The Heavenly Sounds of USA’s ‘Sinner’

Ronit Kirchman at the keyboard in a pink sweater, with guitars in background.

Ronit Kirchman adds a virtuoso touch as composer on USA Network’s The Sinner,, premiering tonight. (Photo courtesy Ronit Kirchman)

The underscore to heaven is easy to conjure, but who knows the sound of sin? Ronit Kirchman is the perfect composer to find out. The classically trained multi-instrumentalist is also a music producer, singer and songwriter, providing a range of perspectives and a full repertoire of skills to the sonic design of The Sinner, whose focal point is sculpted in quicksilver. The eight-episode USA series, premiering today, follows the story of a seemingly normal young woman, played by Jessica Biel, who much to her own surprise, and that of those around her, begins committing horrible acts of violence and rage, the source of which is the show’s journey. Kirchman’s score explores various themes in the series, including ideas of memory, shifting perceptions, veils that are lifted, and the deep mystery of the psyche and the mind. “There are times when the music really goes to the bleeding edge of sound design,” Kirchman said.

Equally at home at a keyboard or on a guitar, her primary instrument is the violin. On this project, she tapped a seven-string violin called the Viper, capable of piercing and unsettling electric sound, as well as deep notes. Her own dynamics run from writing for large acoustic ensembles to penning pop hooks and mining a MIDI orchestra — accented with live instrumentals for depth and texture.

Kirchman’s past credits include Zen and the Art of Dying, Finding Neighbors, and The Skin I’m In, as well as The Golden Age of Fish, Say You Love Me, and Gowanus, Brooklyn. Her comedy score for Brian Gattas’ Crunchinox premieres at Outfest last month. In addition to creating music for film and television, Kirchman composes for theater and dance, multimedia installations and the concert stage. A creative polyglot, she is also an accomplished visual artist and author. But it’s music that has been her passion since age four, growing up in New York. She has honed her craft with some of the world’s virtuosos, including Erick Friedman, the protégé of Jascha Heifetz, and Zvi Zeitlin.

Kirchman took a break from her busy workday at her studio in the hills of Los Angeles to talk to MaxTheTrax.

 

MaxTheTrax: Tell us about the Viper.

Ronit Kirchman: The Viper is a seven-string violin that goes down to a B-flat, so below the cello range. I started playing it 10 years ago. As a composer, I like having access to a full range of pitches, so it’s great to be able to go to those lower notes, especially when I improvise. Violin is an instrument that’s second nature to me, so it’s nice to have an instrument that expands the range downward. I love using it as a generator of sonic material that I process through effects. With a bowed-string instrument you have the ability to shape the gesture with great specificity. There’s a lot more responsiveness than you’d have with a keyboard. You can create a lot of textures with motion. Although at the end of the day, sometimes it may be hard for me to tell what was created with the instrument and what was created with processed sound. The Viper is great for shredding, but any solid-body electric instrument is, because you can get the compressor pedal going.

MaxTheTrax: The compressor is…?

Ronit Kirchman: The compressor is an audio signal processor that shapes dynamics. It can be a guitar pedal, or a software plugin, or an outboard unit. You can combine an overdrive pedal and the compressor to create a certain kind of sustain that you hear a lot with electric guitar, but you can get that kind of sound with violin playing too. My main string instruments are violin and electric violin, anything with strings — guitar, bass. I’ve played banjo and mandolin for scores. But I’ve played percussion. I sing. I enjoy the process of adding instruments as I go. Some feel like virtuoso instruments, and some newer to the stable. It’s a fun playground.

MaxTheTrax: What specific challenges did The Sinner present?

Ronit Kirchman: Every story is its own journey and challenge and adds to the vocabulary. That said, there are things that I’ve have been drawing on that I’ve been involved with for a long time. It’s kind of a hybrid of electronic programming from the ground up, detailed sound design work within the music, as well as instrumental writings that sometimes have extended techniques or unusual musical textures, and also that area in between, where I’ll be playing something and processing it. In terms of the musical material and instruments I feel like these are areas in which I can dive even deeper and go even wider. Emotionally, it’s a very wide range, which is exciting to get to articulate. I would characterize it as the next step in one of the branches of the tree, drawing on different threads. The show is super entertaining and has a very fresh look and feel and sound.

Ronit Kirchman plays guitar in her studio

Kirchman, seen here in her Los Angeles studio, loves to shred, on her guitar or on violin. (Photo courtesy Ronit Kirchman)

Kirchman: My setup very much incorporates electronic instruments and software instruments as well as live recording. I play a lot of different instruments and love to inject that. I also often work with other musicians, large ensembles. But the basics of the setup are sampler, sequencer, print rig, computers, lots and lots of virtual instruments and plug-ins.  I have a lot of music libraries. There are always new subtleties in tone and and programming and scripting. The whole software thing has exploded in an amazing way. You can be like an artist,  a sculptor, creating the tone that you’re looking for. It’s not just about mocking something up anymore. It’s about creating something very sonically specific. So it’s useful to have different options for the orchestra, but there’s also tons of creative instruments out there. I’ve done a lot of from-scratch programming, but I think a lot of the virtual instruments now are offering some opportunities to go deeper with the programming and create new sounds with the framework that they provide us.

MaxTheTrax: What is a print rig?

Kirchman: Some people print within their sequencer session, and some people have a dedicated rig to receive all the stems that you deliver to the dub stage. It’s a Pro Tools rig that receives the tracks, for printing stems. It’s really just another computer, that records stems. You are “printing” the audio recording.

MaxTheTrax: Do you do your work mostly in your own studio? Or do you have a favorite place to work?

Kirchman: For a quartet or larger group, I’ll go to an outside studio. I like to conduct the orchestra myself if it’s a larger group. The Sinner was created entirely in my studio, and I’ve been the musician on my sessions. It evolves. We have eight episodes, so we’ll see.

MaxTheTrax: Female composers are few and far between. How did you get the gig?

Kirchman: The show-runner, Derek Simonds, is a songwriter, and someone I collaborated with creatively for years, co-writing songs together.  We met in college, in a music theory class at Yale. In terms of getting work, it’s a little different each time, and for each person, how you create those relationships. On a television series there’s a whole network, many producers, and you’re working with them too. It’s a large team. Derek is an awesome collaborator and the whole team is very responsive and aware. Creatively everyone is working at a very high level.

MaxTheTrax: We don’t hear much about it, but Yale has a very highly regarded music program.

Kirchman: It was a great education. The undergraduate program there is very balanced, so even if you’re focusing on music you’re getting a broader education. I did a lot of writing, poetry and painting, and I still create visual art and write. Then I went on to do my graduate studies at Cal Arts, and that was great too, in terms of non-classical, and computer programming. These days, you have to learn to be a virtuoso with the computer as much as anything else. I studied it quite a bit. My masters is in composition and new media and the programming we focused on there is more core-level, using languages like Max/MSP and SuperCollider.  I’m not usually building SuperCollider patches, but I do have a background in that from graduate school. The nuts and bolts of film scoring technology, basically as soon as I got out of college I started studying that. And also, working in theater, I did some sound design in New York before I moved to L.A. But if we really want to go back to sixth or seventh grade and a DX72, I was super into technological instruments and what they could do conceptually as well as sonically. I feel like now the technology is at a place where the processing power is such that literally the sky’s the limit.

Close-up of Ronit Kirchman playing the violin.

Kirchman has been playing the violin since she was four, and calls it “second nature.” (Photo courtesy Ronit Kirchman)

 

MaxTheTrax: What would you point to as your “big break”?

Kirchman: It’s a series of little breaks. You keep chugging and more work comes your way, more people are hearing it and know who know who you are.

MaxTheTrax: Who are your influences?

Kirchman: There are so many amazing areas of music, you’d have to focus in on genre before I start. And we’ll probably be here all day! The entire area of 20th century composition has so many touchstones for open lines and interesting harmonies. John Cage is someone important to be aware of, the way in which, in the classical world, he’s set an awareness of how open it can be, embracing the concept of nothingness, of gesture in  the set-up of a performance. In a lot of ways he functions like Duchamp did in the art world, pressing reset. In the world of improvisation there are so many greats — Charlie Parker, Ornette Coleman.  There are a hundred more. Growing up, the classical influence was strong — getting to experience playing in the orchestra Debussy, Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloe or Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. Just being up there onstage playing those things and doing them in rehearsal. The Brahms B Major Trio. Playing with New York Symphony chamber groups. I went to an amazing music camp called Greenwood. I grew up in Manhattan, in the ’80s, so even pop influences like Madonna and U2 are very important, though it’s taken me a couple of decades to get perspective on that.

As a string player I always felt like I needed outlets for more than just playing notes on the page.  I always wanted to improvise. So rock music, country music, jazz.  I love Brazilian music,the music of Mali. There’s an amazing guitarist from Madagascar, D’Gary. I always want my music to sound original, so when I’m composing I’m not listening to a ton of other music. I like letting the the story take over my consciousness. But when I’m not working I have a boundless appetite for listening. Your brain works differently when it’s processing polyrhythms and different tuning scales. The process of moving among different musical languages is very integrating and stimulating. It’s a big universe emotionally and cognitively.

MaxTheTrax: Sounds like a rich mix.

Kirchman: A lot of different things inform the music. Especially in film scoring, there’s sort of a synaesthetic thing that happens. All of the senses come into play when we’re finding the musical vocabulary.

MaxTheTrax: What scores have you heard that you love?

Kirchman: The Sicario soundtrack is really great. I love how he uses the brass and the score is really melded with the sound work. It’s really subtle and interesting and cinematic. In the TV world, the language that Sean Callery built for Homeland is really great. I love how ebullient Michael Giacchino’s scores are. They’re super vibrant, beautiful themes. Life of Pi was a great score, Mychael Danna’s score.

Kirchman: It’s hard to create time in the schedule, but I still paint and create artwork, including interactive audiovisual installations. A composing schedule is intense, and I have two children, so I do what I can. But particularly working with recording, I do experience it that way, as a media artist. The analogy between painting and sculpture works well. You really are painting onscreen.  As well as responding to visual and sensory things in the story. Finally, what you’re creating is an integrated piece that hopefully people are experiencing as a journey, and are so immersed that they’re experiencing all the elements together.

 

Listen to Kirchman’s music from The Sinner.

 

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