Ronit Kirchman is an intellectually sophisticated BMI Award winning composer, multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, producer, vocalist, conductor, and electronic music experimentalist. She is the musical innovator behind numerous mesmeric works for screen and stage including Golden Globe winning crime anthology series, The Sinner, Broderick Fox’s Zen and the Art of Dying and The Skin I’m In, Ron Judkins’ Finding Neighbors, Stop Kiss, Ryan Fleck’s Gowanus, Brooklyn, and Adam Feinstein’s Say You Love Me. Ronit is the inaugural recipient of the Sundance Institute Time Warner Foundation Fellowship in Film Music. Her connoisseurship has garnered several prestigious accolades, such as the Sundance Composers Lab and Documentary Composers Lab Fellowships, BMI Conductors Fellowship, and a Subito grant from the American Composers Forum. In our compelling exchange, Ronit delves into the intricacies of the intense palette she harnessed for the disturbing second season of The Sinner and how empowering a culture of inclusivity will result in richer artistic outcomes.
I understand that you engaged in top-level musical training from a young age, studying the violin under a direct disciple of the legendary impresario and grandmaster, Jascha Heifetz. You went on to receive an elite education at Yale University and later, California Institute of the Arts. How did immersing yourself in this rarefied atmosphere prepare you for the rewards and challenges of commercial media composing? What lessons from your academic past continue to inform your current musical pursuits?
One of the greatest gifts of my education and musical training was that it reflected and cultivated certain values that I hold dear as an artist: a very high bar for craftsmanship, an appreciation of the arts on their own terms, a commitment to contemplation and the conceptual space, and intellectual rigor and depth. And of course, it allowed me to develop a rich foundational set of tools for exploring and expressing music that I use and hopefully expand upon every day. It’s an interesting dynamic because, in academia, your work isn’t necessarily considered better or more important because it’s more popular or speaks to everyone. To make a casual comparison, in theoretical physics, if your work made sense to everyone, it probably wouldn’t be advancing the field.
One thing I really enjoy about composing music for media in the “real world” is that the audience response does matter and that the reach of the work can be much larger. You’re moving more hearts and minds, potentially. I enjoy the balance. I think it’s helpful in one’s studio to have that sense of the inner laboratory that feeds the outer work. You don’t necessarily have to explain every piece of the inner workings in order for that level of detail and craftsmanship and innovation to be felt by the client, by your collaborators in other media, and by the audience. Film music is a little like architecture, in that there are clients, there are people who will experience the environment you are designing, and of course, there are many concrete, administrative, and interpersonal parameters and concerns, permits and contractors. So when you are able to bring some meaningful ideas and vision to that process and have them translate into an impactful and moving experience for others, it’s very gratifying.
You are a gifted multi-instrumentalist, singer, producer, and electronic music connoisseur with the capacity to traverse across genres. Can you elaborate on the core inspirations behind your musical identity and the personal disciplines you maintained to fortify your skill sets? What would you say is the source of your power and éclat as a composer?
That is very kind feedback. In terms of musical identity, I think it helps to go under the surface. I source myself in an understanding that the role of an artist is to be in conversation with and transform the human experience through awareness and expression. You obviously can’t do it all in one project! (Or ever completely!) The human experience covers a really wide range of emotions, kinds of thinking, places, colors, textures. It includes drama, tragedy, comedy, suspense, action, big gestures, tiny gestures. Being a composer for me is expressing something that connects to the collective through the instrument of embodied imagination. Developing that instrument is a lifelong activity. I resonate with a lot of different kinds of music, and I am continually making efforts to learn more about the existing traditions of music making, as well as the frontier areas of technology and sound design. When I open myself up to write, I seek to bring something through in an original and essential way. I also aim to enjoy the creative process, because that’s a way of expressing gratitude, and I think it improves the results as well.
I have derived a lot of benefit from studying other modalities of creative awareness and movement training. Working with vocalists and actors in the theater as a musical director really highlighted for me how little that kind of whole-body, emotion-friendly work factors into a composer’s training. So I spent a lot of years studying yoga and meditation, Linklater technique, authentic movement, creative dream work, and even fully certifying in the Feldenkrais method of movement education, which focuses on repatterning the nervous system and improving learning through movement awareness. I think this all feeds into my daily work programming music while sitting at my computer! (Partially kidding.)
The Sinner is a riveting crime drama anthology series, originally based on the writings of the German author, Petra Hammesfahr. You were sought out by the director, Derek Simonds during the pilot phase to musically illustrate the mysterious journey of Cora, a psychologically unhinged mother who experiences a triggered mental breakdown at the beach, stabbing a man to death in broad daylight. Coming onto the project, what were the guiding forces that influenced the construction of your expansive and harmonically rich musical palette?
Derek and the whole creative team were eager for the show to have its own unique, powerful music — to develop its own signature and language. In that kind of environment, you feel invited to invent, and you can bring your creativity to the table. They weren’t looking for a standard procedural score. Also, in this show, there is a great degree of attention to dramatic subtlety on small and big scales. In order to articulate those shifts of psychology, understanding, pacing, and emotion, the music has to be calibrated finely as well, so that it can register those variations and support the audience’s experience of them. The drama, the suspense, and the excitement in the show depend on that calibration.
I think music has such a strong subliminal effect, and it affects our brain states very profoundly. Music frames the experience on a cognitive level. It’s not just a theoretical thing. If the music is harmonically complex and opens up some new structural paradigms, it guides the audience to listen more carefully and to sit a little closer to the edge of their seats. It primes people to experience the story in a different way.
Moving into season two of The Sinner, Detective Ambrose returns to his hometown to investigate the double homicide of a couple initially thought to be poisoned by their 13-year-old son. What musical devices and motifs did you deem essential to carry over into the second season for Harry? As the cast of characters changes, how did you intend to reimagine your score while maintaining a sense of familiar integrity?
You’ve highlighted an interesting and very creatively rich aspect of The Sinner — it’s an anthology with continuity. Detective Harry Ambrose is the throughline, entering a totally new “whydunit” mystery each season. Ambrose and his journey articulate the deep questions that the show explores about human motivation, trauma, and how it plays out, collective secrets and taboos, and the personal struggle with shadow and violence.
For the second season, I composed entirely new themes and brought in a host of new instruments — hammered dulcimer, harmonium, ritual drums, acoustic violin used in a new motivic way, processed vocal elements — as well as a different timbral profile. I’d say overall it goes darker, and it’s possibly more organic in its texture. I kept some of the Season 1 elements in my palette, in particular, those associated with Ambrose’s experience, but these have also been recontextualized. It was something I felt strongly was appropriate, and the creative team agreed since in many ways the new season presents us with a whole new world — a new crime and a new killer, and a new chapter of psychological investigations. In fact, Ambrose himself changes over the course of the seasons, and we open up previously unexplored areas of his past, so this needs to be heard in the music as well.
I think the “whydunit” nature of The Sinner may be the best “meta” way to describe how the score evolves from season to season. The signature of The Sinner in part has to do with the approach to the material, and how the music relates to the drama, not just the concrete content itself.
Your treatment for The Sinner feels like a window to the minds of the characters. Your score never seems merely decorative while magnifying human drama, from emotional numbness to raw outbursts of violent energy, with profound sensitivity. What specific instrumentation lent itself to this cerebral approach? What have you learned about yourself as an artist from supporting these nuanced and evolving narratives?
I really appreciate this observation, because my intention is for the music to function as an essential organ in the body of the show. Hopefully, it’s an approach that integrates the cerebral, the emotional, and the visceral so that you guide people toward a deep response to the material. Yes, even within the package of enjoyable primetime entertainment!
I think it’s both the instruments and the conceptual framing of the instruments that work together to communicate these different levels. For example, I use harmonium in Season 2 in a way that references some of the cultural associations it might have, but also creates a sound world for it which doesn’t really have a precedent or reference. It functions in a way that I haven’t heard harmonium do before, musically or dramatically. It also has some inherent qualities, especially using the mechanical tremolo, which lends itself to bridging the gap between organic and synthesized sound. I use the orchestral vocabulary, sometimes in a way that references genre, but other times in a way that sets it apart, processes it in an unusual way, or blends with other elements, with the intention of creating a subliminal sense around how the functionality of an element can change, ever so surreptitiously. The vocal elements also morph, but not all at once — over the course of several cues — into an almost unrecognizable synthetic pulse. The hammered dulcimer in some ways might evoke a certain rustic Americana, but its melody is very unusual and off-kilter, while very specific to the tuning and layout of the instrument itself. These are a few examples of how the score can contextualize and concretize instruments in a purposeful way that I hope frees them to become more expressive.
For me, the process of tuning into the material in this way is really enlivening and sharpens my expressive toolkit. I have to find new ways of materializing things. I also find it heartening to be working in an environment where nuance is valued, even required.
What was the symbolic rationale behind the use of the metronome, a ubiquitous timekeeping device, in your score for season two?
The metronome was written into the script from the beginning. Derek came up with this idea as a powerful, simple element that would recur, something the members of the Mosswood community would use to trigger a sort of hypnotic state. I was glad that we treated it as a score element because it figures so prominently, and I wanted to be able to make musical choices about tempo and sound.
I think it functions very beautifully as a literary element because we didn’t treat it as a diegetic sound, per se. It’s more poetic in terms of how it comes in and out, and it has an immutable sonic character that doesn’t really change depending on the space it’s in. It’s interesting that the metronome becomes something that actually suspends the ordinary perception of time.
Part of the addictive nature of watching The Sinner is the artful manner in which clues are dispensed and that nothing is ever what it initially seems. What creative opportunities does this sense of evolving mystery present for you?
It presents both the opportunity and the need for restraint! We definitely think a lot about not anticipating the next moves within the score in an obvious way. To keep people watching, you can’t rely on a bag of tricks. You have to go deep with it, get people to immerse in a point of view, and then shift things in an unexpected way. That translates to the musical choices very directly. I have to find nimble harmonic and timbral moves that create those kinds of felt shifts and get really specific about the overall framework of musical expectation that I’m building from a more zoomed-out structural point of view.
In terms of instrumentation, I am inspired to create a palette where harmony and timbre meet to facilitate that nimbleness. It’s also great that the needs of the story predicate some element of surprise, which means there is room to be bold and come in with a really new sound or idea. I’m realizing as I describe this that the way the mystery plays out contributes to the large expressive range that the score articulates — from subtle to bold.
It has been revealed that the third season of The Sinner will revolve around Detective Ambrose’s investigation of a routine car crash that cloaks a much more significant, harrowing crime. Is there anything you can share with us about what this next installment will demand of you musically?
At this point, I’m still just reading scripts and outlines, so it’s a little early in the journey to describe the musical approach. But dramatically we go even deeper and darker with Ambrose, and the nature of the crime reflects this – or vice versa – which is something the showrunner has shared about Season 3. This is definitely going to shape the sound of the new arc, and I’m excited to start some musical investigations into it soon.
In recent years, the scarcity of women in film music has become a prominent topic of discussion and commentary in the industry. While the public is becoming more aware of this dramatic gender discrepancy, there is still much work to be done to address this imbalance. As someone who is actively changing the dialogue, what are the greatest misconceptions about female composers today? What are the gateways to normalizing the hiring of talented and deserving women for larger budgeted projects?
It’s a real bummer that this is still a thing we have to deal with, but I think it’s important to keep it in the conversation until we see some gender parity. I do genuinely feel the environment is changing for the better. It’s sometimes hard to pinpoint all of the misconceptions that are active in hiring decisions, and in the assessment of female composers, because of the element of subconscious bias. Also, people may know their bias but choose not to articulate it. However, there are certain misconceptions which have been documented in recent general studies of the field. The biggest one may be relating to people having trouble trusting women to handle larger-budget projects. It’s the same kind of bias that results in fewer women leading in other fields, fewer female CEOs. Why is it less risky to trust a man with the same amount of experience? It’s not. There has to be some trust.
Ultimately, I believe that people taking calculated risks and hiring women for these positions will pay off. The ceiling is being dismantled incrementally with each woman that works on a big-budget film or television series. I hope that those in hiring positions will keep an active awareness around this and make concrete adjustments if we don’t see enough general improvement. Visibility helps because it affects subconscious assumptions, and it affects the younger generation’s confidence entering the field.
There are other ridiculous misconceptions, like that women write music better in certain “feminine” styles or that women probably don’t want to do the job because they don’t show up in as many numbers. These are the same kinds of things people say when the issue of cultural diversity comes up. A culture of inclusivity is necessary to foster the talent that is there, and it will yield a richer musical output that connects with more people. It’s really better for everyone.
If you could travel back in time, is there a particular era or movement in art and music that you would desire to experience directly?
I think most of all I would love to visit certain artists at work. Leonardo; Rodin; Pina Bausch; Rembrandt; Stravinsky; Mingus; Merce Cunningham; Bach. I would have loved to have hung out with The Beatles during the recording sessions and to have been there at every step of the way of the many evolutions of jazz.
I am fascinated by ancient civilizations and what it would have felt like to think like a person thousands of years ago. Anyone building some huge monolith or a 20-foot sculpture for a temple, I’d be interested in visiting.
I don’t feel a particular longing for any time in the past, though. I feel like now is better. It’s probably the combination of being really into technology and being a woman and my innate sense of optimism that our minds have great potential for opening, and there are so many new wonderful experiences we collectively have yet to discover.
Interviewer | Ruby Gartenberg
Research, Editing, Copy, Layout | Ruby Gartenberg
Extending gratitude to Ronit Kirchman and White Bear PR.