'The Romanoffs': Music duo Giona Ostinelli and Sonya Belousova on scoring for the anthology's 'sophisticated music palette'

Music duo Giona Ostinelli and Sonya Belousova worked with Matthew Weiner on his big return for Amazon Prime's 'The Romanoffs'. They spoke to Meaww about the experience.


                            'The Romanoffs': Music duo Giona Ostinelli and Sonya Belousova on scoring for the anthology's 'sophisticated music palette'

There's no genre of television or film that music duo Giona Ostinelli and Sonya Belousova cannot score for. They've worked for some of the biggest projects this year like Facebook Watch's first scripted drama 'Sacred Lies', Paramount's Stephen King adaptation 'The Mist', Lionsgate's 'Reprisal' as well as on Matt Weiner's big comeback to television after 'Mad Men', 'The Romanoffs'. Their 'Romanoffs' gig, however, has been the most special. They have scored for two installments of the series, including the finale - 'The One that Holds Everything'. 



 

Come Friday, Weiner's anthology series on the Russian royal family will come to a close, but the one thing that stood out undeniably was its impeccable taste in music. The seven installments so far have had a wide range of scores, from classical pieces from Tchaikovsky to wildly experimental tracks.

Sonya Belousova (L) and Giona Ostinelli (R) pose alongside actress Christina Hendricks during their time with 'The Romanoffs'
Sonya Belousova (L) and Giona Ostinelli (R) pose alongside actress Christina Hendricks during their time with 'The Romanoffs'

Each episode of the show is like a short film in itself and the duo say they've had a ball working on it even though the deadlines were very tight. In fact, they have often had to write, record, mix and deliver in a matter of just 7 days! Ostinelli and Belousova spoke to Meaww exclusively about the insane experience that was 'The Romanoffs', secretly competing with each other, incorporating their roots into their music and possibly being Romanovs themselves! Below are some of the excerpts from the interview: 

'The Romanoffs' score varies according to the different chapters, what was the process behind composing the two chapters you've scored for? 

Belousova: With every episode running at a feature film length, scoring them was basically like scoring a different movie each time. For example, ‘The One That Holds Everything’, the season finale of ‘The Romanoffs’, 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. After the director 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. 



 

Ostinelli: For episode 3 ‘House of Special Purpose’ 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 of a feature film length, we have no time to waste here!” After we spotted the episode with Matthew, we immediately went back to the studio and started writing.

Even though the episode takes places 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.

How would you compare the experience of working with 'The Romanoffs' vs working on 'Sacred Lies' vs 'The Mist'?

Belousova: Stylistically, these projects are so different. With ‘The Romanoffs’, 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. There’s definitely nothing else on television right now with such a sophisticated music palette.



 

Ostinelli: Working on ‘Sacred Lies’, on the other hand, was basically like producing a record. ‘Sacred Lies’ is a modern reimagining of the classic Brothers Grimm fairytale ‘The Handless Maiden’. We decided to focus on the ‘modern’ aspect of it and created a fresh 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 captivating vocals.

For 'The Romanoffs', what are the ways in which you've incorporated your Russian roots into its score?

Belousova: 'House Of Special Purpose' presented a great opportunity to incorporate my Russian roots into the score. Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Shchedrin and Stravinsky are some of my most favorite composers. 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 re-occurs 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.

Ostinelli: 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. Here the opportunity presented itself and we went for it.

When you're working together, what's your creative process?

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

Belousova: 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 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…

Ostinelli: Well, secretly we are…

Belousova: … 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.

When you look back on your journey as individuals, how do you see your collaboration?

Ostinelli: Great question! Our collaboration is ever-evolving. We started our collaboration on a David Mamet produced film ‘Two-Bit Waltz’, which required a very eclectic type of score from bluegrass to electropop with virtuosic piano. 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.

Belousova: We both love evolving and exploring different genres and styles, whether it’s crafting a sophisticated orchestral score for ‘The Romanoffs’, or producing contemporary grooves and songs for ‘Sacred Lies’, or sampling Francesca Eastwood’s voice for ‘M.F.A.’, treating it with various effects, processing and reversing it to create a “cacophony” of voices, or recording various effects for ‘The Mist’. That’s the fun and most fulfilling for both of us creatively.

Now to the most important question - you have teased that you may be a Romanov yourself...

Belousova: Well, the facts are, I am Russian, was born in St. Petersburg, and just scored a series about my ancest…

Ostinelli: Cough cough

Belousova: Sorry, I meant the Romanoffs!