Ronit Kirchman is a multitalented and well respected composer, music producer, singer, author, visual artist, and instrumentalist whose work has spanned both film and stage. Kirchman has a natural instinct for combining storytelling with a gripping score that pulls you deep in to each character’s world. The definition of a true artist, she is known for her powerful originality. She has brought this same passion and stylistic depth to her latest work featured in the USA Network’s series, The Sinner, starring Jessica Biel.
The Sinner, based on the novel of the same name by Petra Hammesfahr, follows the twisted tale of Cora Tannetti. We are introduced to Cora initially as being a mild mannered wife and mother but quickly realize that there is something very wrong happening in her world. The Sinner takes us through Tannetti’s life after she, seemingly without warning, becomes a murderer. Jessica Biel’s performance will grip you to your core and Kirchman has created the perfect score to guide you through every twist and turn in to the darkest corners of Cora Tannetti’s life.
I recently had the opportunity to speak with Ronit Kirchman to find out more about her experience with scoring the music for The Sinner. I was interested to find out more about what the creators were looking for in regards to the music for the show as well as how Kirchman was able to go above and beyond to pull off the task.
Ronit Kirchman Interview
TAMMY: Music seems to have always played a key role in your life. When did you know you wanted to pursue music professionally? And what lead you down the film scoring path?
RONIT KIRCHMAN: I can’t remember a time in my life when music wasn’t a part of my identity. “Thinking in music” is kind of like breathing to me – it’s part of how I function and go through life. I began violin lessons when I was 4, so that was the start of my formal training, and there was always music happening around the house – both playing (all of my family members sing and play instruments) and listening to records.
In terms of craftsmanship, I think I’ve always considered music on a professional level and focused on developing the highest level of technical proficiency. In my formative years, I did whatever I could to keep all of my creative pursuits going at a very high level, and I didn’t want feel like I had to choose between music, art, and writing.
I did a lot of classical performance training through high school and college. I had some amazing violin teachers, including Erick Friedman, who was Jascha Heifetz’s protégé, while I studied at Yale. At the same time, I was writing songs and composing and improvising and making art, and I think ultimately the pull to create new forms was always really strong and active for me. The choice to be a professional composer just kind of became clear at a certain point. I couldn’t imagine being happy if I wasn’t immersed and creating in that way. I started writing music for theater in New York after college, and that collaborative environment felt very familiar to me. I loved writing songs for the theater, too. I really enjoy working with directors, writers, and actors, and I love having the very human conversations that go along with creating a story for an audience. I was drawn by the scale and reach of film, and so the move into film scoring felt like a natural progression. I also wanted to go to graduate school to dive deeper into computer music, improvisation, and music from all over the world, so I went to CalArts for my MFA. Around the same time, I also began to work as a film composer. I think receiving the Sundance Composers Lab fellowship was very affirming for me early on, and above all showed me that each composer has their own way of doing things.
TAMMY: What does your creative process typically look like? Or does your approach differ depending on the project?
RONIT KIRCHMAN: In scoring, the process always centers around story for me – getting immersed in the world of the film or tv show and creating channels for interaction with it. A big part of that is having good conversations with the directors and producers, and building that collaboration. I love getting involved during the script stage, as it lets me simmer in the ideas for longer. I start writing and putting together instrumental palette ideas from very early on, even if there is not a deadline looming. It’s sometimes surprising to see what early material becomes relevant later in the scoring process. That’s why it’s important not to be too precious about things, and to just make music as a natural part of absorbing the story. If we’re incorporating large ensemble recording, that definitely shapes the schedule and planning. I love scheduling live recordings earlier as well as at the end of the writing process, so that I can work with that material and manipulate the audio. Larger ensembles increase the size of the team I’m working with too (music prep, outside studio facilities, etc). In the case of The Sinner, though, I am creating all of the music in my studio.
In a television series, as compared with film, there’s a much faster production pace and also the episodic structure. It’s a really wonderful creative framework because it allows me to develop the themes and ideas and sound palette as the series continues. I get to go deeper with the material and the characters. I build on what went before, and also find opportunities to introduce new elements. In this series, where we unearth buried facts and hidden realities, we also have a chance to reveal and discover new musical threads.
TAMMY: You are so accomplished and have so much knowledge in the field of film scoring but you always seem open to learning and continuing to evolve as an artist. Your versatility as a composer is really incredible. How do you feel you have grown as a composer through the years from your first projects up until now?
RONIT KIRCHMAN: Well, I hope I’m still growing! I feel like it’s a great gift to be an artist, because there is always something new and wonderful to explore, and that keeps you alive. What I love about film scoring is that each story really requires its own language on some level, and so each time I score a new project, I add to my vocabulary. Sometimes it is working in a new genre, sometimes it is deepening my knowledge of a certain musical style. Sometimes it’s even picking up a new instrument, like a banjo, or a harmonium. Each project also adds to my understanding of creative collaborations and how I can work with the different people involved. I think my workflow improves and expands with each project, too. You get ideas about how to make things flow more efficiently and clearly in your setup and your day. I think overall, I’ve learned to see composing as a very integrated process, involving a lot of different ways of thinking and interacting with others, and to learn to include all of those ways of being in my self-understanding when I come to a day of work.
TAMMY: I’m very excited about your work in The Sinner. What were the creators looking for in regards to the music for the series?
RONIT KIRCHMAN: Thanks so much! It’s an exciting show to work on. The showrunner, Derek Simonds, is looking for music that will amplify the expression of the show, and work with its aesthetic. From the beginning, he has expressed a desire for sounds and themes that feel original and unexpected, while at the same time totally organic to the story. We are playing with and questioning and also going outside of thriller or mystery genre conventions. We’re looking to create an audience response of genuine engagement, suspense, and surprise– and that means creating a fresh tool kit. In terms of instrumentation, there is a lot of enthusiasm for the hybrid palette I am building, which incorporates specifically designed electronic elements, sculpted sounds, acoustic instrumental writing with extended techniques, and processing of live sounds. There is a big emphasis on subtle shifts in timbre, harmony, and texture to provide invisible support for the scene. The goal is to create an integrated, visceral response, and a contemporary feel, so that the audience is just sucked into the story.
TAMMY: After reading over the script for The Sinner, what were your initial thoughts going in to the story and how did prepare yourself to enhance it musically?
RONIT KIRCHMAN: I remember noticing that the inner life of the characters had a lot of rich potential, and that the psychological story was just as important as the exterior plot points. In fact, the psychology and the narrative structure of this show are totally interlinked, and that is the heart of what draws us in. At the same time, I felt very clearly affected by the simple yet archetypal shifts in the external locations– the lake; the family homes; the police station; the jail; the courtroom. I feel once you start responding to a text, the musical dialogue is already in progress. In a way, there is no preparation on a creative level– you’re already off to the races.
TAMMY: You have such a gift of drawing inspiration for your work from a variety of places. A gesture or a look can inspire a whole theme. Where did you draw inspiration for your work in The Sinner?
RONIT KIRCHMAN: Well, it’s a very rich environment, so I had a lot to respond to. The story has a quality of revealing or unfolding which I find very appealing to work with– different degrees of opacity, transparency, and translucence in terms of what we understand or think we understand. That translates into musical ideas for textures, chord progressions, sonic revelations. There are also what I would call “story gestures” or “story dynamics” that have a certain musical feeling to them. Some examples: the surprise of finding out that things are not what they seem; the movement of rage and shock when a character takes a sudden violent turn; the methodical unearthing of clues, like a systematic, persistent digging; and so on. As a composer you don’t necessarily follow or add to these gestures in the moment that they appear (although sometimes you do amplify them), but these story dynamics are powerful currents that help to shape the musical current as well. The performances are strong, so I get to work with subtleties in the performances at various moments. It’s also shot with powerful juxtapositions and very consciously chosen qualities of color and light that feed into my musical pacing and instrumentation.
TAMMY: Were there any challenges that you faced in scoring the music for The Sinner that you were happy to have to opportunity to tackle and overcome?
RONIT KIRCHMAN: A primary challenge here is finding the right tonal balance, and that is definitely a fun challenge for a composer. We are aiming to create a show which keeps the audience on its toes, and which invites you to tune in and listen closely. The music has the job of enhancing and illuminating some very subtle psychological shadings, as well as helping to shape the pacing in a way that adds to the suspense, intrigue, and impact. Each episode I enjoy that challenge anew, thinking also about creating that exciting and very calibrated experience in the context of previous and future episodes.
TAMMY: Tell me a bit about the actual recording of the music for The Sinner. What is the experience like once you are in the studio?
RONIT KIRCHMAN: Recording the music for The Sinner in the studio is really a solo venture. I’m composing to picture on a multi-computer system, drawing from a large palette of software instruments (both acoustic libraries and synthesizers) as well as audio plugins that I have put together for the show. The electronic palette continues to evolve a little with every episode. I’m also designing sounds, effects, and instrument patches to get just the right dynamic timbre and instrument control. As far as live instruments, I’ve been recording acoustic violin as well as electric 7-string violin through an extensive pedalboard of effects. Then sometimes I process those recordings further, depending on what I’m looking for.
TAMMY: Music can many times end up being as much a part of the story as the characters themselves. What types of themes were you able to explore while scoring the music for the show? What was it like to watch those themes develop along with the characters in the series?
RONIT KIRCHMAN: The music gets to articulate a lot of subconscious and unconscious story material in The Sinner, for specific characters as well as in a kind of dynamic collective resonance. There’s a wide range of emotions and moods– from grief and horror and fear and sorrow, to mystery, intrigue, anxiety, and nervous tension. Various musical themes are loosely affiliated with characters’ points of view, or certain relationships or pairings of characters, or specific moods or situations. One thing I’m enjoying in particular is the ongoing development of the relationship between the present and the past. Since this is a “whydunit”– we know the who, where, and what already– there is a lot that gets revealed through flashbacks. I don’t even consider them flashbacks, because the past is such an essential and well-developed part of the story. The past sequences introduce music that cross-pollinates with the present time, and as past and present interact in Cora’s awakening memory, the music gets really interesting, I think! Also in terms of what cumulative associations it holds and how it interacts with the story.
TAMMY: What was your experience like in working with the crew on The Sinner?
RONIT KIRCHMAN: We’re actually still working on the show! First and foremost, I feel very lucky to be working with such an engaged, energetic, and inspired group of people. For reals. There is a great team spirit and a strong desire and group commitment to make a good show. Most of the folks are in New York, while I’m in LA, but I wake up really early because I have small children– so it works out well!
TAMMY: What advice do you have for someone who is just getting started in the film music industry?
RONIT KIRCHMAN: My brother-in-law calls the field of film music “glamour-adjacent”, which I think is so funny and apt. It’s important to remember that there is a lot of detailed and unappreciated work that goes into the final product, and you have to enjoy that part of it for its own sake.
Really enjoy the journey. It may well involve various delays, bumps, and disappointments, but if you hang in there, you will be better for it. Experience is a big plus as you keep working. You become wiser and more resilient, and you can use that foundation to become more open, rather than less open, when it comes time to create something new. Every experience you have can make you a better artist, if you let it.
There can be a lot of “yang” energy involved in finding projects to work on, raising awareness of your work, and getting to know others in the community, especially in the beginning. That really appeals to certain people, and maybe not so much to others. The thing is, once you get the gig, so to speak, it’s a different dynamic. If your goal is to create a truly impactful, original, exciting score, that is going to involve a lot of careful listening and kind attention– to your own inspiration as well as the voices of your collaborators.
Many people say that you should say yes to absolutely every project that comes your way. I don’t know if that’s true. I think it’s important to say yes to a lot of things. It’s also important to monitor your “creative chi” and make sure you are focusing your energies in the right way. Know thyself!
TAMMY: What else are you working on or have coming up that you are excited to share?
RONIT KIRCHMAN: I have some film projects coming up after The Sinner wraps, and I certainly am excited about continuing my work in television, because I enjoy episodic structure and development so much. I’m also making some new records of my own as a singer, songwriter, and producer, which I’m looking forward to sharing with a larger audience soon. It looks like my next public performance as a violinist will be with the Go: Organic Orchestra at the Angel City Jazz Festival in October.
The Sinner aires Wednesdays at 10/9c on USA Network. You can catch up with past episodes via OnDemand. It is a show that you are not going to want to miss.