Scoring ‘The Sinner’: An Interview with Ronit Kirchman

The Sinner on USA is a thrilling and enigmatic show that has some of the hallmarks of an anthology series — such as the close-ended seasons — with a memorable recurring, ever-evolving main character in Bill Pullman’s Detective Harry Ambrose. (The first season, notably, also starred Jessica Biel, as a woman who murdered someone and didn’t know why.)

The show concluded its second season last fall and earlier this year was renewed for a third. Ronit Kirchman scores the series, which she deems “an anthology with continuity.” That structure — as opposed to an outright anthology, as American Horror Story was for years —makes for an enriching experience for the viewer. For the people behind the scenes like Kirchman, it can also be an fantastic ride.

“It’s the best of both worlds,” she told Vehlinggo in a recent Skype call.

“Some of the ‘meta-signature’ of how the music is functioning and the sensibility that goes into the scoring — it’s the same world,” Kirchman continued. “Obviously, the character of Ambrose is a through line. But for the most part we all felt that each season is its own world with its own flows and characteristics, and its own integrity.”

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Ronit Kirchman at work on the score for ‘The Sinner.’

Kirchman, a native New Yorker who now lives in Los Angeles, is known for her work as a composer, music producer, songwriter, singer, and multi-instrumentalist, in addition for her role as a guest lecturer on film music. She’s as comfortable with an electric violin as she is programming synths or composing more traditional orchestral fare, or writing music for film, television, theatre, dance, multimedia installations, and concert performances. Amid all of that, she’s an accomplished visual artist and author.

Some might know Kirchman’s work best from documentaries such as Zen and the Art of Dying and The Skin I’m In and feature films such as Finding Neighbors and Gowanus, Brooklyn.

The way Kirchman uses a toolkit of electronics and orchestral elements to complement the dark mood and rich storytelling of Derek Simonds’ The Sinner is a powerful presentation of the depth and breadth of her talent. In the first season, Biel plays a troubled woman who killed a man with a knife during a beach trip but has no memory of why she did it. In the second season, which includes contributions from the supremely talented Hannah Gross and Carrie Coon, a boy confesses to poisoning a couple and it gets much more disturbing from there. In the upcoming third season, a fatal car accident in Upstate New York has some alarming revelations.

Kirchman’s nuanced and moving score has grown to be more orchestral and overall more of a blend of the electronic and the acoustic over two seasons. You can purchase the first season’s score via Lakeshore Records, but the second season score has yet to see a release.

In this interview, edited and condensed for clarity, we’ll discuss Kirchman’s work on the show.

Vehlinggo: I’ve noticed that your score has changed a bit as the show has progressed. There is a more orchestral element to it. Can you talk a bit about that?

Kirchman: For the most part, it’s basically all-new music. Hopefully, it feels like a part of The Sinner world. But, as a composer, I actually love the opportunity to create new stuff and find a new sonic vocabulary. That was exciting to me. We basically were all on the same page about that, and your ear is doing you right. I mean, you were hearing some more organic and acoustically recorded elements. I’m playing more violin on the score. There are some motifs that recur that are violin motifs, and there’s also — in some of the more intense thriller-y, horror-y moments — there’s some furious, improvisatory violin stuff.

The harmonium is a big thematic element. There’s a tremolo on the harmonium, which is very expressive because it fluctuates with the amount of air going through the bellows. It’s an unpredictable mechanical-but-almost-electronic-sounding feature of the harmonium.

Also, the hammered dulcimer is one of thematic instruments, because we’re going back to Ambrose’s hometown, which is in western New York. It’s got a little bit of a rural vibe. In terms of finding some colors that feel a little bit less synthesized — that was important.

The commune of Mosswood, where a lot of the [second season] takes place, is a rustic community and that felt like it played into our choices as well. The harmonium, in particular, I found was a really great bridge, because timbrely there’s moments where it really sounds very natural and organic, and then other times it really sounds out of this world and processed.

There are times when I did also process it. But there are times when the heart of the sound has almost like a tech vibe to it. So, it was something that could — especially as a sustaining instrument — end up gluing together certain things, and also end up having some thematic specificity for [Hannah Gross’ character Marin Calhoun’s] story.

Ronit Kirchman in the studio, at work on the score for The Sinner with her team.
Ronit Kirchman in the studio, at work on the score for ‘The Sinner’ with her team.

I like how you put it — that it’s a bridge between two worlds. As a composer you might think this is a wild analogy, but sometimes I think of the Cristal Baschet as another one of those organic or acoustic instruments that sounds electronic.

I totally know what you mean.

In general on The Sinner when you’re approaching composition, what are some basic principles or philosophies that you think about when you go into it? What’s your process?

I think that scoring is a lot like a combo of acting and writing. It’s just the language is music. I think it’s very important to really immerse oneself in the world and let that world alter you as the composer.

You have your musical tool kits and families of languages that you’ve been trained in and are comfortable in. But I think that when you get into the point of view of a character and their colors and moods — not just individual characters, but in an entire environment — it’s an attitude toward the emotional effect of a show. What is its dynamic range? There are a lot of musical characteristics out of the gate how a show articulates itself.

I think that the amazing thing about The Sinner is it’s cinematic, so I think that what distinguishes it from film projects in my mind is not the depth of the language, but it’s more the episodic format.

“What are the right colors of sound that I’m looking for?”

That makes sense. “Episodic cinema” must have an impact on how you structure a story arc then.

It’s a compass thing, but it includes score choices. Obviously, I read all the scripts. I really tried to soak in the world, and once I start getting footage there’s that whole sensory visual, and also just a kinesthetic integrated language of the film or the show that you’re shaping. You have to listen to it, but you also have to shape it.

So I try to take in as much as I can of the non-musical sensory and narrative elements. Then I let my musical imagination go and at that point sometimes I’ll hum something on the street. I’m always imagining, What are the right colors of sound that I’m looking for? Rather than think top down, I try to feel into what’s the felt sense that we want to get, and what are that sounds, and what are the sound fields and sound qualities that express that? [I’m] pre-hearing those things, and then finding the materials to make that stuff.

And of course, once you engage and get your hands dirty, then those materials talk back to you, too, and you’re off to the races.

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Ronit Kirchman conducting an orchestra at a concert event for the score for Season 2 of ‘The Sinner.’ Carrie Coon, as Vera Walker, is pictured in the scene on the screen.

It sounds like you have probably the best job on earth (laughs).

(laughs) I really do express my gratitude internally every day. It’s a lot of fun.

Yeah, definitely. This all makes me think of something I like to ask composers. What are some of the most notable or meaningful scoring moments for you? In this case, let’s say for season 2 of The Sinner.

Definitely the finale. It’s a huge score and a… whatever the finale analogy is to an overture: an endature. It’s a culminating suite of various themes, as the characters who are left come to some sort of emotional new place. For some characters it’s more resolved, and for Ambrose I would say it’s perhaps less resolved than ever. I really enjoyed working on that, because a lot of times the season’s episodes will give you a ton of plot information and resolution, but then you really need that emotional culmination of the finale to feel like you can get ready to binge the next season.

“… for Ambrose, I would say it’s perhaps less resolved than ever.”

I think that’s the gratifying thing about the finales. We’ve built a really rich palette of different themes, and evolved them, and then get to bring them all together. … The picture allowed, and needed, that musical journey to support it. It felt really cinematic and also really gratifying that I got to pull those things together musically. Sometimes the way a script is structured asks for that treatment, and sometimes, you know, there just isn’t that need necessarily. I really was glad that there was a role for music to play in the finale.

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Ronit Kirchman, center, is the score composer for USA’s ‘The Sinner.’

What’s interesting to me is — because it’s an anthology with continuity — it’s like you have some of the comfort of seeing Bill Pullman again next year but at the same time, like every finale, you’ve had two sort of epic season conclusions. You’ll never see virtually all of these characters again; we’re going to move on to something else now.

Yeah, yeah. One component of it is that there’s a big goodbye and you need to bring things together. In The Sinner-style, the goodbye is never an all-wrapped-up feeling.

Right, that’s true. I’m still reeling from season one to be honest (laughs). Anyway, one thing that also sticks out about your score is that there’s a metronomic element to Season 2. Can you talk about that?

So there’s this recurring element of a metronome which is used to induce altered brain states and states of emotional awareness and dropped-in-ness at the commune [in the show]. It was going to recur a lot, and it was on a level of importance that I felt like it should be a musical element, which it was… because it could potentially be a sound-editing team element.

There were things that [showrunner Derek Simonds] felt like were in the right ballpark, and things not, so I made like 17 starter metronome thumps. At first we did one [or] two, and then I was like no, I’m just going to make you a whole rabbit warren of [metronomes].

There were some clear favorites and we finally found the one, and there was a little bit of extra processing done to get it just right. But I think the reason why it’s an interesting element is because we got to discuss the fact that it’s not really an element that gets placed in space with tons of verb, or impulse response.

Even though it is technically playing in different spaces, it functions as a score element — a bridging element — which is very concretely manifesting the role that it plays for the characters, which is bridging realms. That metronome may literally be audible or not audible, depending on what works for the scene, rather than, “Oh, it would still be… exactly this volume here.” It’s not a diegetic approach; it’s a symbolic approach to that element.

Stepping back a bit: When you were working with Simonds and his team in season one or two, and considering everything you’ve already said about how you approach composition, what is your process with them? I know that some composers sometimes get the script and then they go with that, for some it’s mostly just the footage, and sometimes they’re involved in the process from the get-go. What is your sort of dynamic?

On The Sinner I really enjoy my collaboration with the showrunner. There are obviously multiple voices and notes and people, but I would say the primary collaboration is with the showrunner. [At the beginning] I got the script for the pilot — I enjoy getting in at that level and starting to let the ideas simmer, even if I’m not writing stuff to picture.

In this case, once the process was going I continued to get scripts. It’s interesting because that actually was very important for our schedule. I think it’s important to know where you end up, and not all of the material had been shot. I didn’t have a last episode to watch when I was working on some of the beginning and middle episodes. It’s important to read the script, so that you know where you’re going.

Right.

I think that when you are able, for the best collaboration the key is a mind meld, where you get to a point where you know what each other is thinking, and there is a shared aesthetic, and you’re speaking Sinner-ese.

There’s an understanding — it means that there’s less talking needed sometimes. It makes notes easier to give and get. That’s also one of the enjoyable things about working on a series, and working on multiple seasons, is that you get to deepen those collaborations, and that understanding.


Want to read more interviews with score composers? Here’s how to score Cobra Kai. Here’s what it took to create the music in The Americans. What about the world of Cliff Martinez? And take a deep-dive into the world of podcast scoring on shows like Serial and Up and Vanished. This Is Us is a popular show and part of that is its perfect score — here’s what goes into it. Perhaps you enjoyed the synth score on Vice Principals?

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