Jessica Biel’s ‘The Sinner’ Builds Tension With Orchestral, Electronic Sounds

For USA Network’s new murder-mystery drama “The Sinner,” the question isn’t whodunit but why.

In the limited series, a young mother, Cora Tannetti, played by Jessica Biel, commits a horrific act of violence but doesn’t know what motivates her. A detective, Harry Ambrose, played by Bill Pullman, becomes obsessed with discovering the reason.

The show, based on Petra Hammesfahr’s novel of the same name, debuted on USA Network to high ratings on Aug. 2.

It includes no manhunt, no reviews of security footage and no epic arrest. In the first episode, Cora confesses. What follows is a psychoanalytic journey through her past. As the detective pursues his quest, he learns that a certain song could help lead him to the truth.

The show’s music expands beyond that single tune, adding layers to the multidimensional spectrum of emotions and themes.

“[The soundscape aligns] the audience with different points of view, different characters and interpersonal dynamics.”
Composer Ronit Kirchman

In addition to turning the murder genre on its head, creator Derek Simonds wanted the program’s score and audio cues to sound unique and fresh. And so they were — in more ways than one: The show finished shooting in mid-August, with composer Ronit Kirchman still submitting new material even as the show continued production.

Simonds used Kirchman’s talents to give “The Sinner” a distinct sound palette. Gone are purely orchestral sounds. In their place are electronic textures and melodic material that, in Kirchman’s words, “keep the audience enmeshed in the experience.”

The duo met as students at Yale University, in a music theory class. Their longstanding working relationship led to Kirchman coming on board “The Sinner” early, before they began what would become a tight schedule.

She read the pilot script before production began and has had approximately one week for each episode to turn around the music.

Kirchman says she deploys a range of instruments to create at “one end of the spectrum a soaring theme, or at another end craft ambiences and pulsing rhythms to provide contours and movement — or go anywhere in between.”

She records instruments, including a seven-string violin, often using digital software such as Pro Tools and Ableton Live with its Max for Live add-on. Also in the mix: multiple electronic and virtual instruments, including Kontakt, Soniccouture and Vienna Ensemble Pro.

In all cases, Kirchman adds in her sound-design skills to manipulate the final output.

The result is a score that fluidly articulates the show’s themes and subtexts: Electronic sounds tangle with orchestral ones, and melodies come to the foreground and recede into tonal textures that don’t adhere to a single theme or character, but instead cross-pollinate each other.

The on-screen action mirrors this flow, says Kirchman, “aligning the audience with different points of view, different characters and interpersonal dynamics.” Each episode adds to a narrative about how shame and repression can damage the psyche — as Pullman’s detective searches for the why.

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