Gustavo Santaolalla, Making Music For Both Stage and Screen

BY Arts Desk  October 14, 2009 at 11:49 AM EST

The first thing Argentine musician Gustavo Santaolalla wants people to know about him is that he is an artist: one who works with a guitar rather than an easel. The 57-year-old has spent the last four decades recording, producing and composing music for his various labels, bands and movies. As a performer he is comfortable playing to packed audiences throughout the world, yet he also relishes in nurturing and molding young talent as a producer.

“I don’t see myself as a film composer,” he said. “I see myself as more of an artist that uses different forms to express myself. I love it all.”

Stuffed into a noisy backstage room at Washington D.C.‘s 9:30 Club, Santaolalla seems both completely calm yet utterly giddy just before performing to a sold-out crowd of fans both young and old, Latino and not, on a chilly Sunday night.

Gustavo Santaolalla performs at the 930 Club, Washington, D.C., Photo by Molly FinneganHe’s been touring with his band, Bajofondo, for the past two years, stopping intermittently to score “Biutiful,” an upcoming film by director and long-time collaborator Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu that is slated for a 2010 release and stars Javier Bardem. The two men also worked together on “Babel” (2006), “21 Grams” (2003) and “Amores Perros” (2000).

Santaolalla’s scores have caused something of a stir in Hollywood, winning him Oscars for ‘Babel’ and Ang Lee’s “Brokeback Mountain” (2005). But some in the Academy were opposed to his nominations because of his untraditional technique, he said. Despite a nearly 40-year career, Santaolalla does not read or write sheet music, and he does not use an orchestra. Instead, he singularly plucks his guitar with the occasional accompaniment of Argentine violinist, Javier Casalla, with whom he has recorded for 20 years and who also performs in Bajofondo.

After scoring more than a handful of movies, Santaolalla has emerged with a distinct sound: the sparse plucking in 2004’s ‘Motorcycle Diaries,’ and the coarse strumming of ‘21 Grams,’ both ubiquitous to those films.

“The minimalistic use of instrumentation, the textures, the use of space and silence, all of that connected with a lot of people,” he said. “I’ve been very blessed in that a lot of people love my work.”

Santaolalla does not compose for films as most musicians do — he records according to the screenplay, before even a single scene has been shot. This almost literary approach gives the composer a bigger creative role in the film, he said, and creates a stronger symbiosis between cinema and music.

During the filming of “Brokeback Mountain” and “21 Grams,” directors Lee and Inarritu used Santaolalla’s music during production (most notably, the twang of his guitar serenaded Sean Penn while he filmed an especially powerful hospital scene, he said).

That Santaolalla composes and performs his own scores, rather than using an orchestra, amplifies the quality of his music, he said.

“It adds a character to the music that sometimes the other scores don’t have,” he said. “They can be great and fantastic, but they don’t have that personality.”

That particular personality tends toward the melancholy and minimal. In contrast, his live performances are vivacious and buoyant. With Bajofondo, an eight-piece collective featuring musicians from Argentina and Uruguay, Santaolalla bounces and hops like a giant grasshopper unleashed on stage.

Bajofondo performs at the 9:30 Club, Washington, D.C., Photo by Molly Finnegan“It’s something that’s very physical that I stopped doing for many years of my life and, when I started again, I couldn’t figure why I had stopped,” Santaolalla said of his 20-year hiatus from performing. “But now I’ve sort of regained that contact with the stage.”

Santaolalla swore off live shows, choosing to “step out of the limelight” and focus on developing young talent like Cafe Tacuba and Julieta Venegas, two of Latino music’s biggest acts. But working with emerging artists has only intensified his longing for the rush of playing on stage. Eight years ago Santaolalla returned to his first love.

Collaborating with Bajofondo has also allowed Santaolalla to explore his Argentine roots 30 years after immigrating to the United States. Drawing inspiration from Rio de la Plata, the Silver River that separates Argentina and Uruguay, Santaolalla set out to explore the musical culture of a land he long ago abandoned.

Bajofondo features new and old sounds from the region — violin, accordion, guitar, bass, drums, piano and even a synthesizer. Some call the kaleidoscopic band “electro-tango,” an electronic take on Argentina’s musical tradition, while others call them “rock en Espanol.”

But for Santaolalla, labeling his music is futile. His projects have always been “very eclectic” and indeed Bajofondo weaves traditional South American music with modern rock, electro and even some hip-hop. The result is a sonic reverie that acts more like a personal journal, a collection of bits and pieces that make up Santaolalla: his Argentine roots, his rock background and his new interest in electronic music.

“I feel complete when I do it all,” he said before going on stage. “I don’t think I’ll ever confine myself to just one thing.”