BWW Interview: Composers Sonya Belousova and Giona Ostinelli Talk Netflix's The Witcher
The composers of Netflix's The Witcher, Sonya Belousova and Giona Ostinelli, took the time to speak with us about their work on the show.
Tell us a bit about your backgrounds. How did you both decide to become composers?
S: I have been surrounded by music for as long as I can remember. Growing up in Russia, I have been exposed to the wonderful classical music education Russia is so well regarded for.
G: And there she goes. I'll have time to finish the cue!
S: I started playing piano at the age of 5, made my debut at the St. Petersburg Philharmonia at the age of 8, and started taking formal composition lessons at the age of 10. I became the recipient of the Russian Ministry of Culture award at the age of 13, was admitted to college at the age of 15 and received a stellar education at some of the best music conservatories both Russia and USA have to offer. As much as I enjoyed writing concert music, I was always passionate about storytelling and expressing the story through music. Writing music for films and TV became a natural evolution for me.
G: And now back to us, mere mortals. I started discovering music when I was 5 by playing drums. As you can imagine, my neighbors were extremely happy about it! To make my neighbors even happier, I started playing piano at the age of 9. Around the same time, I became curious about films. I used to have a small 8mm camera. I remember playing around with it, trying to recreate scenes from Indiana Jones or Star Wars. I also tried reenacting them with LEGO but it never really worked out. That's when I figured out that directing wasn't my cup of tea. I was always in love with the iconic film scores such as The Goonies, The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, Indiana Jones, Jurassic Park, Air Force One, Robin Hood, and The Three Musketeers, so at some point I knew that writing music for films was exactly what I wanted to do.
You've co-composed multiple projects, how did the two of you begin working together?
G: Years back I was scoring a David Mamet produced movie Two-Bit Waltz, which required an eclectic type of score from bluegrass to electropop with several scenes asking for a virtuosic piano. I do play piano, however, I am no virtuoso. I knew Sonya was a phenomenal composer and a virtuoso concert pianist...
S: So Giona asked me one day if I was interested in collaborating with him on the score, and I thought, "that sounds like a very curious project, why not!" We both envisioned this as a one-time collaboration, however, it ended up being so creatively fulfilling that from then on, we continued our journey as a team. When working long hours in the studio, it's refreshing and creatively so much more beneficial being a team. It keeps the creativity flowing and brings in new and unexpected ideas to the table.
Your most recent project is Netflix's The Witcher, how did you get involved with this project?
G: Lauren and the team were familiar with our previous work. We received the scripts for the show and as soon as we read them, we were immediately transported into this unique universe and knew right away we wanted to be a part of it.
I read that you both learned to play over 60 new instruments while working on this show-that's impressive. Can you tell us a bit about that?
S: We wrote and produced songs, folk tunes, dances, and score, collaborated with virtuoso soloists and phenomenal artists, recorded unique historical instruments, many of which were crafted specifically for The Witcher, as well as personally performed and recorded over 60 instruments in order to create over 8 hours of an exciting original soundtrack. The Witcher universe is so vast and diverse with creatures like elves, dwarves, dragons, humans or monsters such as kikimora, striga, bruxa, among many others, that this universe deserved a proper representation in the music.
G: We've had a lot of recording sessions for The Witcher. A lot of them were done here in our studio with us personally recording 60+ instruments. We feel that writing music for films and TV is becoming more and more like producing a record. We have a variety of music instruments we play well here in the studio, and so when writing we already record many of them ourselves. We don't just record at the very end, instead recording becomes an integral part of writing for us.
S: We've recorded a lot for The Witcher and we've had fantastic soloists joining our musical family for The Witcher soundtrack. We feel so lucky to have all these incredible musicians as part of our family. Some of the instruments featured prominently on The Witcher soundtrack are: hurdy-gurdy, violin, oboe, duduk, lute, renaissance mandolin, baroque guitars, theorbo, psaltery, dulcimers, harmoniums, harp, ethnic woodwinds (cane flutes, penny whistles, recorders, Native American flutes, bansuri), shruti box, tagelharpa, erhu, toy pianos, jaw harp, rainstick, berimbau, a variety of percussion and drums from orchestral to ethnic (gongs, frame drums, bodhrans, djembe, talking drums, orchestral toms, snare), contrabass, and .... a metallic trash can! Many of these instruments were crafted specifically for The Witcher and came to us from all over the world: Russia, Hungary, China, Malaysia, USA. We even had a custom made tunable berimbau crafted for us, which we used quite a lot throughout the score. Our goal was to use these instruments sometimes in their most traditional manner and other times with a much more contemporary approach.
G: For example, we recorded a lot of hurdy-gurdy, a medieval instrument that was widely popular in medieval Europe accompanying dances, or shawm, which is a medieval equivalent to our modern oboe. Whenever there's a ball in Cintra, we made sure to use an appropriate ensemble featuring hurdy-gurdy, shawm, recorders, lute, baroque guitar, mandolin, theorbo, psaltery and a variety of medieval percussion and drums with the appropriate writing and performance rules applied. On the other hand, hurdy-gurdy is prominently featured in episode 3 during Geralt's epic battle with striga and Yennefer's dramatic transformation sequence. In this particular case, we wanted the hurdy-gurdy to sound much more contemporary, and therefore we applied various effects and distortions to it to achieve that particular sound quality we were looking for. We went through this "modernization" process with almost every historical instrument whenever a scene was asking for it.
The Witcher is based on books by Andrzej Sapkowski, as well as the video game franchise. Did the video game influence your score at all? Where did you pull inspiration from when creating the sound for this show?
S: When we start working on any new project, we try not to look for inspiration in other scores and sources, simply because then we don't feel like we're creating something new but rather developing the material that already exists. For The Witcher in particular, the inspiration came from the story itself and the endless creative possibilities this unique and vast universe provided.
Do you both have a favorite piece that you've composed for The Witcher?
G: The whole soundtrack! The Witcher is unique because the scope of this soundtrack is so vast, and the music so diverse, it's impossible to single out a specific track out of all the songs, dances, folk tunes and score that we wrote for it.
Do you have a favorite genre you like to compose for best?
S: It's not really about a favorite genre for us but rather what a project and its genre is able to offer us to explore creatively. For example, with The Romanoffs, we got to write and produce the score ranging immensely in its style: we have an orchestra, virtuoso soloists, intimate chamber strings, Russian traditional folk instruments such as domra and balalaika, electronic textures, and elaborate synths.
G: Working on Sacred Lies, however, was basically like producing a record. Sacred Lies is a modern reimagining of the classic Brothers Grimm fairytales. We decided to focus on the "modern" aspect and create an electronic soundscape with contemporary grooves and beats fused with driving vocal sound effects, chants, and songs. We wrote and produced both score and original songs for the series, including the lyrics, featuring Sonya's vocals.
S: With Stephen King's The Mist, we spent a week in the studio recording the weirdest otherworldly sonorities a piano could possibly produce. We plucked and bowed the strings, hit them with mallets, threw lithium batteries on them, recorded the resonance, you name it. And then used these unique sounds as a foundation for the rest of the score.
S: Another important component for us is a team behind a project. It's very important for us to align ourselves with creative people who are passionate and excited about storytelling, who aren't afraid to dive into it with us, explore, and create something new.
Do you have any advice for anyone pursuing music as a career, like anything you wish you knew when you were starting out?
G: Don't wait for an opportunity to present itself, create your own opportunities. Get involved with as many projects as possible, build as many relationships as you can. You never know how far these relationships will take you.
S: A well-rounded education is an absolute must. Study music, study film, study them extensively and with a great passion.
G: Continue broadening your horizons, listen to as much music as you can, expose yourself to diverse genres and styles. The more proficient you are in every genre, the more versatile you are as an artist.
The Witcher is now streaming on Netflix.
Photo Courtesy of Rhapsody PR