Composer Joseph Trapanese’s resume truly reflects how vast his interests are when it comes to selecting projects. The world first took note of Trapanese with his Daft Punk collaboration on Disney’s Tron: Legacy. Their electronic score and his arrangements immediately emerged as a cult classic, perhaps outlasting the film that inspired them. Trapanese would later compose the score for the Disney XD series Tron: Uprising.
Trapanese’s other work traverses a wild array of genres including work on Straight Outta Compton, The Greatest Showman, Robin Hood, Lady and the Tramp, 8-Bit Christmas, among many other titles spanning film, television, theater, and video games.
His latest work on Netflix’s The Witcher sees Trapanese taking over composition duties from the season one duo of Sonya Belousova and Giona Ostinelli. Here, in an interview with Awards Daily, Trapanese talks about composing for the fantasy series, leveraging themes from season one to create a new musical palate for the series. Not a stranger to the fantasy genre, he talks about how his score for The Witcher differs from last year’s Shadow and Bone score. Finally, he talks about the instrumentation choices he made and how the score helps define character relationships amidst the brilliant action sequences.
Awards Daily: You’re picking up composition duties on The Witcher from Sonya and Giona. Are you carrying over themes from their work on season one, or is this a start from scratch situation?
Joseph Trapanese: You know, composers have such a weird reputation where a new composer comes onto a sequel or something like that, and they just kind of throw everything out. I think that’s kind of ridiculous, especially when you have something that works for characters, something like Geralt’s Theme. I view what we do as creative spirit. It’s a spiritual thing. If there’s already an existing music that connects with a character and helps that character’s journey, then I don’t care if I wrote it or someone else wrote it. We absolutely reuse themes from season one. There are a few instances where, instead of me doing anything, we literally took a piece of music from season one because there are callbacks to previous events. I’m unashamed to do that. At the same time, we also found places where there needed to be new theme. There had to be something brand new that only I could do. I think it’s important for [composers] to be honest with ourselves and honest with the people we work with about what works, what doesn’t, and always be serving the story that we’re telling. Part of that, for sure, was reusing some themes from season one.
AD: Last year, we talked about your score for Shadow and Bone. For that, you selected all kinds of different instruments because of the varied locales of that story. Is your approach similar in The Witcher?
JT: Yes and no. There are things that are very similar, which is purely my approach to the story, maybe instrumentation, character arcs, that sort of thing. I like talking about music in the context of our characters and our story’s journey, and that’s the most important thing to me. That being said, this is a very different world. This is a very different time period. It’s very different set of characters. Shadow and Bone is a little bit more PG-13 / YA skewing where The Witcher is obviously a lot more serious. There are different places we could go in each series that I wouldn’t want to take the other series. With The Witcher, we can get a little bit dirtier and grittier and more aggressive because of not only the nature of the show, but also the nature of the Slavic music, the kind of metal that’s involved. That kind of rock style.
Also, these characters in The Witcher are quite a bit older than the characters in Shadow and Bone. They’re at a different place in their journey than where the characters in Shadow and Bone are. In Shadow and Bone, what’s so cool about that is that these young people are learning to use these unique skills for good in the world. In The Witcher, Geralt is kind of a master. He has learned his craft. He knows everything, but he is actually in a very different part of his journey in season two, especially where he’s essentially become a dad. That is something very different than anything in Shadow and Bone. I’m approaching each with my vision, but at the same time, I’m letting that story lead me to very different places.
AD: One thing that I really like about you is you tend to seek out instrumentation that is very specific to the locales. It’s more than the traditional chords or strings. You like to find off-kilter instrumentation. What kind of examples of that are in The Witcher?
JT: One of the biggest limitations we had was that most of our work was during lockdowns during quarantine. I felt a little limited on season two, not for anything I could control. We did have an amazing stringed instrument player, featured on season two, who was playing everything from lutes to saz to all sorts of different ethnic medieval instruments. That’s something that I’ve been wanting to do for a long time. I love early music. I love ancient music. Viola da gamba was a huge part of what we did on season two. That’s kind of the predecessor to the cello and string instruments of that time, very quiet, very intimate. We also worked with a number of vocalists.
I’m always searching for something that’s gonna make something better and make something more unique and interesting, and it’s not necessarily about being unique for unique’s sake. It’s more about being unique for what’s in front of me. I have a lot of ideas of sounds I want to use in future projects, but I haven’t found the right project on which to use it. There’s always something cooking. I have like 400 Safari tabs open to different instruments. I want to look at a different types of music from around the world, and it really is about finding opportunities to dig in.
I think what’s also really interesting is the idea that we’re just becoming more aware of the cultures that we take from, and we’re trying to be more respective. I like challenging myself to ask is that instrument historically accurate? Can I find someone who plays an instrument who could educate me about why I’m using that instrument? It’s very interesting, I think, to be a composer because you are constantly assembling new things out of old things. I noticed how much better my new things are if I find a way to truly reflect the old things in a way that is inclusive and respectful. I’ve tried to be better at what we do. Hollywood is so known for just abusing different cultures and different musical cultures for their own benefit. I’m trying to try to change that.
AD: How are you building relationships through the score? How are you underscoring character building, character definition, or character relationships?
JT: There’s a lot that we get from the screen, from the actor performances. So I have to be really careful, especially on a show like The Witcher where we have these wonderful performances we’ve captured. It’s my job to say what can I bring to the table that necessarily might not be on screen? So for instance, there’s a long training sequence, I believe it’s an episode two or three. It was less about scoring that training sequence and more about scoring Ciri’s desire to make Geralt proud, to prove that she is worthy of his attention. So, I think that’s one example of how on one level, obviously, it’s an action scene, and there needs to be a certain style of music. But I’m trying to get to that next level, which is not just scoring what’s on the screen. I’m trying to score what is in these characters. What is in their deepest intentions? Where are they going on this journey?
AD: Tell me about writing the songs for season two.
JT: I’ve written and produced songs before. Not as much as I think people think I have, but it is something that is familiar to me. It goes back to casting and collaborators where one of the things that made it much easier was that the producers asked if I was okay, working with Joey [Batey] who plays Jaskier. He’s a super talented singer/songwriter himself, and my spirit about this is, if he wants to collaborate, he represents the character, he understands the character at a deeper level than silly me coming in last second to help, then he’s going to be such an asset. That’s one of the reasons why I’m so proud of the song work we did. It wasn’t just me sitting in this room or the studio thinking I’m just gonna plop a melody together to some lyrics. It was a character conversation with not only the showrunner and the producer and Netflix but with the actor who’s portraying the character who ultimately is going to be the vessel of these songs. It became to me something much more creatively rewarding because it is such a story collaborative thing.
The Witcher streams exclusively on Netflix.