Gustavo Santaolalla and The Last of Us on Top Score

by Emily Reese, Minnesota Public Radio
September 19, 2013

ST. PAUL, Minn. — Just like film, television and music, there are video games of all shapes and sizes. Naughty Dog's newest game, The Last of Us, fits comfortably into the growing category of games that seek to provide an experience more closely described as 'interactive film'.

The music in the game functions a lot like it would in a movie, as there aren't many instances of looped music except during combat scenes.

Naughty Dog's creative director, Neil Druckmann, asked Argentine composer Gustavo Santaolalla to score the game.

Gustavo won back-to-back Oscars in 2006 and 2007, for Brokeback Mountain and Babel, respectively. And those films are indicative of Gustavo's use of space in music - silence can be one of the most effective "sounds" to use in a piece of music.

The Last of Us is no exception, as Gustavo gives the compelling story room to breathe.

He's somewhat of a pioneer on a South American instrument called the "ronroco", on which he wrote the theme for The Last of Us. We discuss the instrument at great length in our extended interview.

And he does one of my favorite tricks - using conventional instruments in unconventional ways. He tunes an electric guitar down an entire major third (the lowest string becomes a C instead of an E). On that guitar, there's also a resonator, much like you'd expect on a Dobro. The resonator combined with the loose strings creates an unusually dark and vibrant sound, especially when he bows it with a violin bow.

Perhaps the coolest part of the score to The Last of Us is the orchestra itself. It's an orchestra devoid of violins, sort of like Bach's 6th Brandenburg Concerto, with an emphasis on lower instruments, like the bass clarinet, the double bass and even a bass saxophone.

The resulting sounds are surprisingly seamless; I feel no disruption when the orchestra either joins or leaves the soundscape. That is quite the accomplishment.

Hear my conversation with Gustavo Santaolalla in a special episode of Top Score from Classical MPR. Subscribe on iTunes.

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