The gritty world of “The Witcher” is unlike anything else currently on television, and series composers Sonya Belousova and Giona Ostinelli spent the last year using 64 instruments to bring the series’ fantastical monsters and magic to life on Netflix. IndieWire is premiering “The Last Rose of Cintra,” one of seven original songs Belousova and Ostinelli produced for the new epic fantasy show, and recently spoke to the duo about the series’ unique recording process and the eclectic instruments used to craft its distinctive soundscapes.
While the prior two songs IndieWire exclusively premiered, which included the main theme of series protagonist Geralt of Rivia, were fairly uplifting and spirited, “The Last Rose of Cintra” is a comparably slow, bleak affair that boasts a brooding atmosphere and lyrics that warn of impending war. It’s an appropriately forbidding song for “The Witcher”: The series might feature plenty of outlandish elements, but it is also a decidedly dark, adult-oriented affair that doesn’t shy away from violence and all manner of mature themes.
The show is based on the popular novels of the same name by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski, which follow monster hunter Geralt as he becomes wrapped up in a continent-spanning plot of political manipulations and all manner of high-stakes action.
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The duo used a variety of instruments, including virtuosic violin, hurdy gurdy, lute, erhu, breaths, dulcimers, psaltery, harmoniums, and a wide range of percussion and drums to create the series’ music. The intent was to use old, even ancient, instruments to create a modernized sound. Of course, every track needed to conform to the series’ overall mood and direction and in many cases that meant contorting the traditionally beautiful sounds instruments such as the xun to conjure more twisted noises, according to Ostinelli.
“We took a lot of Renaissance and medieval instruments and used them in a contemporary way,” Ostinelli said. “One instrument, the xun, came from China and has a beautiful warmth to it, but we added distortion to make it sound quite menacing.”
Belousova noted that sourcing some of the instruments, such as the hurdy-gurdy, proved particularly challenging. The hurdy-gurdy originates from medieval Europe and has to be handcrafted, and there are precious few American producers who can create the instrument. The hurdy-gurdy creator that “The Witcher” composers worked with had a yearlong wait list but were able to accommodate Belousova and Ostinelli, who received the instrument just a week before shooting started.
“The Witcher” was unlike any television show Belousova and Ostinelli previously worked on, and not just because its protagonist is a magical bounty hunter who adventures around a world of wizards and elves. Quality sound design is key for any good television show, but “The Witcher” and its music are inextricably linked.
The series features more than a few tavern scenes and dancing sequences, which all required finished music to allow actors to choreograph their movements. Though scoring traditionally occurs late in a show’s production, the musical nature of “The Witcher” required the composers to finish their work well in advance, according to Belousova.
“Normally, the score would be one of the final steps of the process, but all of the pieces had to be written before shooting started,” Belousova said. “The dances had to be choreographed to the songs, which was a four or five month process. We wrote scenes for Geralt, Yennefer, and Ciri before they started editing.”
“The Witcher” also has a series bard named Jaskier, who crafts musical tales about Geralt’s adventures within the show itself. IndieWire premiered “Toss A Coin To Your Witcher,” Jaskier’s first tune, earlier this month. The series’ bars, grisly battlefields, and lavish parties also necessitated a variety of background music, and Ostinelli noted that many background actors visibly perform some of the series’ music throughout each episode.
“The show also has things like tavern music, which we wrote,” Ostinelli said. “There are things like fiddles and we thought it would be cool to have fiddle players playing arrangements of those songs.”
“The Witcher” marks the latest collaboration between Belousova and Ostinelli, who have worked together on several other television shows, including “The Romanoffs,” “The Mist,” and the film “M.F.A.” The Los Angeles-based composers met one another several years ago and found that their differing musical backgrounds allowed them to play off each other’s strengths, regardless of the project, according to Belousova.
“Coming from Russia I was exposed to strong classical piano training, while Giona came from Switzerland and performed in jazz and rock bands,” Belousova said. “We thought our first time working together would be a one-time thing, but we complement one another. We had just finished ‘The Romanoffs,’ which was a classical score, and we wanted to switch to something completely different for ‘The Witcher.’”
“The Witcher” Season One is streaming on Netflix.