"We feed off each other’s enthusiasm and ideas" with composer duo Giona Ostinelli & Sonya Belousova
Best known for their work on the drama TV series Sacred Lies, the industry's most prolific composer duos Giona Ostinelli and Sonya Belousova talk to Mandy News about how their passion for music developed into a career and they discuss their new TV show The Romanoffs.
Sonya and Giona, please tell us a little bit about how you each fell in love with music, and how this turned into working in the film and television world?
S: I have been surrounded by music for as long as I can remember. Growing up in Russia, I have been exposed to the strong classical music education Russia is well regarded for.
G: And there she goes. I’ll have time to finish the cue!
S: I started playing piano at the age of 5, made my debut at the St. Petersburg Philharmonia at the age of 8, and started taking formal composition lessons at the age of 10. I won my first international composition competition and became the recipient of the Russian Ministry of Culture award at the age of 13. I was admitted to college at the age of 15 and received a stellar education in some of the best music conservatories both Russia and USA have to offer.
G: And now back to us mere mortals. I started discovering music when I was 5 by playing drums. As you can imagine, my neighbours were extremely happy about it... To make my neighbours even happier I started playing piano at the age of 9. They were extremely pleased, however, when they learned I wasn’t interested in pursuing opera singing.
Around the same time, I became curious about films. I used to have a small 8mm camera, I remember playing around with it trying to recreate scenes from Indiana Jones or Star Wars. I also tried reenacting them with LEGO but it never really worked out. That’s when I figured directing wasn’t my cup of tea. I was always a fan of the iconic scores for films such as The Goonies, The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, Romancing The Stone, Indiana Jones, Jurassic Park, Air Force One, Robin Hood, and The Three Musketeers, so at some point I knew that writing music for films was exactly what I wanted to do.
S: As much as I enjoyed writing concert music, I was always passionate about storytelling and expressing the story through music. Writing music for films and television was a natural evolution for me.
How did you get involved with The Romanoffs?
G: How could we not get involved with The Romanoffs?! Especially with Sonya being Russian and from St. Petersburg. Before being exiled, the Romanoffs used to live in The Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, so who knows? Perhaps Sonya could actually be a descendant from them…
S: We expressed our interest in the show over a year ago. We both saw The Romanoffs as a project different from anything we’ve done so far. When they entered post-production, we received a phone call that Matthew Weiner was interested in a meeting.
G: I guess he heard there was a Romanoff descendant living in Los Angeles…
What was the process like of working on the project?
S: The range of the music style for The Romanoffs varies immensely from classical to highly experimental. We have an orchestra, virtuoso soloists, fragile and intimate chamber strings, Russian traditional folk instruments such a domra and balalaika, hints of Hollywood’s Golden Age sound, electronic textures and elaborate synths. We wrote piano and domra concertos, sophisticated orchestral pieces and played with vintage synths recorded via a tape recorder to give it a more distinct vintage feel.
G: With episode 3 'House of Special Purpose' our schedule was incredibly tight. It was more a situation of: “Okay, we have a week and a half to write, record, mix, and deliver the score for an episode of a feature film length. We have no time to waste here!”
S: With the season finale ‘The One That Holds Everything’ we had the luxury of receiving the episode in advance and therefore more time to experiment and explore various themes and sonorities. In fact, ‘The One That Holds Everything’ is a very thematic score, which develops out of a single theme. This theme gets introduced in its full version in the middle of the episode. When Matthew heard our very first music pass for ‘The One That Holds Everything’, he was literally about to change the dub mix schedule as he thought the score was in perfect shape.
G: Overall, it was a very smooth process from start to finish. It was a matter of understanding what exactly Matthew was looking for and then just fine-tuning the score from there.
S: Working with Matthew is terrific because he gives you room to be creative. You can’t ask for a better collaborator. Matthew is a perfectionist with a great ear and a lot of appreciation for music. Working with him and the whole creative team was such an amazing experience and a true pleasure!
How does the process of collaboration work between you, what is it that makes this combination of skills and passion such a good one?
S: We work so well together because we come from such different music backgrounds. Therefore we’re not trying to compete with each other…
G: Well, secretly we are…
S: … but instead, we complement each other’s style. Writing music for films and television means you have to be extremely versatile. We have this aspect fully covered.
G: It also means spending many hours in the studio. There’s always a lot of music to write and a very little amount of time to do it.
S: For example, Giona might come up with an idea, which I would then extend or complement with something completely different from what he originally imagined, and vice versa. This leads to new discoveries and approaches we wouldn’t think of otherwise. We basically feed off each other’s enthusiasm and ideas. We inspire each other.
G: Working together is also very effective in terms of knowing when something works or doesn’t. We’re extremely honest with each other. When working on a cue, it might be hard sometimes to step aside and see how effective it is. But then Sonya listens to it with a fresh prospective and knows immediately if it does or doesn’t work and therefore what needs to be adjusted.
S: 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.
What is coming up next for you both?
G: Something really cool!
S: But we can’t talk about it just yet.
G: In the meantime, Lakeshore Records just released our soundtrack for Blumhouse TV series Sacred Lies. The soundtrack includes both the score and original songs we wrote and produced for the series featuring Sonya’s enchanting vocals. Check it out!
What advice do you have for up and coming composers?
G: Don’t wait for an opportunity. Create your own opportunities. Get involved into as many projects as possible, build as many relationships as you can. If you’re a student, score as many student films as possible. You never know how far these relationships will take you.
S: Education. For some reason, there’s an upsetting tendency that you don’t need to go to school anymore to study music, instead all you need is a lot of passion for what you do. You most definitely need the greatest amount of passion for what you do. However, a well-rounded education is an absolute must. Study music, study film, study them extensively.
G: Keep broadening your horizon. Listen to as much music as you can, expose yourself to diverse genres and styles. The more proficient you are in every genre, the more versatile you are as an artist.
S: Don’t be afraid of rejection. You will be rejected not once, not twice but many times. The important thing is to get yourself up and keep going, no matter what.