Ronit Kirchman‘s unnerving and iconoclastic score for USA’s The Sinner (an HY favorite!) implies that the artist behind it is thoughtful, curious, progressive, and extremely talented. And after chatting with Ronit about her influences, her creative approach, and her immersion into the storytelling of a project, we found that implication to be 100% spot on. Check out the full interview below (it’s fantastic):
How and when did you first start composing?
Ever since I can remember, I’ve composed music and “thought in music,” cogitating on note patterns, musical gestures, and expressing through sound in my imagination. For me, music is a language which exists alongside but is also intertwined with speech, sound, image, movement, and experience. When I was young, I wrote a lot of songs and improvised music on the violin with my dad at the piano. I was classically trained from the beginning, but I also felt affinities with a lot of different kinds of music and got interested in electronic music early on. I think my innate sense of how music is interconnected with other forms of perception and expression has made me curious about where the music stops and the other stuff begins. It’s also why I have always felt that conventional linear notational systems, while useful, are not adequate to describe the total identity of the music. This has motivated me to experiment with different ways of defining the flow of sound, as well as to get very deep into production techniques and working with audio.
What was the path or the turning point that landed your first major scoring gig?
I think it’s true that careers develop from a series of breaks rather than one single break. On a more fundamental level, the path probably comes from my deep love of stories and storytelling. My interest in music for narrative goes back a long time. As a kid, I loved (and still do!) animated film musicals, and I had the idea that someday I would write and score animated musicals of my own. In my formative years, I was also very active with visual art and writing – as a painter, satirical cartoonist, video and installation artist, and poet. After college, I moved back to my hometown of New York City, and there I continued to study electronic music, jazz guitar, sound design, and play rock, blues, classical, and country music – just getting more knowledge in all sorts of musical areas of interest that weren’t covered by my classical education. Then somewhat out of the blue, an acquaintance of mine from Yale, a really talented director, asked me to step in and do sound design for a theater piece of his. As we worked together, we realized it needed a more musical approach, and it turned into what I guess was my first scoring / sound design project. At the time, it didn’t occur to me that this was my first job creating a score for narrative, because I had already been thinking this way for a long time, linking music and sound with story. We went on to work on many productions together in a short time, and I did a lot of immersive theater scoring and sound design in New York. But I also was drawn by the scope and scale of film. At the same time, I wanted to dive further into complex musical areas like algorithmic and systems-based composition, computer programming, audio engineering, and music from around the world. So I went to graduate school at CalArts in composition with the express intention of exploring those musical experiences there, and I also began to work in film music by doing some assistant work and composing the scores for many student films. I was very honored to receive the Sundance Composers Lab fellowship very early in my professional trajectory, and I think that gave me the sense of a creative community and also affirmed my process as an artist.
Who/what are your biggest musical influences?
This is always such a great, as well as an anxiety-producing, question for me, because there are too many to mention, and I never feel like I am doing any of them enough justice when I answer. I think of influences as both conscious and subconscious, so the influences I am choosing to include probably don’t even tell the whole story. I’d say a musical influence is someone whose language opens your heart, mind, and body to greater resonance. I think we each ultimately have to speak from our own source as composers and artists, but each positive influence is like a key that unlocks a connection with something greater. My early experiences playing a lot of the orchestral and chamber music repertoire was deeply formative. Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky, Bartok. Bach and Beethoven (especially the amazing, timeless late works), Schubert, Schumann, Brahms. I’ll keep going .. Charles Mingus, John Coltrane, Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman, Ella Fitzgerald. U2. Peter Gabriel. Kate Bush. Madonna. Aretha. Prince. Curtis Mayfield. Parliament. Burt Bacharach. Stephen Sondheim. Leonard Bernstein. The Beatles. The Rolling Stones. Neil Young. Tom Petty. Lightnin’ Hopkins. Robert Johnson. D’Gary. Ali Farka Toure. Toumani Diabate. Angelique Kidjo. PJ Harvey. John Cage. Stockhausen. Varese. All of my teachers. I also feel like I’m greatly influenced by artists in other disciplines – dance, visual art, poetry, theater, and film – as well as discoveries in the technological and scientific realms.
We’d love to hear a little bit about your creative process. How do you usually get started on a piece?
Well, it really depends on the medium. For a piece that is integrated with narrative, like a film or television score, or even a song for film, the world of the story is the way in for me. I read the script, watch footage, get to know the creative storytellers and their vision, and I start to inhabit that world and discover the potentials for music to speak, shape, and move within it. It’s great to have a little time to ramp into a project like that, because as I become more immersed in it, I start to come up with melodies, harmonies, and gestural ideas, or a glimpse of an imaginary soundscape, at random points in my day. I take voice memos of musical ideas and conceptual insights. I take written notes as well, about my overall impressions, structural strategies, concrete implementations. I also start to experiment and assemble a palette of instruments, both acoustic and virtual, and get specific about my “adverbs” or ideas about sonic processing. What’s the “how” of this world? That interests me too. As soon as I get my hands on instruments, there is a new conversation that starts, where the materials and instruments feed back to me as well, and then we are off to the races.
For pieces that are not the result of a narrative immersion, it can all start with a kernel of a musical idea, or a great hook, or a concept about how I want data to flow, or something about the instruments that I’m working with that I want to explore. Sometimes I get an idea directly from playing or interacting with an instrument or with software. There’s possibly a more poetic or structural concern up front when I’m not working directly with story. I’m very interested in the idea of a broader conceptualization of storytelling, where the lyrical, formal concerns and the content are really intertwined and inseparable.
Do you ever encounter writers’ block; what’s your remedy to cure it?
I prefer not to think about the bumps in the road this way, and I think framing it differently can help. There are many ways to improve the flow. A lot of it has to do with connection, a feeling of completing the circuit, a feeling of movement. The writer or composer is not an isolated entity – on the contrary, we are connected and breathing and capable of listening, and it doesn’t have to feel hard to maintain that awareness and get curious about it. In scoring, there is the gift of connecting with the story, its characters, its stylistic attitudes, the particular ways in which information flows in this world you are helping to construct. If you anchor yourself in the dynamics of the story, and give yourself the freedom to come up with different ways of relating, you will already be in a state of motion. It’s an interesting thing: I think you need to feel grounded in something, you need to have a foundation in order to be able to express more freely. It’s essential to find that sense of north or that sense of gravity for the piece that you are working on. Even just the process of orienting yourself, defining your parameters, building the playing field, finding your ground – that will get you moving in the right direction.
Also, in my experience, if you anchor yourself in the awareness of the movement of your own body, that can be a great start as well. Get into your full body and out of the illusion that your identity is encapsulated in a small part of your brain.
We are huge fans of the uneasy atmosphere you were able to create with the score for “The Sinner”. How did you approach composing for the show, especially knowing that suspense is really at the center of what this show is about?
I’m so glad to hear you dig it! Well, you really hit on something important about the show. It’s crucial to keep people engaged and maintain that suspense. The key to that in many cases is actually subverting or not playing the game of genre tropes in the music. It’s paradoxical, because obviously The Sinner is in the genre of psychological thrillers, but to get people to feel something raw and new, you can’t rely on conventional writing, because that is too comfortable for the viewer. The audience is too sophisticated, in a good way.
I really enjoy any project where I’m asked to do something original and where paint-by-numbers won’t do. So I embraced the challenge of finding a fresh contemporary vocabulary and a conscious approach to creating tension and pacing. I really found it was important to evaluate all the subtle aspects of POV, where we were placing the identification of the music at different points in an episode, and how music functions to create our sense of reality, memory, and dream states, in addition to its emotional impact and its ability to shape the tempo of a scene.
What’s your studio setup like? (DAW/Hardware systems); do you have a favorite piece of gear (or plugin)?
I currently sequence in Pro Tools HDX and run VE Pro servers for the bulk of my templates. I often do live recording in the studio for many of my projects, so I have some nice outboard re-cording gear and mics, from manufacturers such as Millennia, A-Designs, Grace Designs, Royer, Neumann, AKG, Sennheiser. I am a huge fan of ATC monitors. I’ve been doing a lot of my synthesis work in software environments (including modular software) because of the ease and speed of recall and integrated automation, which is so key especially when you are working on a fast-paced episodic series schedule. I like experimenting with alternative controllers. And I do a lot of processing with an ever-expanding modular system of pedalboards. I love the Eventide H9s; love the amazing sound of the Strymon and Empress products. I’m always eager to find new sonic flavors and workflows. I use a ton of plugins as well, both for creative processing and mixing as well as virtual instruments. Obviously some of my favorite plugins are made by Heavyocity! I’ll elaborate on those a little more later. I also have recently enjoyed working with some of the Unfiltered Audio plugs, which approach processing from a very creative point of view and don’t seem to treat anything as too experimental. In the feedback loop between technology and composer, the attitude and framework of software and hardware has a huge impact on the composer’s thinking and creativity. So I’m always grateful when the designers and manufacturers do something to open up the conceptual space in a user-friendly way. And of course, there is my growing family of acoustic and electric instruments, from the 7-string electric violin to the 12-string guitar to the singing bowls…
These are really just a few of my favorite things but we don’t have all day (do we?).
If you could snap your fingers and have any virtual instrument custom-tailored for you, what would it be?
This is such an amazing question! Are you taking requests??
I do live performances with electronics where I re-imagine and remix my film scores and com-positions, and so I’m always looking for new ways to bridge studio-level processing and synthesis with live input and flexibility. I have in mind a sort of ultimate sampler-synthesizer-processor-looper that pushes the boundaries of remix and works great live as well as in the studio. It would let you break free of a linear time sequence while still allowing you to be a part of a linear performance. You could specify multiple tempi, as well as sync or no sync for different loop/seq elements. (That’s something I keep dreaming that a DAW will implement as well.) The sequenced parameters would have a knee control, and the sequence destinations, individual intervals, and loop lengths could be extensively customized and modulated. You could import custom mathematical functions to assign to parameters. You could also specify really short or long lengths if you wanted. It would be very user-configurable and be designed to incorporate a user library of samples, live input, as well as exchange data on multiple levels with other platforms like MAX/MSP. Obviously, it would have super-low latency, MPE capability, synthesis as well as pass-thru processing. The interface would allow the user to define parameters for custom macro gestures in real time with ease, either drawing with a tablet/touchscreen or through motion-sensitive or other creative controllers, and also save these as template macros that could apply to other patches. It would have amazing real-time pitch and harmony processing. It would be easy to use. And it would make a mean cappuccino. If anyone wants to work on this with me, let me know!
What role do Heavyocity products play in your work?
I think I own almost every Heavyocity product out there. I usually create templates for each project, and Heavyocity instruments end up in each one of my templates without fail, no matter how different the shows might be. I love the Reaktor instruments as well, like GRID II. On The Sinner, I really enjoyed using NOVO instruments as part of my string palette, because they allow the music to breathe. It’s a very intuitive and natural approach to texture that mirrors some of my thinking. In general, I appreciate that while the presets sound great on Heavyocity instruments, there’s room for the user to be creative and build something that reflects their personal aesthetic. From the beginning, Heavyocity has provided excellent sonic quality and also reflected an integrated concept of music, sound, and dynamic gesture – where rhythm and melody and sound processing are all working in tandem to create a moving experience.
Check out Ronit’s full list of credits and upcoming projects at: https://ronitkirchman.com