By: Jessica Nakamoto –
Known for its head-scratching plots and addictive “whydunnit” style mysteries, USA network hit crime drama, The Sinner, is the modern anthology thriller we never knew we needed. And following a riveting first season starring actress Jessica Biel, viewers can’t seem to get enough of Detective Ambrose’s (Bill Pullman) dark and puzzling cases.
However, intriguing family murders, a cult-like community, and a curious 11-year-old boy, are not the only things making the hair on the back of our necks tingle with anticipation in Season two.
Rather, whether it be the booming thump of the metronome that triggers the community or the electric violin piercing through the death scene, it’s the job of composer, singer, and multi-instrumentalist, Ronit Kirchman to envelop fans in an immersive experience of suspense and mystique.
A virtuoso of both film and TV, Kirchman is no stranger to composing scores for a variety of big-time productions. And with credits ranging from Zen and the Art of Dying and The Golden Age of Fish, to fan-favorite comedy-mystery, Now You See Me, it’s clear that Kirchman possesses both the skills and creativity needed to bring even the most unique storylines to life.
So, before season three of The Sinner has us glued to our screens once again, we had the chance to catch up with Ronit and hear her take on everything season two, live recording, upcoming projects, and more!
Besides Detective Ambrose, The Sinner has a new story and new characters every season. I was curious, as a composer, what is the most challenging or most exciting thing about having a new plot to work with each time?
I love the way The Sinner is set up! As you’ve pointed out, it’s got elements of an anthology structure, where there’s a new plot every season. But it also has an element of continuity through Bill Pullman’s character, Detective Ambrose. So, the combination of those things is kind of the perfect world because there’s a sense of “meta-continuity”, or knowing the kind of relationship that the score has to story in the world of The Sinner overall.
And then, there’s tons of opportunity in creating new material every season. I think as a composer, I always enjoy that chance to come up with new themes, a refreshed sound palate,and a distinctive voice for the world of that season. I think there are challenges as well as things that make it easier when you are confined into an existing framework.
Sometimes, bridging it takes some ingenuity, right? And then sometimes, having that through line kind of gives you a lifeline. It can feel different in different situations.
You mentioned the deeper relationship between the characters and the score. I also heard you have a good friendship with Derek Simonds, the showrunner of The Sinner. Do you think that knowing him helped you understand the characters on another level?
Sure! The first season is adapted from a German novel, but the second is pretty much our perspective.Since the character of Ambrose was one of the aspects of season one, which was, in particular, fleshed out by the TV series, he didn’t have as much of a lead role in the book. So, in a sense, he’s the “continuity”.
Season two ends up being very much its own thing with some correlations from the novel that the series began with. I think that knowing Derek for a long time, both in a creative capacity and as a collaborator, means that we have a sort of shorthand or mind-meld. There are certain areas of shared aesthetic. We understand each other’s approach. So, I think that the way the characters are articulated are an extension of that whole sensibility.
One thing that really stood out to me in season two, is the recurring element of the metronome. I thought it was really interesting that you took what’s normally an ordinary object for musicians, and gave it a new context! What was your inspiration behind that particular element?
The metronome was actually written into the script from the very beginning! I think that a noteworthy aspect is that it was treated as a musical element, rather than a sound effect. That was definitely something I was glad about, because it performs a symbolic function. It’s not treated as diegetic sounds. And, it’s role of literally keeping tempo or setting a sense of time passing, as well as the fact that the score would need to be constantly in dialogue with the rest of the show… all of those things together made it a great piece to have in the music department’s tool-kit.
As for, finding the sound for it, Derek had a very specific sound that he heard in his head. So, in this case, my job was to figure out what he was hearing and make it real.
(Laughs) That mind-meld coming into play!
Exactly! (laughs) It came in handy!
In addition to the metronome, other unique instruments that caught my eye were your use of the harmonium and the hammered dulcimer. How did you go about selecting which instruments to use in your score?
Great question! In the second season, Detective Ambrose’s character is returning to his childhood home, a small town called Keller in western New York. I thought it would be great to have a reminiscent style. Not an on-the-nose kind of resonance, but a little bit of an off-kilter type with a slightly more rustic environment. The commune is also a blend of a New York rural place plus this meditation community/cult.
Certain elements like the dulcimer were definitely in the realm of American folk instruments. And its melody is one of the signature themes in The Sinner. This is kind of unusual because while the tune lies well on the instrument, it definitely doesn’t sound like folk music. So, I thought the combination of the resonance of the instrument and the unusual theme would hopefully have the right subliminal effect on people.
I also liked the idea of season two having a little bit more of an organic feel to it. So this time, there’s a greater amount of acoustic live recording. There were some in season one but in season two, there’s even more! There are also quite a few themes and motifs that I play on the violin. You can find some electric violin work in more intense places, like the death scene.
And the harmonium?
In terms of the harmonium, it was again, somewhat of a combo. At this point, the instrument has a certain association with meditation environments, especially in the United States. You’ll see them in many a yoga class! (laughs) We weren’t trying to create that kind of music, but the fact that it has that sound is helpful.
There’s something really specific about the harmonium that I like. It has a mechanical tremolo feature which, when it’s activated, makes it seem almost borderline electronic, because of the way it filters the sounds. It also has an interesting interaction with the bellows and is very dynamic! It serves as a bridging element, especially since the center is a hybrid score at its core. And having an instrument which created a sonic bridge between those two idioms, that was something I immediately responded to and wanted to incorporate.
It’s interesting, there are places where the harmonium functions a little bit more traditionally in carrying melody and harmony. But, in other places, it’s really almost sound designed. Sometimes it sounds more or less just as it’s recorded, and at other times, I did more processing on top of that, to take it to a new place.
Speaking about processing versus live recording, how much of your time was spent recording compared to working with effects?
Well, I’m always in my studio! (laughs) If I’m recording myself, then I do that there. I write and do the mixing in my studio as well. Even the recording of the large ensembles was essentially done at my place. It becomes a very fluid process and I can record at the drop of a hat!
I can also easily go back and work with the sound. A lot of times that happens just within the crunch of working on a particular cue.I’ll need to go back and re-record a couple of phrases. I think that’s one of the benefits of being able to play a bunch of instruments. It’s available twenty-four seven as needed!
I definitely enjoy that fluid relationship between recording and writing and processing thoughts. It allows a lot of feedback from both sides of the process.
You mentioned playing a variety of instruments and having a musical background to draw from. I was wondering, as someone who’s done everything from singing and producing to writing and visual arts, what is it about composing music that drew you in vs becoming a musician in a band?
I love performing and I’ve always felt, from childhood, a really strong need to write the stuff! (laughs) Just like a playwright, writing the lines.
I think that having a lot of experience collaborating with other musicians, interacting and performing, are all things that I bring to my writing. I’m always really happy when we get a project where we get to record with a bigger group of musicians. The social and performative aspects of music are very dear to me and they enliven the way I create. I really enjoy the role of being the collaborator in the story telling.
Ultimately, the urge to actively compose and work with others on the writing side is very motivating for me. When I started out scoring theatre productions in New York, that fed into working in film and television now!
Yes! I love that in addition to TV productions like The Sinner, you’ve also actively written for films like Zen and the Art of Dying, and are featured in movies like Now You See Me!
Now You See Me was such a fun one to do because it’s got some meaning! There’s a section where the Beethoven violin concerto is used in a hypnotic way. And I’m the violinist in those cues!
I’m definitely going to have to re-watch it now!
Given your experience, is there anything about composing for TV that makes it a more unique experience compared to film or other mediums?
I definitely love keeping all the threads active! I really love working in film as well. So, I don’t see it as an either/or. Particularly, television’s appeal, especially now, is that the quality is really high. And on a show like The Sinner, the aesthetic of the TV show is cinematic in its origins.
In that kind of environment where the aesthetic level is high, the episodic format is very stimulating. You get to develop themes over the course of many stories, many hours, rather than have to wrap it all up.
It’s nice because whenever you work on a film, you open Pandora’s box in a sense in that you discover a whole world of richness in terms of themes and signature identities and then you have to say, bye! (laughs) Unless you’re doing sequels.
In TV, it’s all about the longer game. Even in terms of how you plan out the structure and pacing. It’s just like a being director or screenwriter. You have to think about how things are going to evolve because whether or not people identify those musical evolutions consciously, I think they do really factor into people’s ways of processing of how the story unfolds.
I agree! One thing that really stands out about The Sinner is that while we know who the culprit is, the “why”, is what drives people crazy and makes them want to keep watching!
I’m glad you find it engaging! That’s definitely a huge focus for us to create that immersive, “I can’t look away!” feeling. It’s psychological and embraces the genre in a way that almost starts to remake it.
In terms of the musical approach, I’d say there’s kind of a unique structure. We’re aware of the genre conventions, and in order to kind of refresh people’s ability to engage, we sometimes subvert those genres consciously. So, there’s an awareness of expectations.
I think to really keep people on the edge of their seats, you have to find a way of framing things that keeps them in a state of wonder and curiosity. Sometimes it’s abject fear and sometimes it’s just a slow burn. But it’s got to feel compelling! Part of that is framing things in a way people understand, but not always using the normal structures. They’re going to have to pay attention to know what’s coming next!
Did this sense of mystery and hidden motivations factor into your process when crafting the sonic environment?
For sure! That as well as the idea of an unreliable narrator point of view. Where are you putting your allegiance or identification? It’s not always just who you’re rooting for but who are you identifying with in a given moment when somebody’s experiencing something or telling a story.
So, with the music, you need a certain degree of clarity about where you’re placing the identification. And it can be a fluid thing. It’s not like the music only speaks a certain point of view. On the contrary, it can be nimble and sometimes hold space for multiple POV’s or really align with one rather than the other. I think that that’s one of many meta-threads. And when this shifts ever so subtly, the audience feels it. It illuminates hopefully, something of their understanding of what just went on in the story or in the psychology.
I read that you were a guest lecturer at CalArts and festivals such as FMP. With all the experience you’ve gained working with fine details such as the nuances of shifting POV’s, is there any advice that you’d offer to students, or traits that you think a good composer should have?
I just recently wrapped up a residency at Columbia College’s MFA’s program as well, which was interesting because it was a class of ten graduate students really focusing exclusively on film scoring. So, that was a great opportunity to dive into what you were asking about!
On the artistic front, I feel the role of the film composer is definitely distinct from composer at large. As somebody who writes concert music in a lot of different contexts, I think keeping that alive can be very important. Having a space for composing without it being of service to a narrative is a great thing to have going. Largely, because when you’re working in a collaboration to tell a story, you have to embrace that one-hundred percent. You have to love that! I would say for people who are considering the field, a good question to ask is, do they love creating music in the service of storytelling?
Because, that really is the job! If you love that, then naturally, from that flows a whole set of skills. In terms of willingness to revise, nimbleness with style and interest in how music affects psychology and expectation. I think narrative writing is a whole lens in terms of music neurology.
Those are some of the questions I think that are important to think about up front. A lot of the skills flow from that understanding, of how the music is functioning and what are the questions that we’re trying to answer?
One of my last questions for you is, between all your work in film and TV, do you have any other projects in the works, or any sneak peaks you could give us about season three of The Sinner?
I don’t know what I’m at liberty to name by title at this point, but I am working on a new episodic series as well as a new show! More details to come, but those are the projects at the moment. I’m excited to share them with everybody!
For season three of The Sinner, I’m starting to get the scripts, so I’m just beginning to let the ideas simmer in preparation for work in the fall. I think I can echo what the show runner has said publicly about it and what they’ve released in the press about the plot. It goes even darker! There’s an aspect of the killer and the crime that really engages Detective Ambrose in a new way that makes him confront his shadow as an adult. Not just past trauma, but who he is now.
It’s definitely inspiration for new sounds and what we were talking about earlier. A fresh approach to the vocabulary, once more!
To wrap things up, I have a few fill-in-the-blank questions for you. Would you like to give it a go?
My favorite summer activity is…
The most out-of-the-box instrument I’ve used in a score would have to be…
To me, I think everything is potentially equally out-of-the box! It just depends on how you’re using it. For example, using different techniques or styles with an instrument in the way it’s not usually used.
A TV show that I can’t wait to binge-watch is…
Fleabag season three. I don’t know if there’s going to be one or think there’s going to be one. But, if there was, I would totally binge-watch it!
On my days off, I love to…
Go to the park with my kids.
Last one! My favorite place to compose music is…
In my studio! It’s all set up for me to be able to articulate my ideas.