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“The Sinner” Composer Ronit Kirchman Brings an Exploratory Spirit to Her Work

Music scribe and mentor, Kirchman tells creators to be open to “happy accidents” whenever they come along.

Posted in News on July 31, 2020 by

New York City native Ronit Kirchman found her passion for music early in life, starting violin lessons at age 4, and playing music as “parlor entertainment” with her parents and grandparents. By age 11, she was composing on a Yamaha synthesizer, experimenting with different sounds and styles of music. She focused on classical music training throughout high school and college, but never strayed from her other interests in visual art and creative writing.

After graduating from Yale, Kirchman moved back to New York and started writing songs and scores for theater while continuing to explore a variety of musical genres and instruments. After realizing that she wanted to score films, she enrolled in graduate school, studying composition and new media at the California Institute of the Arts. As she completed her MFA, she gained real-world experience by scoring independent films and assisting film composers.

Kirchman has enjoyed a longtime creative collaboration with Derek Simonds, producer of USA Network’s Emmy- and Golden Globe-nominated series, The Sinner, starring actress and producer Jessica Biel. Kirchman was subsequently asked to score the Facebook Watch series Limetown, also starring Biel, based off the hit podcast of the same name.

Kirchman lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two children, and she has kept busy during the COVID-19 pandemic by scoring a dramatic feature for Blumhouse TV/Amazon Studios and working with software manufacturers on sound design projects. She shared how she establishes strong collaborative partnerships with directors and producers, why mentoring is important to her, and how she approaches a new project.

Tell us a little about your background in music. How did you first start playing and composing music, and how did you build your passion for music into a career?

It’s interesting to reflect on some of the things that shape us early on. When I was a little child, we used to watch a lot of orchestral broadcasts on TV, and my mom has told me that I would point energetically at the violin and say, “That one! That one!” Eventually, I got my way, and started taking lessons when I was 4 years old.

I also always loved to sing and write songs, and have even found some tape recordings of myself as a tot creating my first songs. My dad plays piano and picks up tunes by ear very easily, and we often played together, riffing on familiar songs and making stuff up. Whenever we went over to my grandparents’ house, there was usually a part of the day or evening that was like a little parlor entertainment, and whoever played an instrument would play something. I think all of those early experiences were really formative. Music was something that I did with my family, and it always included performing, improvising, and composing. I think about that a lot now that I have a family of my own. My husband and I try to create an environment where the kids can feel at home in music, and inhabit music as a natural way to share and express things.

Technology, recording, and sound synthesis were also early passions of mine. I don’t know exactly where this fascination came from, but I convinced my parents to get me a synth — the [Yamaha] DX7IIFD — when I was 11 or so. I didn’t really know any fellow audio geeks at the time, so I learned on my own and I read whatever electronic music books and audio magazines I could get my hands on. I was attracted to a wide range of musical styles, from mainstream pop all the way to the most “out” sounds, abstract and experimental compositions. These all felt related to me. I also knew deep down [that] I had contributions to make, and I was very motivated to engage with the world of music and actively shape it.

In high school and college, I focused in on my classical music and violin training, playing at festivals like Tanglewood, at amazing venues like Carnegie Hall, and studying with the greats — Erick Friedman, who was a protege of Jascha Heifetz, and Zvi Zeitlin were among my teachers. I was very active in music, art, and creative writing, and for a long time I didn’t want to choose one over the other. After I graduated from Yale, I moved back to New York and organically ended up writing songs and scores for theater, creating immersive sound design, and working as a musical director and vocal coach.

I did some work assisting film composers and began scoring independent films. From there, I continued to build my career as a composer, performer, and producer by “doing the thing” project by project, forming creative relationships and gaining experience. The early support I got from BMI and Sundance through their fellowships and workshops was very affirming, and also gave me a sense of belonging and place that really makes a difference.

How did you get involved with The Sinner, USA Network’s Emmy- and Golden Globe-nominated series? What was it about this project that interested you?

The creator of the show, Derek Simonds, is a longtime creative collaborator and friend of mine. We actually met at Yale and found each other in Los Angeles a few years later. We hung out and went to shows together and shared creative ideas a lot. When The Sinner came along, he gave me the script to read. We had some conversations early on, and when the pilot was in post, he asked me to start creating music that they could cut in while editing. That naturally evolved into having me score the first episode for its premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, and then continuing on to score the series.

I was drawn to the project for a number of reasons. It’s always wonderful to have an opportunity to work with a cherished colleague and a talented team. I feel that the people you work with are probably the most important element of any creative adventure. Also, I really responded to the show’s cinematic approach and the desire for an original, innovative aesthetic. As a composer, I love to work on projects where I’m invited to create something fresh and new, not to paint by numbers but really seek out something special that hasn’t been said quite this way before.

I also felt a spark with the show’s focus on psychology, motivation, and the collective unconscious. The Sinner is exciting and entertaining, and it also goes under the surface of the emotion and action. I think the show is engaging because it goes deep with characters and ideas, not in spite of that. That’s an inspiring place to make music, because it lets me dig into nuance and a multi-layered approach with what I’m doing, in addition to creating impact, pacing, tension, and mystery.

You also scored Limetown last fall and have a feature from Blumhouse TV and Amazon Studios coming out later this year. Tell us a bit about those projects, how you got involved, and in what ways they’re different than other shows you’ve worked on.

Limetown is a thriller produced for Facebook Watch, based on the hit podcast of the same name. I was excited to get the call from Iron Ocean, Jessica Biel’s company, since I’ve worked with them a lot on The Sinner and really enjoy the creativity in their approach. Limetown has a unique, quietly operatic quality to it — a lot of the episodes were almost through-scored — as well as a cinematic sensibility. Certain episodes, each of which focused on an individual character, needed to have their own language which integrated meaningfully into the rest of the score. Also, perhaps since it was based on a podcast, the element of sound was really central to the storytelling, which made my job very interesting.

Limetown combines big-picture questions of technology, ethics, and society with a wide emotional range. It asks about that border between artifice and nature, and examines the spectrum from warmth and empathy to cold alienation. That called for a truly hybrid score, with a lot of orchestral and organic elements as well as very articulated sound design. The Limetown soundtrack is available through Lakeshore [Records], and I’m so glad we had a chance to put the music out on its own for people to hear.

The upcoming Blumhouse/Amazon project is an exciting one. I just recently wrapped work on the score, but the project hasn’t been announced yet, so I’ll speak more generally about it for now. It’s been a lovely experience working on that film because of the terrific directors and team. It’s also a wonderfully well-written story with a lot of emotional dramatic substance (as well as some thrills and scares!). I really enjoyed creating a melodically rich score, and having the opportunity to support complex and heartfelt relationships through music.

You’ve collaborated with directors Brian Gattas, Abigail Severance and Broderick Fox on multiple projects. How would you advise aspiring composers to establish strong working relationships with film and television directors? What are your tips for making sure you’re aligned in the creative vision you both have for the music?

I think the best way to establish relationships is to do your best work, listen, and stay present in the process. When that creative process is fruitful and enjoyable, it can usually lead to more collaborations. It’s very rewarding to build familiarity and a kind of intuitive shorthand with directors over the course of multiple projects. At the same time, I think it’s important to open your mind to the unique potentials of the new project when working with someone you’ve worked with before.

When you keep each encounter fresh, the collaboration can develop from a baseline of trust and having fun in the process. It’s key to cultivate communication. Seek the same kind of rich feedback on the fourth project that you did on the first. And enjoy the fact that when there is trust, you have more room to try something new as you develop initial ideas.

In addition to composing music for film, television, theater, dance and multimedia productions, you are a visual artist, recording artist, poet and author. When you’re inspired to create, how do you determine which path to take, among your many talents and interests?

Sometimes an idea will come and it feels pretty clear where to start, whether it be a song, or a painting, or a book. Other times, the beginning of a path is more elusive, and I need to explore a variety of formats. Those fluid, synesthetic starting points encourage me to reach, stretch, search, and invent. I’ve learned and am still learning to just start making stuff and let intuition lead. Let creativity flow and allow the exploration to travel through and materialize in all sorts of media.

You recently led a masterclass for composers on The White Bear Channel on YouTube, where you discussed the art of composing music for narrative purposes and the language of musical development, among other artistic concepts. Tell us a bit about the process of mentoring other composers. What tips have helped you that you try to get across?

I have really enjoyed the increasing opportunities I’ve had to share my artistry through teaching, participating in panel discussions, and developing educational programs. Last spring, I particularly enjoyed being the composer-in-residence at Columbia College in Chicago, where I taught the MFA film scoring students. I also recently co-founded a mentorship program with two of my fellow board members at the Alliance for Women Film Composers, which has had a successful inaugural year.

Mentorship can take a lot of different forms, but I think fundamentally it’s about that wonderful flow of teaching and learning. The people I’ve mentored are all so talented, intelligent and motivated, and it’s always inspiring to see the passion for film scoring reflected in my students. That’s a passion I want them to be able to sustain as they make their way through the world. So, I always teach with an aim to give people tools to develop their careers and establish themselves with practical experience, while remembering to tend that vital creative flame.

Different individuals have different areas of strength and development when they come to you, so I try to listen to what each person needs help with and is interested in learning, and respond to that. There are so many aspects of film scoring, from workflow to musical composition to interpersonal and business relationships. If I have an extended period of time with students, like I did at Columbia, I can delve into all of those and also look at how they are interrelated. Some of the broad messages I try to communicate are: 1) You are a storyteller; 2) This is a collaborative art form — embrace that and let it inform your musicality; 3) Be willing to revise and start from scratch. If something isn’t working, don’t hold onto it. If you have a good archiving system, you can always go back to v1!

As a multi-instrumentalist, do you have a go-to instrument when it comes to composing, or does it depend upon the project you’re working on?

It definitely depends on the project. Generally with a score, I like to go to my imagination first, beyond any limits, and open up to the potentials. From there, I start finding the concrete tools that are right for the project. Once I start interacting with instruments and programming software, there’s a wonderful feedback loop that happens where the instruments inform you and suggest new possibilities. Sometimes there are happy accidents and you want to be open to those when they come along.

For me, as an improviser, there’s music that is really about the magic of that moment in time and what comes through the interaction with an instrument. Of course, I write for the whole orchestra and various ensembles, so I write for many instruments that I don’t play myself. As is true more generally in life, there’s a conversation that goes on between the material and the ethereal, and it’s good when you can move between those worlds with ease. The more you learn about the concrete nature of the instruments, the more avenues the ethereal can find for expression. Sometimes a specific material or instrument becomes the perfect vehicle for a particular theme, and other times you need to loosen the relationship with a certain instrument and change instrumentation in order to allow a new pattern to come through.

You are an alumna of the Sundance Composers Lab and the first recipient of the Sundance Institute Time Warner Foundation Fellowship in Film Music. You’ve also returned to the lab as a creative advisor. Can you share a little bit about what the lab is like, and how composers work together to develop their skills and build relationships in the industry?

The Sundance Composers Lab has been such a wonderfully formative place for me. It’s almost like having another alma mater, because of the warmth of the organization and the alumni and mentor community. When I was at the Lab as a Fellow, the program hadn’t moved to Skywalker Ranch yet, and we were composing in little trailers at the Sundance Institute in Utah. It was a unique experience: very process-oriented, letting things be a little experimental and rough around the edges — all about creative conversations and forming friendships. It’s something very special, to encounter film scoring in this way. You re-enter the world with an “inner Sundance” that shines some light on the everyday. There is a camaraderie that builds over a period of weeks, which is especially sweet for film composers whose usual work routine can be quite solitary.

Understanding that many film, television and theater projects have been delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, how are you spending your creative time?

This spring and summer, I’ve been grateful to be composing scores for projects that completed their shoots right before everything closed down. I recently wrapped a dramatic feature, and am now completing a couple of short scores (a futuristic thriller and a comedy). I’ve also had the opportunity to work with some software manufacturers, creating presets and generating and sharing technical ideas, which has been fun. Sound design is always part of my scoring process, but I enjoy chill time programming for its own sake. I’m also looking forward to developing album projects, spending more time with my instruments, dreaming up new visual and audio images, and giving voice to more of my own stories. These are things that I hope will continue to flourish after the pandemic is behind us.

It’s not the easiest time right now for anyone, but I’m orienting myself by opening to new ways of thinking and working. I give gratitude every day for the basic joy of creating, and nourish my curiosity about what beauty can develop.

How did you start working with BMI and how has it impacted your career?

When I was starting out, I remember choosing BMI because it had such a strong and welcoming career development program. BMI was sponsoring all the workshops and fellowships I wanted to be a part of, from the Sundance labs to the conducting fellowship with Lucas Richman. I’m so thankful to Doreen Ringer-Ross, who has been immensely supportive and has been the engine of so many of these initiatives. I know I’ve got a lot of company when I say that I honestly can’t imagine what my experience would have been in this business without her and the whole BMI team. BMI has been such a great ally for us in the industry, and for me it has also been the vehicle of countless wonderful and continuing personal and professional connections.