A carte blanche request to build an orchestral world in support of a major Netflix fantasy series should sound like a daunting request. A vast, blank sonic canvas underscoring the complex visuals and intricate onscreen drama. One false note could ruin a delicate moment of character development or a thrilling action sequence.
So, no pressure. Sort of.
Yet, to composer Joseph Trapanese (Lady and the Tramp, Tron: Uprising), the path to finding the perfect composition was to look for small clues within the production and the overall narrative. It became the gateway into the project, centering his epic score for Netflix’s Shadow and Bone.
“I had a lot of early conversations with Eric [Heisserer], the showrunner. We talked a lot about the Crows. About the feel of the Crows, what their world sounds like. Leigh [Bardugo], through her love of Russian folktales, spoke a lot about Russian music,” Trapanese explained. “Shawn [Levy], our producer, made clear to me how important it was for there to be an orchestra, for there to be a power of presence from the music. So those are all clues. The carte blanche wasn’t as intimidating once I spoke with them and understood what they were looking for.”
Based on the bestselling Grishaverse novels by Bardugo, Shadow and Bone introduces Netflix audiences to the world of orphan soldier Alina Starkov (Jessie Mei Li) who unleashes a power that could potentially free her country. The series features stunning production values, extravagant costumes, and impressive visual effects to build a new world.
Those are, of course, accompanied by Trapanese’s brilliant score.
Based on those early clues, the Shadow and Bone score was always intended to offer a grand orchestral sound. But the isolation and physical separation mandated by the COVID-19 pandemic complicated that goal slightly. Fortunately, Trapanese leveraged previous experience recording in Budapest to record with an orchestra, essentially conducting via Zoom. Additionally, he incorporated solo musicians recording violin, bass, cello, and so forth from their home studios.
While Russian and Slavic music provided some of the score’s base, Trapanese looked to other cultures for otherworldly sounds, leading to an eclectic, hybrid score.
“For instance, in the Grisha sound, there’s a lot of gamelan, which is from Java. It has nothing to do with Slavic music, but the Grisha have this mystic otherness about them. I wanted to find a way to convey this mysticism, this otherness, to the audience. When I started playing with percussive ideas for the Grisha sound, the gamelan suddenly rang true. That’s the coolest thing about what I do as a film composer with all these tools behind me. I’m not limited to just hiring a string section or just playing with a synthesizer. I can blend it all together into what you hear for Shadow and Bone, which ultimately is a little bit of everything.”
Once the proper instrumentation was selected, Trapanese worked to stitch together threads of narrative across multiple episodes. That’s one of his favorite tasks as a composer outside of the initial world building. In Shadow and Bone, he often ties together multiple scenes thematically with the same music queue.
For example, rather than writing tense music for a high tension sequence, Trapanese lets the actors convey that tension. Instead, he focuses on letting his score subconsciously call back to something in a previous episode or in the character’s past to elicit an emotional response to the sequence. Then, the same queue could be used in subsequent episodes to trigger the same tense response. In a way, his method both underscores the characters’ history and provides a predictive underpinning for future actions.
Trapanese also likes to switch up characters’ themes and instrumentation to reflect their journey within the narrative. It’s a technique he used successfully in Lady and the Tramp and finds new opportunities here in Shadow and Bone. Alina is represented by the violin. General Kirigan / The Darkling (Ben Barnes) is represented by the solo bass. Throughout the series, you can hear Kirigan’s solo bass playing Alina’s theme, reflecting his obsession with Alina. The opposite holds true when Alina’s violin plays Kirigan’s Darkling theme.
Finding these opportunities thrills Trapanese as a composer.
“I think what’s so important is looking at how music can be a storyteller. That’s where I’m most happy at the end of the day. When I know I did something that is not just appropriate for what an audience might feel in that very moment, but also something that has a lot of depth and thought behind it that actually helps advance the story in a really unique way.”
Shadow and Bone premieres Friday, April 23, only on Netflix.