I loved everything—and I do mean everything—about season one of The Witcher on Netflix, especially its soundtrack. The show featured both authentic Medieval music and contemporary tracks, with a little bit of everything in between. And all 55 tracks came from composers Sonya Belousova and Giona Ostinelli. Nerdist had a chance to speak with them about the process, which wasn’t exactly what you’d expect. It included playing around with a whole lot of very strange instruments and writing for scenes that hadn’t actually been filmed.
If you think “Toss a Coin To Your Witcher” has been stuck in your head for a while, they’ve been living with it for a lot longer. Including in some very different forms fans will be demanding to hear.
How long did you work on the soundtrack?
Sonya Belousova: It was quite an unusual process, because normally as composers we would get involved during post-production. In the case of The Witcher, there were a lot of songs and dances we had to write beforehand, because they had to be prepared for the shoot.
We started writing October 2018. And during that period, even before we started scoring the picture, we wrote all the Jaskier songs and all the dances. They had to be choreographed for the shoot.
Around April, we started scoring to picture and we finished in October of ’19. So it was a whole year for us. We wrote over eight hours of music. That includes the whole score, songs that we wrote and produced, and folk tunes and dances.
How many songs did you write before they filmed the scenes?
Giona Ostinelli: I think we wrote an hour of music before. Also, we didn’t just write one version. We wrote around four or five versions per song.
SB: Because at that point we were still trying to find the appropriate balance and the appropriate sound for the character and for the show. And we wanted to give [showrunner] Lauren [Hissrich] the whole spectrum of different versions. From something very medieval and very historically accurate, to something very contemporary. So for each song we had five to seven versions.
SB: We like writing suites in order to find the right balance, and to kind of figure out the music thematically. So then by the time we score the picture, we already have a road map and it’s about structuring that roadmap in context of every particular episode. We wrote thematic suites for each character. We had a suite for Geralt, Ciri, Yennefer, and for Nilfgard. That was at least another 30 to 40 minutes of music.
When you are writing music for a scene that hasn’t even been filmed, what kind of unique challenges does that present? What kind of opportunities does that provide?
GO: Honestly, we love it, because you just go from the script, so you let your imagination go wild. And you usually come up with ideas that, if you are scoring the picture, maybe you don’t [come up with] because you’re a bit bound by the pictures. Here you don’t really have boundaries. It’s just the boundaries of your imagination and the script, so you just go. It’s like writing an album, almost.
And also it’s very great for the producers, show runners, and directors, because this way everybody gets a chance to hear the material before the scenes and they get accustomed to it. They get familiar with the music. Then when you adjust it for the picture, they already know the music and you can have conversations about it, about the themes, how to use them, what themes to mix with other themes, and all those things.
Sonya and Giona wanted to create an authentic medieval sound for the show, which they did by using historical instruments—many custom made—from around the world, including from China, Malaysia, Russia, Hungary, Brazil, and the United States. They personally used over 60 instruments on the soundtrack, a list that includes a hurdy-gurdy, psaltery, harmonium, Shruti box, and a Kamancheh.
SB: We wanted to make sure there are places where we use (the instruments) in a traditional historical concept, how they would normally be used. And there are places where we use these same instruments in a much more contemporary manner. I wanted to find that balance between something more historically accurate, and something much more contemporary and groovy—more energetic and fun—by utilizing the same instruments.
What did you listen to for inspiration?
SB: I don’t think we listened to anything in particular, because when we start every new project we want to start completely fresh and we don’t really dive into other sources and listen to other music for inspiration, because if we do that…
GO: It doesn’t become original.
SB: We wanted to start this completely fresh, and because the script is just so diverse and so unique, and we have this Witcher universe that’s populated by witchers, humans, elves, and monsters. All these diverse creatures. The script itself was the main inspiration point for us. And obviously, playing around with all these fun instruments and recording all the various soloist and ensembles that we recorded.
GO: Playing around with the instruments is a great place for inspiration. You play around with it and you’re like, “Oh this is cool, let’s try this, let’s try that.”
SB: In episode three, during the whole Striga fight and Yennefer’s dramatic transformation, we had a melody, which was Geralt’s theme. It was played on a hurdy-gurdy, but it was distorted. We ran it through some amplifiers, supplied a lot of different plugins, so it literally sounds like an electric guitar. And a lot of people asked us what that instrument was and if it was an electric guitar. No, it was not; it was a distorted hurdy-gurdy, just to kind of prove the point that every instrument’s capabilities are really unlimited if you push your imagination.
How would you describe the tone and the feeling you were going for to somebody who might not be well-versed in musical composition?
SB: It’s very diverse. For this soundtrack, not only [did we do] the background score, but we also wrote and produced songs and folk tunes and dances. So as the Witcher universe is very diverse, I think our goal for the soundtrack was to reflect the diversity in various styles, in various genres, and various instrumentations that we chose to use by recording different virtual soloists and collaborating with artists.
GO: You can find there’s a little bit of every genre in a way.
SB: If you’re looking for something very traditional and medieval, it’s definitely represented there. If you’re looking for something much more contemporary, it’s definitely there. If you’re looking for songs, we have a lot of songs.
GO: It’s a balance. But you know, it can be easily transformed into a rock metal song, or it can be easily transformed into something else.
SB: Fun fact about “Toss a Coin to Your Witcher.” We’re currently all over the Billboard charts, and we’re currently #1 in Rock (Digital Song Sales), which I find very funny because you wouldn’t really think about it as a rock song.
GO: When we first wrote it, it got stuck in our head for forever. It’s still stuck in our heads.
SB: When you write something, and when this material is just stuck in your head, that kind of proves the point that the material is catchy and it’s worth exploring.
GO: Now, were we expecting it was going to blow up to this extent? You can never predict this.
SB: I mean, we knew that it was going to attract attention because of all of the context. It was supposed to be this epic song to lead us out of the episode. So we knew it was going to attract attention. But again, to this proportion? Hell no.
What do you think of all of the different covers people have recorded?
GO: We love them. We are having a lot of fun watching them. And it’s a pleasure to see how much fans are enjoying the music, especially with the songs. They are having fun with it the same way we had fun with it because we had a lot of passion for it.
SB: We worked with this song for seven months, because we wrote it in November. We wrote around seven versions, then we finally settled on the right version. Then we had all the demos prepared and I sang on all the demos. Then once everything was approved, then they went out and shot the song.
It was right on the 1st of July. We had to fly to London and we recorded it over there with Joey [Batey, who plays Jaskier]. And then the rest of the post-production of the song was completed here in our studio in Los Angeles. So we were with it for a very long time, and throughout this whole time it was there in our heads.
You said there were seven versions. How different are those other versions?
GO: Different. [Laughs]
SB: That was one of the very first songs that we wrote for the show, so we wanted to give Lauren the whole spectrum for something very medieval and very historically accurate, but something super, super contemporary.
GO: So yes, in our vault there is a very medieval version. Yes, specifically to The Witcher, a very, very contemporary one, even a rap version.
SB: We do have a rap version.
GO: Yes, we do have it.
Wait, you really have a rap version of “Toss a Coin to Your Witcher?”
SB: We do.
Are you going to ever release it?
SB: We’ll see, we had an idea to maybe include it at some point as a bonus track. There was one version, which was even more rock. But that was before they shot, so we had to readjust it a little bit once the editor put together the cut. There was another version which was very, very medieval, very traditional, following all these traditional rules. There was another version which was very sad. Yeah, there were a lot of different versions and I’m glad that we settled on this one because I feel like it was just the perfect balance of every scene.
My favorite thing about “Toss a Coin to Your Witcher” is the way it starts off like a real bard singing a song by himself, and then it builds to a full orchestra that’s very powerful.
SB: Yes. This was one of the ideas that we actually discussed in depth with Jenny Klein, who is the writer of the episode. She also wrote the lyrics. And the idea was exactly this. So that would start out as something very, very simple, just words and lute. And then kind of continue building, building, building, and building and becoming this huge epic anthem that takes us out of the episode.
GO: It’s Jaskier’s transformation from a simple bard to the Freddie Mercury of The Continent.
SB: Jokingly, between all of us here, we call Jaskier the Freddie Mercury of The Continent. Because we want you to think of him as this kind of rock star. Which is why the first song when he sings, when you just meet his character, it’s not as evolved. It’s basically quite simple, voice and lute. And the reason for that is we wanted to create a certain transformation for this character from the time when we meet him to the end of episode two where when “Toss a Coin to Your Witcher” comes in.
GO: We haven’t really given a thought about it.
SB: They are just about to start shooting, so it’s still a little bit too early to talk about.
GO: Here’s the big conundrum for us. For the first season we learned how to play over 60 instruments. Now we feel the pressure for next season. Is it going to be more than 60 instruments? Oh my goodness, we need to find so many instruments. So right now it’s a lot of research to find interesting instruments no one has heard before. And we even have to have some custom made.
Featured Image: Netflix