The award winning composers have an undeniable chemistry that allows their music to truly shine in the Matthew Weiner’s Amazon anthology series.
Amazon’s The Romanoffs is a truly unique animal. There are a lot of limited and anthology series out now, but Matthew Weiner’s newest show is grand in its storytelling and cinematic in its scope. Every episode in its first season (which airs its finale this week) is really a standalone movie with its own cast, themes, and vision. Weiner clearly included the best of the best for his follow-up to a little show called Mad Men. The same can be said with everyone involved behind-the-scenes, including the music.
Composers Sonya Belousova and Giona Ostinelli have some of the most delightful chemistry I’ve ever heard in an interview. The duo has worked together on many projects (including Paramount Network’s underrated horror series, The Mist), and they make up 2 of the 4 composers on the show. Belousova, a Saint Petersburg native, is the only female composer working on the show. Their history with different types of music really provide multiple textures to this sophisticated series. One minute the score is pushing you towards the edge of your seat and then later you are appreciating a classical concerto. Only a team who trusts each other could successfully produce such an eclectic collection of music this good.
This is Matthew Weiner’s highly anticipated follow-up to Mad Men. Did you feel any tangential pressure since that’s so iconic?
Giona: I don’t think so. We were just so excited to jump into it and do something so cool.
Sonya: For us, we expressed interest in the show about a year ago when they were entering production. We both followed The Romanoffs as a project because it’s something that’s so different than what we’ve done before. When they were in post-production, we got a phone call from Matthew that he was interested in meeting–
Giona: And we were like, ‘Yes! Of course we’ll meet you!’
Sonya: With me being Russian and being born in Saint Petersburg where the Romanovs used to live before they were exiled, we thought it was perfect for us.
I’ve actually never spoken with two composers before. How do you guys work together? Do you have a specific process?
Giona: Imagine an Italian personality from me mixed with the Russian personality from Sonya. It’s a literal explosion! We started working together many years ago. I was working on a film which was called Two-Bit Waltz, and it was produced by David Mamet. It was very eclectic film that required a lot of different music.
Sonya: It had everything from bluegrass to electro-pop. I remember some scenes were asking for very virtuosic, classical piano.
Giona: Yeah! I play piano, but I’m no virtuoso—I don’t pretend to be. At that time, I knew Sonya and knew she was a fantastic composer and that she was a pianist. I thought to ask her if she’d like to work together on those particular pieces. Since our backgrounds are so different, we work so well together. From then on, we just kept working together and working together.
Sonya: Because of where I come from, I was exposed to the great, classical, Russian education that Russia is so famous for. Our music styles complement each other very well—instead of trying to compete with one another.
Giona: It’s very much like being in a writer’s room on a television show. We pitch ideas to one another and say, ‘What about this? What about that? Let’s try this…’ It’s a very creative?
Sonya: Giona would have an idea, and I would extend this with a completely different approach and vice versa. That leads to new discoveries that the other wouldn’t even think of. I think we really inspire each other.
Giona: Yeah, I’d say so. When writing music for television or movies, you put in a lot of hours. I think it helps that we have someone to gain perspective from. I can ask her to check something out that I’ve written. She’ll say what works and what doesn’t.
Sonya: Creatively, it’s just much more beneficial.
Sonya, you’ve mentioned your Russian background. Do you feel any added pressure because you are from the city that the Romanovs were from?
Sonya: No, I don’t think so. Matthew showed a lot of appreciation for Russian classical music. From there, we wanted to include Russian flavors in the score. We were influenced by the history of Russian music. There was one specific sequence in “House of Special Purpose” that required a Russian music approach. We had to write a piano concerto literally overnight. For me, that was a dream come true to write and record that for the series. Another scene, also in episode three, we had to write a domra concerto—that’s a traditional Russian instrument like a mandolin or a lute. It’s used in lively folk orchestras. That plays every time Christina Hendricks leaves her hotel.
Oh, yeah! I loved that music!
Sonya: Every time her character leaves her hotel, we wanted to deepen and extend it further. On top of that, we have a lot of elaborate synth textures—episode three had a lot of that. “House of Special Purpose” was also an eclectic score to write. We go all the way from a big orchestra to intimate strings—especially in the scene where Christina has that conversation is Isabelle Huppert in the bedroom. We wanted an intimate, chamber cue. Hollywood Golden Age sound. We had such a great time composing that episode, because of the range of it. You get the domra music and then this orchestral grandeur.
Giona: It allowed us to play. What we do is a very mental thing. We go in thinking that we are going to do our own thing and have fun with it.
Sonya: Especially with episode three.
Giiona: Oh, yeah.
Sonya: We had a week and a half to write, record, mix and deliver the entire score.
Oh my god…that’s insane.
Giona: It is!
Sonya: We didn’t have time to think of the pressure. It was like we didn’t have time to waste.
Giona: In that week in a half we also had to show it to Matthew, get approval, his thoughts and notes.
Sonya: It’s not like you just write the music and deliver it.
Giona: I think we wrote 90% of the music in three days. With the dorma concerto, we had a meeting with Matthew at 9 am, and between 1 am and 5 am, it was written.
Sonya: It was a crazy timeline.
Sonya: With episode eight, we received the episode in advance. It’s a great episode—I don’t want to spoil it. It’s really special.
Even with episode three, I couldn’t believe that it was composed by the same people, because it’s so different. You have the concerto and then this super creepy horror stuff going on too.
Sonya: Episode eight, in comparison to the diverse music of episode three, is very thematic. The whole score comes from a single scene that gets introduced in the middle of the episode. It took us a few days to write and perfect the music of that scene. When we found it, we went back and planted the hints in every single cue.
You guys worked on The Mist very recently, so you know your way around a horror score. The third episode features some great music box interludes which adds to the creepiness.
Giona: Inspiration is a funny thing. Because the timelines was so short that it was touch and go.
Sonya: One of the directions we received from Matthew was more supernatural sounds. He didn’t want to go with a usual horror textures with the strings. He didn’t want any of that. We found that music box sound, showed it to him, and he responded really well to it. For him, that childish music box sound…
Giona: It was very creepy. When Christina sees the little girl entering the closet, that childish sound made it even creepier and supernatural.
Sonya: But also very unexpected.
Sonya: There is so much happening on screen—Christina is alone, you don’t know if what she is seeing is real, you don’t know what’s real and what’s true. The whole scene is already so creepy before music is put into it. The childish sounds make everything much scarier.
You don’t know what to expect from episode to episode, so I didn’t anticipate for this episode to take such a scary route. So there I was with the lights off, alone in my apartment, and the music only made is scarier because it’s done in such an unexpected way.
Sonya: Once they sent us the episode, that’s actually how we watched it. It was like 3 o’clock in the morning. It was a bad idea.
Giona: The dinner sequence was like that too.
Sonya: For the moment that Isabelle is getting possessed, we decided to use a lot of synths. The whole episode has a vintage look and feel to it, and we didn’t just want to use the modern synthesizers. We approached it from a vintage viewpoint. Instead of recording directly into computer, we went with a tape recorder.
Giona: Making life more complicated, right? When the episode starts going more towards horror, there are no jump scares anywhere. The only time there is one is in that dinner scene, and that’s a very conscious choice. We wanted to give a jump to scare people.
Sonya: When Isabelle lifts up her head in that scene, the audience realizes that she’s getting possessed. That’s the only jump scare in the whole score.
Giona: And Matthew wanted us to scare the shit out of people. It was so cool, because it is unexpected. In horror, there are so many jump scares and they are so overused.
Sonya: Well, not overused, because it is a very important element to the genre. With the score for The Mist, we did use a lot of jump scares–
Sonya: That made a lot of series, it made a lot of sense. For The Romanoffs, we do have that supernatural element, but the score comes from a different angle.
Giona: Very true, very true.
Sonya, you are a woman in a pretty male dominated field. There is even a moment in “House of Special Purpose” when Huppert mentions that she’s a woman in a male dominated field. Do you feel like you need to distinct yourself?
Sonya: I don’t think music is gender specific. It’s not male, and it’s not female. As a composer, you absolutely need a distinct voice. I think Giona and I, even though we work together, we have our own voices. We have that angle covered. I don’t think it’s necessarily about being male or female. It’s about being very good at what you do, and doing your best on every single project.
I didn’t even know how The Romanoffs was structured when I started watching it. I honestly just dove in without knowing that each episode was basically a mini movie. Did you approach it as a just an individual movie, or did you want any sort of connective tissue between the two main episodes that you scored?
Sonya: Since every episode is basically a movie, we had to approach that the same way. Different cast, different genre.
Giona: It’s so cinematic that it didn’t feel like working on a television show.
Sonya: One great thing about working on a television show is that you get to really explore the scenes and the sounds because you have several episodes. That concept didn’t apply to The Romanoffs at all since it was like scoring 8 separate films.
Was that something you were looking for or did it happen to come along at the right time?
Sonya: We like experimenting, because we like when a project excites us.
Giona: Yes, we like trying something new.
Sonya: That’s why we like submerging ourselves in something like this. It has the classical elements whereas our last project, Sacred Lies, was more suspenseful. Before that, The Mist was more straight horror.
Giona: When songwriters put out a new album, they want to try something new. They have something new to say. You want to explore something we’ve never done before, so any time an opportunity presents itself, we have to dive in and do it.
Sonya: You don’t want to get that tunnel vision.
Giona: After some time away, you sometimes want to go back to that. The genre can feel fresh and different again.
The Romanoffs’ finale airs on November 23. All other episodes are currently streaming on Amazon.