Sonya Belousova & Giona Ostinelli On Crafting The Songs & Score for The Witcher Byron Burton July 9, 2020 Sonya Belousova and Giona Ostinelli are the composers and songwriters responsible for some of the most versatile and original music on the ballot this Emmy season. The duo, currently quarantining together in Los Angeles, skyrocketed to new heights thanks to their work on Netflix’s The Witcher. Their hit song, “Toss A Coin To Your Witcher,” has already been covered numerous times and amassed millions of views and downloads. Belousova and Ostinelli both started their musical education at age five. Belousova’s skill at piano allowed her to debut at the St. Petersburg Philharmonia at the age of eight. Never slowing down, the prodigy would earn a Russian Ministry of Culture Award at age thirteen and enter college at the ripe age of fifteen. The pair, recently named in Variety’s 10 Composers to Watch, spoke to Awards Focus about all things Witcher; detailing their creative process and how fans can win signed copies of The Witcher’s vinyl album. Awards Focus: First off, a big congratulations on being profiled in Variety‘s 10 Composers to Watch. Can you talk about that experience, and the incredible response to your work on The Witcher? Belousova: Thank you! We’re thrilled to have made it to this year’s coveted Variety’s 10 Composers to Watch list and very grateful for Variety naming us one of the main contenders eyeing Emmy music gold this season with our viral soundtrack to The Witcher in the Music Composition for a Series and Original Main Title Theme Music categories and our Billboard number one song Toss A Coin To Your Witcher in the Original Music & Lyrics category. Ostinelli: We’re also so thankful to LA Times for featuring Toss A Coin To Your Witcher as the number one Emmy contender in the Original Music & Lyrics category. We’re completely overjoyed with all the love from both critics and audiences. Belousova: When we heard The Witcher soundtrack album had surpassed 100 million streams, it was completely surreal. It’s a rare milestone for a television soundtrack, and we’re deeply grateful to Netflix, Milan Records, Sony Masterworks, and, of course, all the kickass fans for their extraordinary love, appreciation, and support. AF: “Toss a Coin to Your Witcher” was such a phenomenon, at what point did you know you’d be writing songs for the series? Did it come relatively early in the process or later? Belousova: After we wrote Toss A Coin To Your Witcher, we just couldn’t get it out of our heads, it got stuck immediately, which is always a great sign that the material you wrote is catchy and worth developing further. We knew that we were going to write songs for the series right away, from the very moment we started reading the script. As soon as we were introduced to our bard Jaskier at the beginning of episode two, it became clear to us that songs were going to become an essential part of his character. Toss A Coin To Your Witcher occupies a significant place in this episode, it’s a punchy epic anthem coming from a bitter nerd who got beat up but then the hero came in and saved the day! It’s a song for his champion, a powerful anthem with an energy that carries us to the end of the episode. There’s attitude in this song, there’s ego and swagger… in the studio, we call Jaskier the Freddie Mercury of the Continent since this song transforms his character into the rock star of The Witcher world. We expected the song to attract a certain level of attention from fans, but not to this degree. As soon as the song was released commercially, it charted number one on both Billboard and iTunes charts in every country. It has even been translated into multiple languages! Ostinelli: We wrote Toss A Coin To Your Witcher back in October 2018. We joined the creative team very early in the process before production started because we had to write and produce songs and dances needed for the shoot. We wrote between five to seven versions for each song ranging from medieval to contemporary. We even wrote a rap version of Toss A Coin To Your Witcher because we were totally and utterly inspired! However, as soon as we wrote the version that ended up being the final one, we knew right away it was the one. We collaborated closely with the brilliant Jenny Klein, writer and co-executive producer of the series. Yes, this is the person responsible for those lyrics that have been impossible to get out of your head, including the famous “Elf on the Shelf” line! I sang on all the demos at the demo stage. Once the music was approved, the next stage involved working very closely with the incredibly talented Joey Batey, who plays our bard Jaskier in the show. The majority of the song’s production was done here in our studio in LA, with the exception of Joey’s vocals, lutes, and the strings section. We were in London mixing the other episodes when we had our final recording session with Joey. The poor guy was very ill on the day of recording, so we had to make sure Joey drank plenty of tea with honey and lemon to get him through the day. Luckily, he was able to deliver an absolutely stunning performance. AF: Can you tell us how you were first approached for the series and your background on the popular property? Belousova: I remember my brother playing the video games a couple of years ago and telling me how unique and exciting this universe was. This was the very first time I heard of The Witcher. My first real exposure to it happened when I read the script for the first time. Ostinelli: We worked with some of the producers of the series before, so we were sent the scripts, as well as the show’s Bible that detailed its world, tone, and spirit. As soon as we submerged ourselves into this bewitching and bewildering universe, we knew right away we were in for something very special. This was an excellent starting point for us to begin developing the recognizable Witcher sound. The Witcher is a large-scale, time-spanning saga that required a great amount of music to be written. We knew that establishing strong themes to develop throughout the arc of the season was absolutely crucial. Therefore, starting early gave us an opportunity to write thematic suites for each character and explore the soundscape appropriate for the spirit and tone of the show. For example, Geralt of Rivia, which became Geralt’s theme and the main theme of our show, was the very first music suite we wrote for the series back in October 2018. In fact, we will open up our performance at the 2021 Krakow International Film Music Festival with the Geralt of Rivia theme. Belousova: Yes! Giona and I are so excited about our performance at the next year’s festival. We can’t wait to bring our fans the music from The Witcher live and perform it with the full orchestra, choir and virtuoso soloists in front of the audience of over 20,000 people! AF: In terms of scoring the series, were you writing music at the script stage, do you like to work episode to episode? Talk about your process and division of labor. Belousova: Before we even had a cut to work with, we already had over an hour of music written, which included songs, dances and thematic suites. Having worked in ballet and theater, both Sonya and I are always eager to take inspiration purely from the script and let our imagination drive us. You have a blank canvas in front of you, which you can paint in any color. You’re driven by the music itself, its melody, or harmony with the goal to make the piece as dynamic and entertaining as possible. When writing to picture, you need to be aware at all times of the rules the picture itself sets for you. At the same time, there’s beauty in those limitations as they set very clear guidelines. Ostinelli: Once the picture editors started assembling the cuts, we started scoring to picture. That was around April 2019. Hours of new material had to be written, dances had to be shortened in order to follow the pace of the editing, all the songs that were approved at the demo stage now had to be recorded and finalized. Overall, this was a very elaborate process, which required our involvement for most of the year. Belousova: We wrote and produced over eight hours of original music for the series that included songs, score, folk tunes, and dances. We recorded unique one-of-a-kind historical instruments, many of which were crafted specifically for The Witcher, and personally performed and recorded over sixty instruments on the soundtrack. Ostinelli: The timeframe we had for each episode varied. The dubbing schedule was non-chronological. Since we like starting writing well before an episode is locked, we had about three weeks for the initial episodes, which included writing, recording, mixing and delivering one hour of elaborate epic orchestral material per episode, as well as arranging, producing, recording, mixing and delivering seven songs. Three weeks was the luxury of the first two episodes, after that it was closer to a week and a half per episode for an hour of live-recorded score, including recording soloists and ensembles for each episode, as well as personally performing and recording over sixty instruments here in our studio. Belousova: I think ‘madness’ might be the best word to describe our creative process! Just imagine, my Russian persistence and passion mixed with Giona’s Italian dramatic sensibilities. When they clash it creates an explosion! Jokes aside, we work really well together because we come from different music backgrounds. Growing up in Russia, I have been exposed to the wonderful classical music education Russia is so well regarded for. Giona, on the other hand, comes from bands environment. He used to perform with many rock and jazz bands, so his approach is definitely 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. 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. We’re always in the studio working together, it’s a very collaborative process. On top of that, recording is an essential part of our process. We have so many instruments here in the studio, so having the two of us together in the studio is crucial. The downside is, the chocolate runs out much quicker! AF: Can you talk about the collaboration with the showrunner and producers on the series, and how your creative visions aligned? Ostinelli: The creative process behind The Witcher was very collaborative. To start with, we had in-depth discussions about how unique and particular The Witcher universe is. It’s also incredibly diverse with creatures like elves, dwarfs, humans, dragons, and all kinds of monsters inhabiting the Continent. Which is why our main direction was to create a distinct and recognizable sound for the show, unlike any other fantasy series out there, and to make sure this incredible diversity was well represented in the music. Therefore, we started exploring different instruments. This led to having various instruments hand-crafted specifically for this soundtrack. Many of them came to us from all over the world: Armenia, Russia, Hungary, Portugal, China, Malaysia, the Emirates, USA. Here’re some of the instruments featured on the score: hurdy-gurdy, violin, oboe, duduk, lutes, renaissance mandolins, baroque guitars, theorbo, psaltery, dulcimers, harmoniums, harp, ethnic woodwinds (xun, cane flutes, penny whistles, recorders, Native American flutes, bansuri), shruti box, tagelharpa, erhu, toy pianos, jaw harp, rainstick, berimbau, a variety of percussion and drums from orchestral to ethnic (gongs, frame drums, bodhrans, djembe, talking drums, orchestral toms, snare), contrabass, water bottles, Pringles cans, and a metallic trash can! Belousova: We wanted to give The Witcher a traditional, but very contemporary feel. We set out to diversify the usage of these unique instruments and sometimes use them in their most traditional manner and other times with a much more contemporary approach. For example, whenever there’s a royal ball at Cintra, we have an array of historical instruments taking the lead. We recorded a hurdy-gurdy – a stringed instrument widely popular in medieval Europe to accompany dances, or a shawm – a medieval equivalent to a modern oboe, as well as other historical winds, lutes, baroque guitars, mandolins, psaltery and a variety of medieval percussion and drums. On the other hand, the hurdy-gurdy is prominently featured in episode three (Betrayer Moon) during Geralt’s epic battle with Striga and Yennefer’s dramatic transformation sequence. In this particular case, we wanted it to sound much more contemporary and edgy, and therefore we applied various effects and distortions to it to achieve that particular sound quality we were looking for. We went through this “modernization” process with almost every historical instrument throughout the whole score. Ostinelli: We collaborated very closely with the brilliant writers and producers. Jenny Klein, writer and co-executive producer of the series, is the genius mastermind behind Toss A Coin To Your Witcher lyrics. So if, like us, you’ve struggled with trying to get those lyrics out of your head, Jenny is the person responsible. We’ve previously worked with Jenny on Blumhouse’s drama series Sacred Lies from the creator and Emmy Award nominee Raelle Tucker, so it was such a joy to continue our creative collaboration on The Witcher. Belousova: Declan de Barra is another very close collaborator of ours. Not only he is a writer and supervising producer on the show, he is an absolutely extraordinary musician and vocalist. Our fruitful collaboration with Declan resulted in three original songs we wrote and produced for the series featuring Declan’s powerful vocals – The Song of The White Wolf for the season finale, The Last Rose of Cintra and The End’s Beginning. Declan also provided a very special vocal sauce for the rest of the score. Ostinelli: Beyond that, we had brilliant soloists joining our musical family for The Witcher soundtrack. Lindsay Deutsch, a world-class virtuoso violinist, performed all the violin and fiddle solos. Lindsay is remarkably talented, and we’re honored to have her magical violin on our soundtrack. Rodion Belousov performed all the oboe and duduk solos on the soundtrack. In fact, the fan-favorite Yennefer’s theme belongs to Rodion’s oboe. Rodion is a brilliant player with elegant expression, dazzling technical abilities, and gorgeous tone evoking a powerful emotional response. And Rodion’s duduk perfectly captures the spirit of the Golden Dragon. The instrument was hand-crafted specifically for the series by the Armenian makers. Arngeir Hauksson is an incredible musician who we were lucky to meet in London. Arngeir recorded for us various lutes, renaissance mandolins, a 4-course guitar, 5-course guitar, theorbo, and other medieval plucked strings instruments. A wonderful musician and dear friend Burak Besir recorded virtuosic flute solos including the penny whistle solo in We’re Alive. And lastly, we worked very closely with Joey Batey who plays Jaskier in the show, for whom we wrote and produced four songs – Toss A Coin To Your Witcher, Her Sweet Kiss, The Fishmonger’s Daughter, and You Think You’re Safe. AF: What particular episode or scene did you find the most challenging and ultimately rewarding this season? Ostinelli: It’s very hard to single out a particular episode since they’re all so different and contrasting. Every episode, every character spoke to us in some way, and we had a wonderful time exploring the sound for each of them. Every episode has its own charm. Furthermore, every episode in the series centers around a new adventure our characters embark on, therefore every episode required its own particular soundscape appropriate for its tone and spirit. So it’s pretty much impossible for us to single out a specific one, the whole process behind was incredibly inspiring. Belousova: Whether it’s composing the majestic duduk theme for the Golden Dragon, or the demonic chanting for the Djinn possessing Yennefer’s body, or the fragile music box theme for the princess, or the distorted hurdy-gurdy motif for the Striga, or exploring a magical and enchanting soundscape for Aretuza featuring Shanti windchimes, or constructing a language for the Pavetta/Duny’s storyline. We wanted to give it a more authentic Slavic flavor without having a choir sing in a specific language. So we created a language, which sounds like a mashup of Russian, Polish, Czech, Ukrainian, and other Slavic languages. This can be heard on the soundtrack in the track titled Here’s Your Destiny. AF: You had a fantastic panel for The Witcher (SCL members can watch the panel here) in the quarantined world of Emmy season. Can you talk about how you’ve adapted to the circumstances and how you’re working? Belousova: We did have an explosive panel for The Witcher with the Society of Composers and Lyricists. We were joined by the brilliant Jenny Klein, writer and co-executive producer, and the one-and-only phenomenal Grammy-nominated rockstar and cello goddess Tina Guo moderating the event, rocking out, and preparing a super special Witcher inspired outfit! Given the current situation and the inability to hold this amazing event in-person, we all decided it was worth it going an extra mile in order to give the audience an opportunity to submerge themselves into The Witcher universe and experience it to the fullest. From what we’ve been hearing, the audience was blown away! We demonstrated some of the unique instruments from our vast collection such as hurdy-gurdy, hammered dulcimer, tagelharpa, xun, bansuri, and more, and performed them to showcase their abilities and give the audience a better representation of what these instruments are and their performance capabilities. Ostinelli: We also presented an exclusive unplugged performance of Toss A Coin To Your Witcher followed by Tina performing her badass version of the song. We’ve been blown away with the caliber of artists inspired by our song, from Trivium’s badass version to Tina’s mind-blowing arrangement. And since Tina is with Sony Masterworks and we’ve been also working with Sony on this release, we thought having Tina as the moderator was the perfect choice. Belousova: In regard to adapting to the circumstances, we’ve been incredibly fortunate to have been quite busy throughout the last couple of months. First, we’ve partnered up with Netflix, Sony Masterworks, and Milan Records to bring our fans an adventurous in-studio solo piano concert featuring some of the fan-favorite songs and themes from our soundtrack to The Witcher, as well as an exclusive premiere of our solo piano arrangement of Toss A Coin To Your Witcher. The concert took place on May 21st and is available on the SonySoundtracksVEVO YouTube channel. Netflix shared a piano concert on their For Your Consideration portal (which can be viewed below). There’s been so much demand that we also released the solo piano arrangement of Toss A Coin To Your Witcher, which is now available on all streaming platforms. We had a wonderful time revisiting this song and giving it a new spin! Ostinelli: We were supposed to perform at this year’s Krakow Film Music festival, however the festival has been postponed to next year. Nevertheless, in place of this year’s festival, we were invited to perform as part of the Krakow’s Live From The Studio Concert Series. We were joined by Lindsay Deutsch who recorded the virtuosic violin solos on The Witcher soundtrack. This performance took place on May 30th and featured some of our most popular songs from The Witcher soundtrack. Belousova: We also released The Witcher soundtrack album’s vinyl edition, which followed our hugely successful digital release and arrived as an absolutely gorgeous 2-LP deluxe gatefold set. We wanted to make this release extra special and decided to give our fans a small gift by featuring on it an exclusive bonus track You Think You’re Safe performed by Joey Batey. Ostinelli: Furthermore, together with Milan Records and Sony Masterworks we’ve organized a competition for our fans with a chance to win several signed vinyls of The Witcher soundtrack and a 15-minute Zoom video call with us. The competition is currently in progress and will run until July 31st. We were blown away by the number of fans who entered, there’re currently over 300,000 entries.