In recent years, Giona Ostinelli and Sonya Belousova have been increasingly recognised as “two of the industry’s most prolific composers,” said Electronic Musician.
Between them they have scored over a dozen projects, one of which was the SXSW Grand Jury Award-nominated film, M.F.A.
Belousova also gained millions of fans across the globe by starring in the viral sensation PLAYER PIANO (https://www.youtube.com/user/playerpianovideos), produced by Marvel Comics’ Stan Lee, which overall has surpassed over 20 million views worldwide.
The Los Angeles-based composers are currently scoring THE ROMANOFFS, Amazon Studio’s highly anticipated follow-up to MAD MEN from creator and nine-time Emmy-winner Matthew Weiner.
I was fortunate enough to be able to ask Ostinelli and Belousova about the positives and negatives of working as a duo, their writing process for scoring The Romanoffs, and their insightful advice for any aspiring composers.
Interview by Lauren Macaree
What drew you to this profession? Have you always had an interest in music or composition?
S: I have been surrounded by music for as long as I can remember. Growing up in Russia, I have been exposed to the strong classical music education Russia is 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 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 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 film scores, so at some point I knew for sure writing music for films was exactly what I wanted to do. Even though I performed with many bands, I’ve always been incredibly fascinated by the world of film music. And once I figured out how to pursue it, it was game on!
S: As much as I enjoyed writing concert music, I was always passionate about storytelling and expressing the story through music. I like making the audience lean forward, giving them an opportunity to feel something, inviting them to connect with the story and the characters and taking them on an exciting journey.
When did you decide that you wanted to pursue a career in the industry and how did you go about making it a reality?
G: I’ve always dreamed about working in the film industry, however growing up in Switzerland, that wasn’t much of an option. So once I figured out where to go in order to get started, I packed and moved. When you’re starting out, I believe it’s very important to be in the right place where the core of the industry is. For film & TV this place is Los Angeles. So moving to Los Angeles was an obvious decision for me. Furthermore, this industry is relationships-based. As soon I arrived I started meeting people, building relationships. One project led to another, relationships started slowly growing. It’s like building any other type of business, you need a lot of persistence.
S: Writing music for film and television was a natural evolution for me and so was moving from St. Peterburg to Moscow, from Moscow to Boston, from Boston to Los Angeles. As Giona said, it’s very important to be in Los Angeles where the core of this industry is. One of my very first projects in town was ‘Orchis,’ a ballet commissioned by the Festival Ballet Providence. Choreographed by incredible Viktor Plotnikov, a former Boston Ballet soloist, ‘Orchis’ was a great success. After ‘Orchis’ I wrote two more ballets to Viktor’s choreography, both so dramatically different, musically and stylistically – ‘Surrogate’ and ‘The House of Bernarda Alba’ based on Federico Garcia Lorca’s play. My relationships slowly started expanding, which led me to ‘Player Piano,’ executive produced by Stan Lee of Marvel Comics. Over a couple of years, I wrote, produced and performed many virtuosic arrangements for ‘Player Piano’, which became a viral sensation scoring over 20 million views in a record time. As part of ‘Player Piano’, I was fortunate to give many performances, including a performance at a cheering sold-out crowd at Comic Con, introduced by Stan Lee, and Anime Expo with a 70-piece orchestra and 30-piece choir. I collaborated with 28-time Grammy nominated producer and arranger Jorge Calandrelli. I first met Jorge while still being a student at Berklee in Boston. That’s talking about relationships. As part of our collaboration, I performed at the 2014 Golden Score Awards, arranged, orchestrated and performed for Mario Frangoulis’s ‘Tales of Christmas’ album with the London Philharmonia Orchestra, and recorded Jorge’s brilliant piano pieces. These projects led to other projects. I strongly believe the more you expose yourself to opportunities, the more opportunities will come your way.
With regards to composing, is there a specific film or score that sparked your interest in working in the industry?
G: Well, of course! I was always a fan of the iconic scores for ‘The Goonies,’ ‘The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly,’ ‘The Addams Family,’ ‘Indiana Jones,’ ‘Jurassic Park,’ ‘Air Force One,’ ‘Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves,’ and ‘The Three Musketeers.’ I also like musicals, ‘The Phantom of The Opera’ and ‘Cats’ being my favorits. I remember seeing them when I was a kid, they looked and sounded like magic!
S: That’s a hard one. There are countless! Just off the top of my head – ‘Vertigo,’ ‘The Ghost and Mrs. Muir,’ ‘Indiana Jones,’ ‘Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves,’ ‘Die Hard,’ ‘Lethal Weapon,’ ‘Back To The Future,’ there’re many more. I love the classic Russian cartoons. They’re unique and I can never grow tired of watching them. I’m also a fan of Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Shchedrin and Stravinsky; their music is so inspiring and cinematic.
How did you two start composing music as a duo? How does this affect the process? Any particular pros/cons?
G: Years back I was scoring a 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…
S: 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 work so well together because we come from such different music backgrounds. Therefore, we’re not trying to compete with each other…
G: Well, secretly we are…
S: … 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.
G: 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.
S: 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.
G: 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 prospective and knows immediately if it does or doesn’t work and therefore what needs to be adjusted.
S: 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.
You have worked on a variety of different projects – do you have a process of choosing what projects you become involved in? Whether you look for any particular themes in the script, or if it is maybe a genre you haven’t already composed for?
G: This is always an interesting question. We love reading scripts, the story is incredibly important. We love a challenge and when a project presents an opportunity to try something new and exciting. However, a film or a TV show is not done in a couple of days. You might be on it from a few months up to several years if a show runs for several seasons. So for us it’s all about the incredible people we get to collaborate with, people who excite and inspire us.
S: Very true. Unfortunately, a perfect script doesn’t always get translated into a great film and vice versa. So at the end of the day, 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!
On the subject of projects, how did ‘The Romanoffs’ come about? What drew you to this project?
G: I’m pretty sure Matthew Weiner heard there was a Romanoffs descendant living in Los Angeles and she was a phenomenal composer and pianist…
S: We actually expressed our interest in the show over a year ago. We both saw ‘The Romanoffs’ as a project different from anything we’ve done so far. And when they entered post-production, we received a phone call that Matthew Weiner was interested in a meeting.
G: In all honesty, how could we not get involved with ‘The Romanoffs’?! With Sonya being Russian and precisely from St. Petersburg where the Romanoffs lived before being exiled, this project was just perfect for us! Who knows, perhaps Sonya could actually be a descendant from them…
What is your starting process for writing and composing the score for such a complex show?
G: Each project requires a different approach. Whenever possible, we love writing from the script as it gives us an opportunity to experiment. 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.
S: ‘The One That Holds Everything,’ which is 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 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.
G: 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 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.
S: 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 keep a broader prospective 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, we wrote a domra concerto. Domra is a Russian folk instrument of the lute family used widely in the Russian folk orchestras.
G: 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.
S: This episode required a much more eclectic approach. 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’ 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 domra concerto theme when Christina’s character exists 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.
G: 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.
Did you have any specific sources of inspiration when writing for ‘The Romanoffs’?
G: The inspiration for us always comes from the story, picture itself, cinematography, acting, pace of the editing, certain colors and set design, how the environment is created where the story unfolds. Music and image need to co-exist and complement each other. We draw inspiration from our conversations with Matthew on how he hears this world.
S: 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!
With different episodes being scored by different composers, does this affect your work in any way?
S: ‘The Romanoffs’ is an anthology series that consists of 8 episodes. Each episode is of a feature film length and tells a different story in a different genre. Every episode is shot in different locations all across the continents and stars a different cast.
G: The score is always driven by the story. With every episode being so dramatically different, the music also had to be different from episode to episode. Basically, each episode is a standalone movie. And therefore, we were focused on writing the best possible scores for ‘House of Special Purpose’ and the season finale ‘The One That Holds Everything’.
Do you think the genre and tone of the project affects any of the choices you made? (With regards to any project generally.)
G: Yes and no. The tone of the project will definitely have an impact on our creative choices, however, you have to be careful of it not getting in the way of your creativity. We strongly believe in thinking outside the box, so for us every new project is a new opportunity to create something unique and fresh for the genre. For example, ‘Sacred Lies,’ a Blumhouse TV series we finished prior to ‘The Romanoffs,’ is a modern reimagining of the classic Brothers Grimm fairytale ‘The Handless Maiden’. A more obvious choice would have been to create an orchestral, fantasy fairytale type of sound palette. Instead, we decided to focus on a ‘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 featuring Sonya’s captivating vocals. Lakeshore Records just released the soundtrack, check it out!
S: A few years back, we scored a drama-thriller ‘M.F.A.’ starring Francesca Eastwood. There were two prominent elements featured in that score. The first element was Francesca Eastwood’s phrases sampled from her 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. We recorded short breaths, long breaths, anxious breaths, violent breaths, relaxed breaths, you name it! This dissonant texture of voices and breathing became an integral part of the score complemented by peculiar sonorities we built with various synths. This way we were able to create a twisted inner dialogue in her character’s head.
G: Before we started scoring ‘The Mist,’ a Paramount TV series based on Stephen King’s novel, 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.
S: 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. Matthew is very specific in his music choices, which inspired us to create a particular and unique sound. There’s definitely nothing else on television right now with such a sophisticated music palette.
I’m interested to know, when you watch a film in general, do you find yourself critiquing or admiring the score?
G: A bit of both. When you read a book do you find yourself critiquing or admiring it? Whenever the score is great, we’ll admire it, however when we hear it could have been done better, well, then we’ll definitely critique it. I’ve recently re-watched ‘Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves’ with Michael Kamen’s brilliant score. He created such a vivid heroic score! Every element of it has been crafted with such precision, and when I’m re-watching the film, every time I find myself going: ‘Go, Robin!’ Same with Kamen’s scores for ‘101 Dalmatians’ or ‘The Three Musketeers.’ Such adventurous, genius scores!
S: We definitely pay more attention to scores than the average listener and will discuss how the score works with the film, its writing and orchestration, recording quality, performance, mixing, and so on. It’s a bouquet of details. However, a writer will read a book through his writing lens, a cinematographer will watch a film paying special attention to the cinematography, an editor will watch a show from his editing prospective. This comes with the job.
What do you think is the biggest misconception about composers? (If you think there are any!)
G: Great question! I would assume most people believe a composer’s job is writing music. Well, yes, but no. The most important element in our job is communication. It’s all about communicating with directors and showrunners, producers, studio executives, editors, and understanding what each one of them is really saying. A director might ask for a cue to be sad, you write what you think a sad cue might mean, however what he’s really trying to tell you is he wants the cue to be darker and more suspenseful. It’s really about the ability to understand everyone’s vision and be able to translate it into music.
S: Writing music nowadays doesn’t just happen at a piano with pencil and paper anymore. That might very well be a part of the process, just like it was for us on ‘The Romanoffs,’ however then these music ideas have to be properly sequenced and presented to the director in the quality as close as possible to the final product. As a film composer nowadays, you must be proficient with computers and digital technology.
And finally, if someone wanted to pursue a career as a composer, how would you recommend they go about it?
G: Don’t wait for an opportunity. Create your own opportunities. Get involved into as many projects as possible, build as many relationships as you can. If you’re a student, score as many student films as possible. You never know how far these relationships will take you.
S: Education. For some reason, there’s an upsetting tendency that you don’t need to go to school anymore to study music, instead all you need is a lot of passion for what you do. You most definitely need the greatest amount of passion for what you do. However, a well-rounded education is a must. Study music, study film, study them extensively.
G: Keep broadening your horizon. 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.
S: Don’t be afraid of rejection. You will be rejected not once, not twice but many times. The important thing is to get yourself up and keep going, no matter what.
The Romanoffs is available to watch on Amazon Prime.