How ‘Shadow and Bone’ Composer Joseph Trapanese Created Fantastical Music for Netflix’s Take on the Grishaverse

Shadow and Bone TV Show
Courtesy of David Appleby/Netflix

“My favorite thing to do is to build a world, musically,” says composer Joseph Trapanese, who got to do just that for “Shadow and Bone,” the eight-part fantasy series that drops April 23 on Netflix.

Based on novels by Leigh Bardugo, the show combines elements of magic, horror, war, crime and romance in a setting that resembles 19th-century Russia. Fans know this as the Grishaverse — the name is derived from the world’s elite sect of magicians — and Trapanese’s music helps to guide viewers through the many characters and their complex relationships.

Executive producers Eric Heisserer and Shawn Levy contacted the composer before shooting began in Hungary in late 2019. “The challenge to Joe,” Heisserer tells Variety, “was to give us a sweeping, Russian-inspired, big orchestral space that would go with the cinematography of the wide landscapes, and the big, unnatural elements like The Fold [the foreboding, malevolent darkness between lands].

“But when we hop over to Ketterdam, with these scrappy criminals and grifters, I wanted something that felt Dickensian, with a much smaller orchestra, that also felt propulsive,” he adds. “The fun challenge was, when we eventually collided these two, it would be to showcase who was in power, whose character themes rose above the rest.”

By the time shooting wrapped in February 2020, Trapanese had already come up with 45 minutes of, as he puts it, “themes, textures and sounds,” based solely on reading the scripts and the books that inspired them.

“You’re going to hear influences from that Russian czarist period,” the composer says, and those dark hues — lots of cellos, basses and low brass — dominate the seven-plus hours of score that Trapanese wrote over 11 months last year.

The key themes belong to Alina (Jessie Mei Li), the orphan whose unexpected power might save her country, and General Kirigan (Ben Barnes), the Darkling whose own powers are gradually revealed. Their themes are “mirror reflections of each other,” Trapanese explains.

He chose a violin for Alina, “an intimate, raspy sound that, as she discovers and hones this tremendous power, is transformed into this more mature, developed, refined kind of playing.” For Kirigan, it’s the double bass, a throaty sound that highlights “the loneliness of this dark hero who’s seen a lot of tragedy.”

Accompanying the Crows (Freddy Carter, Amita Suman, Kit Young), the scheming underworld figures in the series, Trapanese hints at Romani music, “a very Slavic sound, because the Crows are so  inventive and improvisatory,” he says. A touch of zither, and a more folk-like sound from the strings, seemed appropriate.

The composer chose to record in Budapest, not far from where the series was filmed. With 65 musicians, he was able to create the “cinematic” sound the producers sought, although he says he did considerable audio manipulation for dramatic effect. Those techniques came in handy in depicting the magic of the Grisha, who can control and direct fire, wind and water. “Whenever you see elements being manipulated,” he says, “oftentimes I’ll be doing something similar with the music.”

Trapanese’s eclectic résumé includes collaborations with Daft Punk on “Tron: Legacy” and M83 on “Oblivion,” musically supporting the hip-hop of “Straight Outta Compton” and the songs of “The Greatest Showman,” scoring “Quantico” for ABC and the live-action “Lady and the Tramp” for Disney Plus. But, he says, he’s never faced a challenge quite like scoring the Grishaverse.

That is, until he tackles his next project: Joseph Kosinski’s sci-fi film “Escape From Spiderhead,” also for Netflix and due later this year.