For Ronit Kirchman, the key to finding the right textures for her score to The Sinner lay in an array of sequencers, samplers, virtual instruments and other tools of the electronic music trade, mixed with a touch of acoustic instrumentation.
In the USA series, Jessica Biel stars as Cora, a woman who inexplicably murders a seeming stranger. Kirchman's electronics musically match the complexities of the psychological crime drama.
"The show is very specific in its calibration," says the composer, whose previous credits include the 2015 documentary Zen and the Art of Dying, plus several films and numerous shorts. "The suspense is notched up just a degree. When the [musical] textures are getting slightly more agitated, hopefully the audience is becoming slightly more calibrated to that, in terms of their listening."
In the final episode, viewers and characters alike finally get answers. "I rearranged harmonies for the characters,from earlier episodes," Kirchman says. "They sound familiar, but the veils are being lifted."
A fine arts graduate of Yale with an MFA in composition–new media from CalArts, Kirchman uses her visual arts background when composing. "I feel sound and color simultaneously," she says. "When I watch footage, it's a very integrated experience in terms of what I'm taking in. I feel very alive."
She also plays violin — both the traditional acoustic instrument and a seven-string electronic version — and is versed not only in classical symphonic scores but also in country fiddling and jazz improvisation. Influenced by the likes of free-jazz saxophonist Ornette Coleman, she sometimes brings improv to her own work, in what she calls "spontaneous composition."
But more of her time is spent devising various synthesizer patches, instrument groupings and other electronic processes. "There are a lot of different ways to get from point A to point B in terms of envisioning the sonic characteristics, the harmonies," Kirchman says. "It's fun to experiment and set up a sonic palette."
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 5, 2018