A Hero Among Us [interview with Sonya Belousova and Giona Ostinelli]
A world, where a killing machine has feelings and moral quandaries. Where a hunchback transforms into a sorceress. Where monsters deserve more sympathy than humanity. A world that needs music, so we can feel it as our own. How the soundtrack to the Netflix series “The Witcher”? We asked the composer duo Sonya Belousova and Giona Ostinelli.
Interview by Maja Baczyńska and Paweł Stroiński
MB: When have you heard about the Polish "Witcher" for the first time?
SB: I remember my brother playing the video game 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”. But my first real exposure to it happened when I read the script for the first time.
GO: As soon as we read the script, we were immediately transported into this world and knew right away we were in for something very special. We had the scripts for all 8 episodes available to us, as well as the Bible - an in-depth blueprint of the show, its world, tone, and spirit, and how each plot and character develop throughout season 1 and beyond. This was an excellent starting point for us to begin developing the sonic palette of the show.
SB: We were brought on board very early on in the process before production on the series even began. Which was perfect because we love starting every new project by writing thematic suites. “The Witcher” is a very thematic score. Due to its great length and complexity, it was very important for us to establish a strong thematic material that would develop throughout the arc of the season. Therefore, starting so early was a great advantage. This gave us an opportunity to explore and find the right soundscape appropriate for the spirit and tone of the show by writing thematic suites for each character. 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. We can’t wait to bring fans the music from “The Witcher” live and perform it in front of the audience of over 20 thousand people!
GO: The other reason why we got involved from this early on in the process was because we had to write and produce songs and dances needed for the shoot. Before we even had a picture to work with, we already had over an hour of music written, which included songs, dances and various thematic suites.
SB: Overall, having worked in ballet and theater, both Giona 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 and you can paint it in any color you wish. 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.
MB: Was it possible for you to talk to the novels' author?
GO: Unfortunately, we didn’t have access to him. Even though we would have absolutely loved to have received his thoughts, Andrzej wasn’t a part of the post-production process on the show.
MB: What were the guidelines you received from the directors/showrunners?
GO: 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 as well. Therefore, we started exploring different instruments. This led to having various instruments hand-crafted specifically for this score. Many of them came to us from all over the world: Armenia, Russia, Hungary, Portugal, China, Malaysia, the Emirates, USA.
SB: Giona & I wrote and produced over 8 hours of original music for the series that included songs, score, folk tunes and dances. We got a chance to collaborate with virtuoso world-class soloists and phenomenal artists, recorded unique one of a kind historical instruments, and personally performed and recorded over 60 instruments. Here’re some of the instruments we chose to feature on the score: hurdy-gurdy, violin, oboe, duduk, lute, renaissance mandolin, 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!
GO: We wanted to create “The Witcher” sound with a traditional but, at the same time, a very contemporary feel. Hence, why we wanted to use these unique instruments sometimes in the 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 3 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.
SB: 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. Declan de Barra is not only a writer and supervising producer on the show but an extraordinary musician and vocalist. Our fruitful collaboration with Declan resulted in three original songs we wrote and produced together with Declan featuring his powerful vocals - “The Song of The White Wolf” for 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.
GO: We’re incredibly excited for both Lindsay and Declan to perform with us at the 2021 Krakow International Film Music Festival next year. And we can already tell you that you’re in for a very special treat. We can’t wait for the audience to be captivated by Lindsay’s energetic performance of “Geralt of Rivia” and mesmerized by Declan’s mighty vocals and his signature song “The Song of The White Wolf”.
SB: Rodion Belousov performed all the oboe and duduk solos on the soundtrack. In fact, a fan-favorite Yennefer’s theme belongs to Rodion’s oboe. His tone is warm and silky and evokes such a powerful emotional response. 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. Arngier 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 a penny whistle solo in “We’re Alive.”
GO: And lastly, we’ve worked very closely with Joey Batey, who plays Jaskier in the show, for whom we wrote and produced four songs – the massively successful #1 Billboard hit “Toss A Coin To Your Witcher”, “Her Sweet Kiss”, “The Fishmonger’s Daughter”, and “You Think You’re Safe”.
MB: Which realm and which subplot was the most inspiring for you?
GO: Since every episode centers around a new adventure our characters embark on, every episode required a particular soundscape appropriate for its spirit and tone. Therefore, it’s pretty much impossible for us to single out a specific realm or subplot, since we found all of them to be so inspiring. That’s what really fuels us creatively - being able to enjoy this versatility, 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…
SB: Or exploring a magical and enchanting soundscape for Aretuza featuring Shanti windchimes, or creating a constructed language for 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. Every episode has its own charm.
MB: Which of the characters spoke to you the most?
GO: It’s very hard to single out a particular character since all of them are so different and contrasting. Every character spoke to us in some way, and we had a wonderful time exploring the sound appropriate for each one of them. Obviously, we had an incredible fun writing and producing the songs for Jaskier, especially “Toss A Coin To Your Witcher”.
SB: After we wrote “Toss A Coin To Your Witcher”, we just couldn’t get it out of our heads, it got stuck immediately. It’s a “hell yeah, the hero is among us!” song, a powerful anthem with an energy that carries us up and out to the end of the episode, there’s ego, attitude and swagger in this song. In fact, here 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. In order to find the right approach, we wrote between 5 to 7 versions for each song ranging from medieval to contemporary. To tell you the truth, we even wrote a rap version for “Toss A Coin” because why not, we had so much fun and were so 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 on the lyrics with the brilliant Jenny Klein, writer and co-executive producer on the series. I sang on all the demos at the demo stage. Once the music was approved, the next stage involved working very closely with incredibly talented Joey Batey, who plays our bard Jaskier in the show.
MB: Did you expect the song to be this successful?
GO: We did expect the song to attract attention from fans, but I don’t think any of us has anticipated such massive success. It took a second to be able to release the song and the soundtrack commercially, however, as soon as we did, we charted #1 on Billboard and iTunes in every country and generated rave reviews from both critics and fans, millions of listens and hundreds of incredibly diverse YouTube covers, any genre you can think of - from folk choir to hard rock and metal, the song has even been translated into multiple languages. Wow!
SB: “Toss A Coin To Your Witcher” will most definitely be a highlight of our performance at the 2021 Krakow International Film Music Festival. It will be a blast and we can’t wait to share this performance with the audience and have everyone join us together in singing “Toss A Coin To Your Witcher” with a full choir!
MB: How does one build a non-existent world? Does it mean great freedom for a composer or more like great chaos because there are no reference points? Maybe in creating a new musical world we need to refer the music of our own realm?
SB: It means so much creative freedom! You can just let your imagination run wild and design something truly special.
GO: In fact, we love exploring new music universes and diving into new unfamiliar worlds to create particular soundscapes reflecting these environments. It is up to us as composers to bring each specific world to life by imagining and designing its sound palette, whether it’s an imaginary world or very real one.
SB: This is why “The Witcher” was so special to us. This unique and vast universe provided us with a constant stream of unlimited creative opportunities, which I believe became the main factor that triggered this incredible success.
Polish version HERE