Strings sing in lead roles

Shore, Santaolalla tune up guitar family for film scores

While orchestras and electronics are the stuff that many movie scores are built on, the composers behind “Babel” and “The Departed” based their music on instruments from the guitar family.

Oscar winner Gustavo Santaolalla, a guitarist, learned to play the oud — a Middle Eastern relative of the guitar — for “Babel,” while fellow Acad statuette holder Howard Shore utilized four of New York’s top guitar soloists on “The Departed.”

“Once you start working with guitars, it’s completely a world of its own,” Shore says. “It’s endless. Every guitar has its own character, the players have their own character, and it’s a very human, organic kind of thing.”

As with his Academy Award-winning score for “Brokeback Mountain,” Santaolalla wrote and recorded much of his “Babel” score in advance of shooting. “We didn’t want it to sound like a National Geographic show, you know: Go to Japan and hear a shakuhachi,” says the Argentine composer.

“We wanted to find something that could work in all environments,” he says. “The oud is the ancestor of the lute, and therefore ancestor of the guitar, so there is a tonal relationship which connects us to the Mexican story.”

His oud performances are unconventional, and arguably more personal, because he plays it with his fingers instead of the traditional pick.

Santaolalla visited the Moroccan and Japanese locations during the shoot. He also played acoustic guitar and ronrico as well as the Moroccan gembri, a three-stringed bass lute. “Part of the challenge was to tie together all these different stories, different realities. The music served as a glue,” he says.

The guitar-dominated score for “The Departed” emerged from discussions with helmer Martin Scorsese, says Shore. “We talked about fate, destiny, Shakespeare, and then we talked about the tango. Marty thought it was a good idea to create a ‘dance of death,’ and that a tango would illustrate the duplicitous nature of the characters.”

Talk of guitars followed, and Scorsese — a big fan of Irving Lerner’s 1958 “Murder by Contract,” with its solo-guitar score by Perry Botkin — loved the idea. Shore, who, like Santaolalla, began work long before shooting was finished, recruited classical guitarist Sharon Isbin, former “Saturday Night Live” music director G.E. Smith and well-known session players Larry Saltzman and Marc Ribot to help Shore work out musical ideas over a period of months.

The tango, most often played by Smith (sometimes on a 1915 Gibson acoustic, sometimes on modern electric guitar) and Saltzman, recurs throughout the film in various arrangements, while Isbin plays the tragic theme associated with Billy (Leonardo DiCaprio). Ribot plays dobro in a “battle” with Saltzman’s steel-stringed acoustic guitar near the end of the film.

Shore says there was never a concern that the guitars and tango would impart a Spanish mood to the Boston Irish story. “Marty just thought the rhythms were so insidious, the ‘dance of death’ he was looking for. We weren’t worrying too much about the cultural associations.”

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