Osvaldo, how did you get to know Francis Ford Coppola?
One day I received a letter from Francis introducing himself - a beautiful handwritten letter which I still have, framed on my piano for visits from the press (laughs). He wrote that he had heard my music and was thinking about finding a more organic integration of music into a film than the usual Hollywood way, where the composer is called in at the last minute. Instead the musical ideas would precede the script, or be conceived while the script was written, and then be developed into motifs and themes. He invited me to his home in Napa [northern California], and we started collaborating.
Do you know which work of yours he had heard?
He'd heard several of them. I think he especially liked the St. Mark Passion.
Have you done the soundtrack for other films?
TETRO is my second soundtrack with Francis, following Youth Without Youth. Before that I worked on a film with Sally Potter called The Man Who Cried and together with Gustavo Santaolalla on a short film about 9/11 directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu.
What did Francis ask from you for this film?
At the beginning Francis was thinking of Buenos Aires as a very sensual city which he equated with New Orleans and Havana. You know, people making babies, people in the streets. But also resonating in his mind, I think, were the passions in the film of A Streetcar Named Desire. So we decided on a jazz big band . . . symphonic jazz like Alex North's beautiful soundtrack for Streetcar. I worked on it for weeks and then came to Buenos Aires and watched the film with Francis four times. As I heard him talking, I realized that the work had taken on a life of its own and the musical concept had evolved into capturing what the sound engineer called a "nostalgic optimism". In the main theme and its spirit I tried to capture the things I saw in the film: like the wounds in Tetro's character and the beginning of a life journey for his younger brother Benny. That's the nostalgic optimism. Though it wasn't my concept, I think it's very appropriate because, yes, there are wounds but also an opening towards the future, to the possibility of love and reconciliation. We also wanted to capture something of the vitality of Buenos Aires.
As I imagine it, a little of everything . . . But where do you draw your main inspiration from? Is the soundtrack based more on the characters or on the setting or on the subject of the film?
The main theme isn't necessary identified with a particular character but with the emotions and emotional journey of those characters. But there is also a theme running through the movie that could be called a "life-motif". There's this beautiful group of characters played by the Argentinean actors. I feel they are like the champagne of the movie . . . the energy that propels it forward: Francis saw them as an updated version of the characters in Fellini's early film Variety Lights, half-mad artists scraping together a living yet truly living life. It isn't until they leave the film, maybe half an hour before the end, that it acquires real gravity and turns dark. So before that Francis suggested that we could match this energy with Argentinean dance and music. Not necessarily tango because we wanted to capture La Boca, and that neighborhood of Buenos Aires actually has a lot of Italian influence, as well as the character of the people who have migrated there from the provinces. So there is chamamé, a dance that's not originally from Buenos Aires but resonates in the city, and there's milonga - all kinds of peripheral music that converged there. We tried to avoid the expected: like Piazzolla's type of tango, which is amazing but would have been too specific.
That leads me to ask: How do you, as an Argentinean who knows this country, avoid composing music that falls into the cliché of outsiders' views of Argentina?
One of the most fascinating things about working on this film for me was to see, feel and hear Argentina and Buenos Aires through the eyes, heart, mind and ears of Francis and Walter [Murch, the Oscar®-winning film editor]. Because when you are from the place there are very clear equations: "Buenos Aires is tango . . . it's this, it's that". Things are just easy. But Francis once told me that Buenos Aires reminded him of New Orleans. And Walter is more interested in folklore than tango. It was wonderful . . . I was going around Buenos Aires with Francis and he would say: "Oh, look, this is so beautiful - it's eleven at night and there are families having dinner in the restaurants with children". Some things that wouldn't happen in America are so natural in Argentina that you don't pay attention to them. The secret for me was to see and hear through the eyes and minds of artists like Francis and Walter.
Osvaldo, when I spoke with Francis, he told me he really liked your capacity for mixing the influence of classical and modern music in the same work. And this film contains the character of the father Carlo Tetrocini, a celebrated classical conductor. Tell me how you combine the different musical worlds.
Of today's great directors, I think that Francis has the deepest knowledge of music, and when I work with him I can do everything that I do in my concert music - integrating classical and modern and tripping music, high and low, depth and sensuality. He gives me that scope. Of course you often have to write music that underscores and helps to carry the film. But because Francis comes from a family of musicians, and has this sensitivity and knowledge of traditional classical music, there are moments in TETRO where he opens it up through music, for example with ballet. There were moments when I knew he was hearing something specific, and my hope and my fear was always to try to hear what he's hearing, and to achieve that confluence of symphonic and operatic breadth with the vitality of popular and contemporary idioms.
Is it lonely work? Apart from Francis, who else were you connected with in the process of writing the film's music?
When you're working behind the scenes on a film like this, you feel like part of a family. Working for Francis, of course, is not without pressure: the highest pressure is not to disappoint his artistic vision and commitment. When you compose a score, ultimately it means you have to write the scenes, you have to orchestrate, you have to look at the film. I was lucky to be able to work with my own little musical family, an incredible quintet of popular musicians who have also a very strong classical background.
Are they all from Buenos Aires?
I didn't want everyone to be from Argentina, and I thought it would be good to play chamamé from the point of view of a great American accordionist: Michael Ward-Bergeman is from New York. Claudio Ragazzi, the guitar player, is Argentinean but has lived in America for 20 years. Octavio Brunetti is a great tango pianist as well as a great classical pianist. He also has been living in New York, I think for five years. Bernardo Monk, the sax player who plays the main theme, is Argentinean but went to America. That's where he started to play tango - before that he only played jazz. So I thought it would be interesting to have this "dual citizenship" in the main players. Then we met a great bass player here in Buenos Aires, Guillermo Vadalá, and spent a weekend playing a lot of the soundtrack and, with input from Walter, changing things and creating things together. Certain themes I composed directly from the images, while with others, although I did have a feeling, I left my options open to what Francis or Walter would want. Then there was the orchestra, connected with scenes involving the father, Carlo, but also used to create the weight needed by the last 20 minutes of the film. And we also had a children's choir.
What about the children's choir?
They not only appear in the film but are also connected with a motif of light in the film - light that is life but death as well. This was Francis's idea. He associated this motif of light that appears visually in several scenes of the film with the voices of children.
At what stage of the film did you come across what you call the "life" motif? When was it filmed? When did you see the material?
As I mentioned, when I was corresponding with Francis he kept insisting on symphonic jazz, and I was going in that direction. But when I came here in October, during a taxi ride he told me things about his family and mentioned a certain scene in the film, and I realized he now wanted something different. It's the second time that's happened. In Youth Without Youth, he was talking about philosophy all the time but then told me: "It's actually a romantic film". He's a romantic, so you have to be alert to when he says something that isn't part of the "official discourse" about the film.
Did you need to see the images to compose or was the most important basis your conversations with him?
Before I saw actual footage I read the script and corresponded with Francis. A few months ago he sent me about 300 photographs - almost like a storyboard. These were very powerful images and I composed and sketched according to those pictures.
In comparison with Youth Without Youth, what were the challenges involved in this new work?
The Youth Without Youth score has a symphonic, slow-breathed rhythm. And the movie itself is very musical, very fluid. TETRO has many more tempo contrasts. Everything has more contour. Even the melancholic music isn't misty. Everything is very clear. The music for Youth Without Youth was more diffuse because sometimes you couldn't tell what was happening - if it's a dream or a memory.
What was it like working with Francis? What was the relationship between the two of you and Walter? How was the experience for you personally?
Although the relationship with Francis is very comfortable, I find it more difficult emotionally to write a soundtrack for him than to write my own concert music. I know that he's hearing something that other people don't hear, and so is Walter, but they can't write it down. I'm trying to capture their sonic vision.
Did they give you musical samples?
Yes. There's always a temporary soundtrack and that was helpful. But it's very important not to get stuck there. When I saw the film for the first time with the temp track I felt: "Wow, this is really good". Now that we've almost finished the recording, I feel I was able to capture something more: music that was born from the movie, that goes with it . . . that the movie has given birth to this music.
What's the most fun part of this work?
I loved the script, and then I kept receiving little snippets that went beyond it. When I saw the film here a month or two ago I was both devastated and inspired. I have a very clear sense that this is a great film, a work of art. A great tragedy . . . full of depth and conflict. TETRO is dark, but the invention is playful and filled with life and fun.
What about the audience? In general, are you thinking of the audience when you're composing?
There are many different functions for the music in a film, but I think the most important is to create one or two themes that are inextricably part of the film - so that people will either remember the scene and hear the music or remember the music and then the image will come to them. The two cannot be separated. What I enjoy the most is to create this new unity between image and sound.
When I interviewed Walter, we talked about the rhythm of the film. Because editing is one way of marking the rhythm of the film, how was that process in relation to yours? How did it go?
Walter has the most precise analytical mind that I have ever encountered. In a given scene, he can visualize not only the main role of the music but also where the music has to articulate important points within the scene and freeze those points in the memory. Working with him is like a free education.
Where were you were born, when did you leave and what it was like to come back and work with people you went to school with, like the conductor of the orchestra?
I was born in La Plata, 40 miles south of Buenos Aires. I studied here but left in 1983 when I was still a student. The country was still under a dictatorship and it was a difficult time. I actually never worked in Argentina, so to come back now after 25 years and work with Dante Anzolini, who conducted the orchestra, and many of the players in the orchestra who went to the conservatory with me - that is a real trip. There's an incredible team of young sound people, who are so creative and intelligent and serious but don't have the black humor of my generation, which grew up under the dictatorship. They are just open and beautiful. When I left it was a different country, so I'm very moved by this new generation that wants to do something incredible.
One last thing: Francis has said before, and I know you told me this, that the process of creation is a frightening one - that many times when he was on his way to the set he would just wish that the taxi wouldn't get there. And the biggest fear is facing the unknown, the blank page. Can you talk a bit about that?
My job is to create and condense the narrative in sound for a play and its characters - one of the great things about this film is that each of the characters is so rich. Many days during these last months I would wake up at three in the morning, start sketching things and hope that Francis and Walter would say: "Oh yeah, you're on the right track". Creation is a mystery. I think your mind keeps on working while you sleep and at some point you can feel in your stomach: "This is it". It's not something that you make; it's something that comes out. And if we knew back then what we find out later, we wouldn't have to suffer. There are people who work by a formula and people who don't. I'm one of those who don't. In the case of this film I don't even know what that formula is.