Monkeys Fighting Robots

The Romanoffs is an anthology television series that airs on Amazon Video about the possible, but most likely not, descendants of a royal Russian family. The show premiered in early October and some call it “… handsomely made …” and “… ambitious and sprawling.” (Rotten Tomatoes). Composers Giona Ostinelli & Sonya Belousova create the sometimes vibrant, sometimes moody music for several episodes of the show.

Monkeys Fighting Robots sent some questions to Giona and Sonya about their career and work on things like The Mist and The Romanoffs. Below are their amazing answers. Read on, readers!

In the Beginning …

Where did the road to making music start for the each of you? Was becoming a composer the goal from the start or did it come about a different way? 

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Sonya (S): Growing up in Russia, I have been exposed to the strong classical music education Russia is well regarded for.

Giona (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 won my first international composition competition and became the recipient of the Russian Ministry of Culture award at the age of 13. I was admitted to college at the age of 15 and received a stellar education in some of the best music conservatories both Russia and the USA have to offer.

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, and they were extremely pleased to learn I wasn’t interested in pursuing opera singing. Around the same time, I became curious about film. 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 directing wasn’t my cup of tea. I was always a fan of the iconic scores for films such as ‘The Goonies,’ ‘The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly,’ ‘Romancing The Stone,’ ‘Indiana Jones,’ ‘Jurassic Park,’ ‘Air Force One,’ ‘Robin Hood,’ and ‘The Three Musketeers,’ so at some point I knew for sure writing music for films was exactly what I wanted to do.

S: For me, it was always about both composing and performing in this order. Same as Giona, I was in love with films for as long as I can remember. As much as I enjoyed writing concert music, I was always passionate about storytelling and expressing the story through music.

Keeping Up With The Romanoffs

The Romanoffs is an anthology about different people who claim to be descendants of the famous royal family. You are from the city where the family lived. Are you descendants and would you tell me if you really REALLY were? 

S: Well, if I were to reply with either a yes or no, there would be no intrigue in that. The facts are: I am Russian, was born in St. Petersburg, and just scored a series about my ancest…

G: *Cough* *cough*

S: Sorry, I meant the Romanoffs!

What do you do to get into the mindset of something like The Mist versus The Romanoffs? What’s the first step of the process like for each of you with a new project?

S: Great question! Indeed, we love being involved in the projects spanning across genres. That’s the fun and most fulfilling for us creatively! ‘The Romanoffs’ is a great example. The range of the music style for the series varies immensely from classical to highly experimental. We got to write sophisticated orchestral pieces including a piano concerto and a domra concerto and play around with vintage synths.

G: At the same time, scoring ‘Sacred Lies’ was basically like producing a record. We wrote and produced both the score and songs for this unique Blumhouse series, including the lyrics. Sonya recorded the vocals for all the original songs.

S: With ‘The Mist,’ The Paramount show we did several years back, we spent a couple of weeks in the studio just recording pianos creating the weirdest otherworldly sonorities a piano could possibly produce, and then built the foundation of the score out of this unique material.

G: Or with ‘M.F.A.,’ we got a chance to create an incredibly intricate and effective score by sampling Francesca Eastwood’s phrases from her production dialogue.

S: The point is, every new project is a new process, it’s never the same. But again, that’s the fun! Whenever possible, we love writing from the script as it gives us an opportunity to explore. 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. Once we start scoring to picture, since music and image co-exist and complement each other, there will be other elements like cinematography, colors, lighting, the pace of editing, which will influence the score and its sound palette. However, in this way, the music bible and the language of this new universe have already been created.

G: ‘The One That Holds Everything,’ the season finale of ‘The Romanoffs,’ is a very 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. After Matthew (Weiner) 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 it, we were able to approach the rest of the scenes planting hints of it in every cue.

S: Episode 3 ‘House of Special Purpose’ was different since our schedule was incredibly tight. It was more a situation of “Ok, we have a week and a half to write, record, mix and deliver the score for an episode the length of a feature film, we have no time to waste here!” So after we spotted the episode with Matthew, we immediately went back to the studio and started writing.

What can you tell us about the episodes you each scored? What’s the gist of the story and how did you use your sonic superpowers to draw that out? 

G: ‘The Romanoffs’ is an anthology series that consists of 8 episodes. Each episode is a feature film length and tells a different story in a different genre. Every episode is shot in different locations across several continents and stars different cast. We scored episode 3 ‘House of Special Purpose’ and the season finale ‘The One That Holds Everything.’

S: Both episodes are very music oriented. For example, in ‘House of Special Purpose’ there was a scene, which required a very specific distinctly Russian music approach, and so we wrote a piano concerto for the scene. 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, we wrote a domra concerto. Domra is a Russian folk instrument of the lute family used widely in the Russian folk orchestras. Matthew has a lot of appreciation for the Russian classical music. Therefore, we definitely wanted to include some of the Russian flavors in the score, however, wanted to keep a broader perspective at the same time. So the range of the music style for the series varies immensely. 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.

G: In stark contrast to that, ‘The Once That Holds Everything’ is incredibly thematic with the whole score literally builds up note by note to the moment where the theme finally reveals itself. Matthew is incredibly specific in his music choices, which inspires us to create a particular and unique sound, there’s definitely nothing else on television right now with such a sophisticated music palette.

About Making Music

What’s your experience been with “temp tracks” or “reference tracks?” 

S: Temp track can be useful when the director/showrunner knows how to use it. A properly used temp gives us a certain framework to work with and helps us understand the emotion the director/showrunner is looking for. However, within this framework, it is up to us to be as creative as we want. The great thing about working with Matthew is that he encourages us to be creative and gives us room to experiment.

G: On the other hand, with both ‘Sacred Lies’ and ‘The Mist’, the showrunners Raelle Tucker (‘Sacred Lies’) and Christian Torpe (‘The Mist’) didn’t want to use any temp music, and so we started writing to picture from the very first editor’s cut. It’s incredibly beneficial working this way because you can establish the music foundation and its tone from the very early stages. This way you can direct the journey rather than follow it.

How often do you use real instruments vs. digital? What instruments does each of you play best?

G: We feel that writing music for films and television is becoming more and more like producing a record. We have lots of different instruments in our studio, so we record many of them ourselves while we’re writing. With ‘The Romanoffs’ we had to go out to record a string orchestra and soloists but all the other instruments, we recorded in our studio while we were writing. We did the same process with ‘Sacred Lies’ and ‘The Mist.’ The majority of the ‘Sacred Lies’ soundtrack was recorded in our studio, including Sonya’s vocals. That was a terrific experience because it’s so beautiful when you can transform a music theme into a song and therefore blur the lines between how score and songs interact with each other.

S: Prior to scoring ‘The Mist,’ we spent some time in the studio recording the weirdest sounds a piano could possibly produce. We wanted to use a piano more like a tension-building rhythmical element and explore how to create suspenseful textures without actually hitting the black and white keys. To achieve that, 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 unique elements became the foundation of the complex soundscape used for the mist character.

G: Digital instruments are becoming better and better. However, the downside is that these are sounds available for anyone to purchase, anyone, can have them. So we’re more interested in building our own sounds and sound palette that we always create at the beginning of each project. If using synths, we never use pre-built and pre-generated sounds but rather build them ourselves so we can be specific about them.

S: We love transforming acoustic instruments into something completely unique and different. 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?

What’s the difference for you between scoring for film versus TV and which do you prefer if any? 

G: It’s not that different anymore. Creatively, the process of scoring films vs. TV is very similar nowadays. More and more shows function as extended films and therefore the music approach needs to be cinematic.

S: ‘The Romanoffs’ is a great example of that. With each episode running over 80 minutes long, it is basically 8 self-contained films.

G: The difference is the amount of music you will write. In TV you get an opportunity to explore and develop the thematic material more extensively. As the overall runtime is longer, the characters and the storylines will develop more, and so will the score.

Do you ever suffer from “writer’s block” and what do you do to deal with it? 

G: Chocolate is the best solution for everything!

S: The beautiful thing about scoring films and television is that you have strict deadlines, and therefore you simply don’t have time for writer’s block. Writing music for film is basically a synonym of spending long hours in the studio. You have a lot of music to write and very little time to do it. That’s why we love working together. For example, Giona would 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.

G: Exactly! You spend hours working on a cue, and when it’s time to move on to the next cue, sometimes you might not get an idea right away. Then one of us comes up with something creative, which inspires the other one, and it just keeps going. If it doesn’t happen, well, chocolate truffles are an excellent solution as well. Unless the box is somehow empty, then yes, we do have a situation…

S: Jokes aside, we basically feed off each other’s enthusiasm and ideas. We inspire each other. You never know where the inspiration will come from. Maybe Giona starts messing around with different instruments in the studio, which then gives me an idea on how to structure the next cue. Or I start a motif on the piano, which we then develop, add other instruments and elements. When working long hours in the studio, it’s refreshing and creatively more beneficial being a team. It keeps the ideas flowing and brings in new and unexpected ideas to the table.

Wrapping Up

Who is another composer (or team) working today that you admire?

G: There is this team of composers who just scored ‘The Romanoffs,’ they’re really cool!

S: I would most definitely recommend anyone to check them out! They’re also just about to release the soundtrack for ‘Sacred Lies,’ for which they wrote both score and original songs. This soundtrack is just out of this world. It’s coming out October 26 via Lakeshore Records!

What is coming next? 

G: Something really cool!

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

Thanks to Giona & Sonya and Impact24 PR for making this interview possible.

Ruben Diaz
Writer, film-fanatic, geek, gamer, info junkie & consummate Devil's advocate who has been fascinated by Earth since 1976. Classically trained in the ways of the future.