<I>The Romanoffs</I>: Composing original music for the Amazon series
Issue: November 1, 2018

The Romanoffs: Composing original music for the Amazon series

Composers Giona Ostinelli and Sonya Belousova are currently scoring Amazon Studio’s The Romanoffs, from Mad Men creator and nine-time Emmy-winner Matthew Weiner. The contemporary anthology series is set around the globe featuring eight separate stories about people who believe themselves to be descendants of the Russian royal family. The show stars Aaron Eckhart, Diane Lane, Isabelle Huppert, Christina Hendricks, John Slattery, Amanda Peet, Jack Huston, Kathryn Hahn, Noah Wyle, Paul Reiser and Andrew Rannells.

Composers Sonya Belousova and Giona Ostinelli

Of the four composers on the show, Sonya Belousova is the only female. She happens to be from the same city as the royal Romanoff family, St. Petersburg, Russia, where she received the Russian Ministry of Culture Award for her achievements as a composer and pianist. Belousova’s Russian heritage and prominent music background contribute an authentic Russian flavor to the show's music, which combines orchestra, Russian folk instruments, hints of Hollywood’s Golden Age sound, electronic textures and elaborate synths.  
Here, the duo discuss their work on the series, including how they develop their cues and select their instrumentation.

Post: How did you get involved in this project?

Giona Ostinelli: “I’m pretty sure Matthew Weiner heard there was a Romanoff descendant living in Los Angeles and she was a phenomenal composer and pianist…”

Sonya Belousova: “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. When they entered post production, we received a phone call that Matthew Weiner was interested in a meeting.”

Giona Ostinelli: “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 perfect for us! Who knows, perhaps Sonya could actually be a descendant from them…”

Post: What are the needs of the program on a per-episode basis? Can you describe the sound of the show?

Sonya Belousova: “The Romanoffs is an anthology series that consists of eight 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. The score is always driven by the story. With every episode being so dramatically different, the music also had to be distinctive from episode to episode.”

Giona Ostinelli: “For example,‘The One That Holds Everything’, the season finale of The Romanoffs, is incredibly thematic, with the whole score literally building up note by note to the moment where the theme finally reveals itself. Matthew is very 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.”

Sonya Belousova: “In stark contrast to that, Episode 3 ‘House of Special Purpose’, required a much more eclectic approach. 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.”

Giona 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.”

Sonya Belousova: “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.”

Giona Ostinelli: “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.”

Post: How many cues do you create and what is the timeframe to create them?

Giona Ostinelli: “When you start working on a project, the last thing you think of is the number of cues you’re going to write. It’s about the story and what it demands musically, the picture itself, cinematography, lighting, 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, and therefore all these various elements inspire us to create a unique and particular soundscape. It’s about talking to a showrunner or director and understanding how they hear this world. Each project is different in its score needs and requires a different approach. The timeframe is always different as well.” 

Sonya Belousova: “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.”

Giona Ostinelli: “For example, with 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.”

Sonya Belousova: “With ‘The One That Holds Everything,’ the season finale of The Romanoffs, we had the luxury of receiving the episode in advance and therefore more time to experiment and explore various themes and sonorities. As we mentioned before, this score is incredibly thematic. 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 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.”

Post: What tools are you using to record, mix, etc.

Giona Ostinelli: “Everything and anything. However, you have to be careful of the tools you use 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 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. 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 featuring Sonya’s captivating vocals. Lakeshore Records just released the soundtrack. Check it out!”

Sonya Belousova: “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.”

Giona Ostinelli: “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.”

Sonya Belousova: “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.”

Giona Ostinelli: “We feel that writing music for film and television is becoming more and more like producing a record, or at least it feels that way for us. 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.”

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

Giona Ostinelli: “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?”