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Scoring ‘The Romanoffs’ with Giona Ostinelli and Sonya Belousova

From the potently intense and versatile electronic-heavy score for director Natalia Leite’s M.F.A. to the classically-infused compositions for select episodes of Mad Men showrunner Matthew Weiner’s Amazon series The Romanoffs, composers Giona Ostinelli and Sonya Belousova have shown a particular ability to craft compelling music to help tell fascinating and sometimes difficult stories.

Vehlinggo recently caught up with Ostinelli and Belousova, the only female composer on The Romanoffs, for an email exchange about their work on the show. The Romanoffs, which just concluded its first season, is an anthology series in which each episode tells the story of people around the world who make some claim of descent from Russia’s last royal family. We also addressed the composers’ work on films and series such as M.F.A. and Sacred Lies, and along the way delved into their compositional methods, philosophy, and style.

We sometimes dive deep and other times the levity pours in. Regardless, it’s a fascinating read.

Vehlinggo: “House of Special Purpose,” starring Christina Hendricks, is a standout episode of The Romanoffs, in part because of its horror/surrealist elements and in part because of your striking score — strings and piano parts that suggest an aristocratic grandiosity and profound melancholy, blended with a sense of foreboding. What was your method for scoring this episode? How did you tap into the sentiments and themes of the story?

Sonya Belousova: Thank you for all your kind words regarding the score! “House of Special Purpose” had a very quick turnaround — just a week and a half to write, record, mix, and deliver the score for an episode of a feature-film length. After Matthew Weiner showed it to us, we immediately went back to the studio and started writing to picture. Three days later, we had about 85 percent of the score ready for Matthew to hear. We got together several times to go over the score, then adjusted the score to incorporate his thoughts and feedback and went off to record.

Giona Ostinelli: Scoring The Romanoffs was a unique experience, as we got to write a score that spans immensely in its range, genre, and style. This particular episode required a very eclectic approach: we have an orchestra, virtuoso soloists, fragile and intimate chamber strings, Russian traditional folk instruments, hints of the Hollywood’s Golden Age sound, electronic textures and elaborate synths!

SB: We divided the cues by genres and themes. All the classical themes were fully written and orchestrated on paper. The mysterious theme introduced at the very beginning when Christina Hendricks’s character is watching a shoot gets developed later on in several scenes, including a longer version in the scene when she storms back to the hotel after being unable to make a phone call. The playful theme when Christina’s character exits her hotel reoccurs several times, each time developing further. The romantic theme first introduced when Christina and Jack Huston’s characters walk back to the hotel appears later on in its extended modified version during Christina and Isabelle Huppert’s bedroom conversation.

GO: Even though the episode takes place in a modern time, it definitely has a period look and feel to it. Therefore, when approaching the electronic cues, we wanted to stay away from more modern synths and rather went with an old-school approach by creating the textures and sonorities on vintage synths. Instead of recording directly into Pro Tools, we first recorded via a tape recorder to give the score a more distinct vintage feel.

Sonya Belousova, Christina Hendricks and Giona Ostinelli The Romanoffs
Sonya Belousova, Christina Hendricks and Giona Ostinelli. Photo by Impact24 PR.

“The One That Holds Everything,” the season finale of The Romanoffs, on the other hand, is an incredibly thematic score. In fact, the whole score develops out of a single theme that gets introduced in its full version in the middle of the episode.

GO: The main music concept for this episode derives from the title of the episode itself. A single theme holds everything together in this episode musically. We couldn’t get more literal than this.

SB: With this episode, we had the luxury of receiving it way in advance and so we had more time. After Matthew showed us the episode, we went back to the studio and spent a couple of days writing the theme and perfecting it. Once we developed the theme, we were able to approach the rest of the scenes, planting hints of it in every cue.

What was your overall approach to scoring for the episodes you scored? (How closely did you work with Matthew Weiner and what was that dynamic like? What inspirations did you draw from?)

GO: Whenever possible, we love writing from the script and drawing inspiration from the various conversations we have with a director or a showrunner, as it gives us an opportunity to experiment. This was an example of how we approached [Facebook Watch series] Sacred Lies. Before the editing starts, we like spending time creating the language and writing music ideas, which could include some of the thematic material, motifs, or textures. We start building the sound palette and sonorities we would like to explore and develop further. This way we get to direct the journey rather then follow it.

“Matthew has an incredible ear and vision: you can’t ask for a better collaborator!” – Sonya Belousova, composer.

SB: In the case of The Romanoffs, however, Matthew already had pretty much a locked cut ready for us, and so we jumped right into it. We always love collaborating closely with a showrunner, and Matthew has an incredible ear and vision: you can’t ask for a better collaborator! Furthermore, he has a great appreciation for music, Russian classical music in particular, and is very specific in what he’s looking for. So yes, we worked very closely together.

The writing schedule was quite intense, especially for “House of Special Purpose.” One of the cues we wrote for that episode was a domra concerto. I remember, we wrote it between 1 and 5 a.m. and then had a 9 a.m. meeting with Matthew to show it to him. We’re extreme workaholics and like working long hours to make the score as perfect as it can be. Matthew and his whole team are the same, they’re extreme workaholics and perfectionists themselves, so our work ethics match 100 percent.

GO: Regarding the inspiration, it comes from the script, the picture itself, cinematography, lighting, acting, pace of the editing, certain colors and set design, [and] how the environment is created where the story unfolds. Music and image need to co-exist and complement each other, and therefore all these various elements inspire us to create a unique and particular soundscape. We draw inspiration from people we get to work with — it’s about talking to a showrunner or director and understanding how they hear this world.

What’s really important for us creatively is the team involved in the project. There is nothing better than coming back to the studio after a productive meeting with either a director or showrunner bursting with ideas and excitement — that tingling you get when you can’t wait to try new things, experiment and come up with something completely unique and awesome!

“Having to deliver a huge amount of music in just a matter of days definitely ignites creativity!” – Sonya Belousova, composer.

SB: Another great source of inspiration is a deadline. Having to deliver a huge amount of music in just a matter of days definitely ignites creativity!

GO: And if none of the above helps with inspiration, chocolate is the best solution!

From left: 'The Romanoffs' creator and showrunner Matthew Weiner and composers Sonya Belousova and Giona Ostinelli. Photo by Impact24 PR.
From left: ‘The Romanoffs’ creator and showrunner Matthew Weiner and composers Sonya Belousova and Giona Ostinelli. Photo by Impact24 PR.

Sonya, I wonder if this series has a certain resonance with you, given the Russian connection. However, Giona is also European and from an area with a history of monarchical rule in some variety (at least before the Swiss Confederacy and the formation of the Helvetic Republic). So, there’s a historical richness to what are generally modern stories in The Romanoffs.

What significance does the history have to each of you and how does that inform your approach to writing for the show? (This could be thematically, spiritually, or practically, in terms of specific musical styles or instrumentation.)

SB: “House Of Special Purpose” presented a wonderful opportunity to incorporate my Russian roots into the score. Matthew has a lot of appreciation for the Russian classical music. Therefore, we definitely wanted to include some of the Russian flavors, however, keeping a broader perspective at the same time. There was a scene, which required a very specific distinctly Russian music approach, and so we wrote a piano concerto for it, which was basically done overnight.

Imagine, for me as a concert pianist, this was literally like a dream come true to compose and record a piano concerto for the series. For another scene, when Christina’s character exits her hotel, we wrote a domra concerto, which recurs and develops further each time the scene comes back. Domra is a Russian folk instrument of the lute family used widely in the Russian folk orchestras. I mean, we couldn’t get more Russian than that! Domra is such a beautiful instrument with a gorgeous sound, however there aren’t many occasions when you can have it upfront driving the score.

GO: Regarding my Swiss side, we had a lot of Swiss chocolate around the studio. To help with inspiration, of course!

There are characters in this show who perceive (or even fake) a certain connection to The Romanov family. Sometimes people need to feel a connection to something bigger than themselves in order to define themselves. Did this have any influence over your approach? If so, how?

GO: Oh yes it did! For the whole time we worked on the show, I had to share the studio with someone who believed to be a descendant of the Romanoffs! Can you believe that?

SB: Well, the facts are: I am Russian, was born in St. Petersburg, where the Romanoffs used to live, and just scored a series about my ancest…

GO: *Cough cough*

SB: Sorry, I meant the Romanoffs!

What are a few key takeaways from your work on the show? (Best moments, most challenging times, key thoughts, lessons you’ll bring to future scores, and so forth.)

SB: It’s always thrilling when you start working on a new project — developing the sound palette, themes, motifs — the excitement each cue brings you and the discoveries you make along the way with every new cue. [I] always love this process. And then working together with Matthew and the rest of the creative team, including the editors, writers, producers, and the sound department, was a unique and special experience.

GO: Some trivia: When we showed Matthew our first pass of the score for the season finale, he was so excited about it that he asked the producers if they could move the dub mix of the episode for the day after. I think everyone at that point, us included, experienced a heart failure.

SB: Another fun moment was looking for a domra player in Los Angeles to record a domra concerto. Long story short, finding one in Russia proved to be much easier.

GO: Or looking for a pianist to record the piano concerto we wrote for “House of Special Purpose.”

SB: What?!!..

GO: We also mastered our technique playing a …. triangle. Who would have thought triangle was such a versatile instrument!

Your M.F.A. score is a stunner — I regularly listen to it. It is, to quote one of your cue titles, “So Fucking Good.” It’s also quite different from your work for The Romanoffs. (So is your Sacred Lies score, both of which Lakeshore Records has released.)

This versatility — to bend your musical will to meet different types of stories created by different types of storytellers — is remarkable. How do you end up working on such different projects and what experiences do you draw from for creating these diverse styles?

GO: Thank you! Really appreciate your kind words! Thanks to “So Fucking Good,” M.F.A. is probably the only score only soundtrack out there with a parental advisory notice. In some sense, very proud of that!

And yes, stylistically, all these projects are so different. However, at the same time, the experience of working on them couldn’t have been more similar in terms of how special it was for us. We strongly believe in thinking outside the box. We see an opportunity to create something particular and fresh in every new project, which is what gets us fueled and excited creatively. All these projects could have been approached differently. It’s your job as a composer to make them unique.

Due to our versatile backgrounds, we feel extremely comfortable working in every music genre, whether it’s creating a sophisticated orchestral palette for The Romanoffs writing virtuosic cues like a domra concerto or a piano concerto, or producing score and songs for [Blumhouse’s] Sacred Lies, a modern reimagining of the classic Brothers Grimm fairytale. Inspired by the “modern” aspect of it, we created an electronic soundscape with contemporary grooves and beats fused with driving vocal sound effects, chants, and songs. We wrote and produced both score and songs for the series, including the lyrics, featuring Sonya’s captivating vocals. Working on this show was basically like producing a record.

SB: Or going back to M.F.A. There were two prominent elements featured in that score. The first element was [star] Francesca Eastwood’s phrases we sampled from her production dialogue. We played around with these phrases, treated them with various effects; processed and reversed them to create a “cacophony” of voices. Another element was breathing. I recorded short breaths, long breaths, anxious breaths, violent breaths, relaxed breaths… you name it! This dissonant texture of voices and breaths became an integral part of the score complemented by peculiar sonorities we built with synths. This way we were able to create a twisted inner dialogue in her character’s head.

GO: Or, before we started scoring The Mist, a Paramount TV series based on Stephen King’s novel, we spent time in the studio recording the weirdest sounds a piano could possibly produce. We wanted to create suspenseful textures without actually hitting the black and white keys. So we plucked the strings, bowed them, used various mallets, threw lithium batteries on the strings or screamed into them to record the resonance; you name it. These elements became the foundation of the complex soundscape used for the mist character.

What are some of the challenges or conveniences associated with creating cues in one style versus another? (For example, synths/electronic scores versus orchestral.)

SB: If the music style is more orchestral in its core, we would start by fully writing out the music on paper. This is how The Romanoffs was written. We have the piano sketches lying all over the studio. Then we would dive into orchestrating and recording the music. We have lots of different instruments in our studio and so when writing we already record many of them. We don’t just record at the very end, instead, recording becomes an integral part of writing for us.

GO: If the score is more synths-based in its nature, we usually like to start out by creating our own sound palette in the beginning of each project, so we can be very detailed and specific about the sounds we use. Orchestral and synths instruments for us influence each other and blend into one another. We love transforming acoustic instruments into something completely unexpected. Right now, we’re working on a project, for which we get to play with erhu, a Chinese two-stringed violin. We ran it through a guitar amp and it ended up sounding like an electric guitar with an ethnic flavor to it. Pretty cool, no?

Speaking of Sacred Lies — the score is for a series on Facebook Watch, which is the social media network’s original content network/feature. Nowadays, there are many channels and media platforms by which to tell stories, thereby seemingly giving composers more opportunities for work. Do you agree or disagree? What are your thoughts on the current landscape for TV and film and what does this mean for the music makers?

SB: Film and TV are very similar nowadays. The Romanoffs is a great example of that. With each episode running over 80 minutes long, it is basically eight self-contained films, which were all approached cinematically from writing to directing, cinematography, editing, score and sound mixing. Scoring the episodes of The Romanoffs was exactly like scoring films. In fact, more and more shows function as extended films and therefore the music approach needs to be very cinematic. Traditional procedural TV series still exist, however we feel like the audience is getting drawn more and more to those TV series that are done very cinematically. Creatively, this is great!

“Scoring the episodes of The Romanoffs was exactly like scoring films.” Sonya Belousova, composer.

GO: In fact, we never differentiate our approach between scoring films vs. scoring TV. It’s all about what a particular project requires and never about the medium for which it was created. Nowadays, TV shows are being mixed in 5.1 or even Atmos and therefore even the technical differences aren’t substantial anymore, as the sonic experience becomes the same.

Furthermore, plenty of TV series nowadays don’t even have commercial breaks anymore, and so they literally function like films. The only real difference is the amount of music you will write. In TV you get an opportunity to explore and develop the thematic material more extensively across several episodes. As the overall runtime is longer, the characters and the storylines will develop more, and so will the score.

SB: And yes, having various media platforms producing quality content does create more opportunities. Therefore, working on TV series like The Romanoffs for Amazon Prime or Sacred Lies for Facebook Watch is wonderful, because you have unlimited creative possibilities.

Let’s rewind a bit. Your work independently has been excellent, but I’m finding that your pairing is a truly wonderful thing. How did you two end up working together?

GO: Years back, I was scoring David Mamet-produced movie Two-Bit Waltz, which required a very eclectic type of score from bluegrass to electropop with some scenes asking for a virtuosic piano. I do play piano, however I’m no virtuoso, and I knew Sonya was a phenomenal composer and a virtuoso concert pianist…

SB: So Giona asked me one day if I was interested in collaborating on the score, and I thought, “that sounds like a very curious project, so why not!” We both envisioned it as a one-time collaboration, however we found it so creatively fulfilling that from there on we continued expanding our horizons as a team.

How do you divide up composing duties and/or what is your typical workflow arrangement like? What are the benefits and challenges to composing as a pair?

GO: I think “madness” might be the best word to describe our typical workflow! Just imagine, my Italian dramatic sensibilities mixed together with Sonya’s Russian persistence and passion. When they clash it creates an explosion!

SB: Jokes aside, we work so well together because we come from such different music backgrounds. Growing up in Russia, I have been exposed to the strong classical music education Russia is well regarded for. Giona, on the other hand, comes from a bands environment. Having performed with many bands in various genres, ranging from rock to jazz and playing both drums and piano, he definitely has an approach different from mine. Therefore, we’re not trying to compete with each other…

GO: Well, secretly we are…

SB: … but instead, we complement each other’s style. Writing music for film and television means you have to be extremely versatile. We have this aspect fully covered.

GO: It also means spending many hours in the studio. There’s always a lot of music to write and a very little amount of time to do it.

SB: For example, Giona might come up with an idea, which I would then extend or complement with something completely different from what he originally imagined, and vice versa. This leads to new discoveries and approaches we wouldn’t think of otherwise. We basically feed off each other’s enthusiasm and ideas. We inspire each other.

GO: Working together is also very effective in terms of knowing when something works or doesn’t. We’re extremely honest with each other. When working on a cue, it might be hard sometimes to step aside and see how effective it is. But then Sonya listens to it with a fresh perspective and knows immediately if it does or doesn’t work, and therefore what needs to be adjusted.

SB: 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.

GO: We don’t divide duties between each other. We’re always in the studio at the same time working together. On top of that, we have a lot of different instruments here in the studio, which we both play and record as recording becomes an essential part of writing for us. In this case, having the two of us in the studio is crucial. The downside is, chocolate runs out much quicker.

What are you working on now, that you can discuss?

GO: It’s going to be something really cool!

SB: But we can’t talk about it just yet.

The Romanoffs just finished its first season on Amazon Prime.

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