for years. You can’t get a word out of this guy or that demonstrative feelings. So there is already a silence in the reality of those characters. It is a very important part of the music of those characters.”

Santaolalla says silence is an element he loves to play with when writing music and was significant when composing “Brokeback Mountain” — a love story between two American cowboys.

“Silence sometimes can be louder than the note,” he said. “There’s an element where the silence works great in both of those cases, because the characters are not very talkative. Those silences when you’re watching something, it sucks people into the screen … you move to the front of your seat.”

Santaolalla first stepped into music as a young boy after his mother bought him his first guitar. He started making records as a teenager in Argentina. The producer turned composer would later flee the South American country during the 70s and make his way to Los Angeles where he soon became a notable figure in the rock en Español scene, producing over 100 albums for other Latin American icons like Juanes, Molotov and Julieta Venegas. He’s won BAFTAs, Golden Globes and both Grammys and Latin Grammys.

At 72, the musician has no plans of taking a break. He is the frontman of the critically acclaimed Argentine/Uruguayan band, Bajofondo, and is gearing up to perform at Eric Clapton’s upcoming 2023 Crossroads Festival in Los Angeles. Later this year, Santaolalla will travel to Sevilla, Spain, to receive the Latin Grammys’ Trustees Award honoring his musical legacy.

“This is far beyond anything that I could have imagined,” he said. “But being aware of that since an early age and now being in the position that I am now, I feel a responsibility to use this gift because I feel that is something that was given to me.”

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