‘Pachinko’ Composer Nico Muhly Gets Intimate in Music for Epic Series

classical composer Nico Muhly rarely writes for television (the BBC’s “Howard’s End” was the last, five years ago), making its score for Apple TV+ eight hours”Pachinkosomething of an event. The age-old epic follows a poor Korean woman and her descendants as their lives intertwine, often sadly, with those of their Japanese neighbors. Variety spoke to Muhly about his sensitive music for the miniseries.

Why did you want to embark on this project?

I had read the book, like most Americans. Soo Hugh, the showrunner, had kind of come across a lot of my instrumental music. She called me and said, “Do you want to do this?” It was a very quick “yes”.

What did “Pachinko” need, musically? I noticed that you don’t really recognize Korean or Japanese settings with your music.

No way. It was one of the first things I said to Soo: “If you want someone to do East Asian music, you have to hire someone else. Yes, it’s such an incredibly specific story to this period and this colonial gesture. It takes us to America, and this very modern take on what Japan and Korea are like today. [But] instead of being time-specific, the music clings a bit more to the characters.

How did you start?

I wrote longer pieces of music that could be manipulated and placed in appropriate places. Most important narratively and emotionally was the music for young Sunja. It is the genetic material that rules the whole room. This story is so specific, but it’s also the story of any overseas colonial enterprise, and the story of any large-scale immigrant thing. It’s another way I thought music should work like a glue, like a bridge, a way of being with the characters but also floating a bit above them.

What were the key moments of the score?

I laid all the groundwork early; I generated a lot of material. I wanted to do the piece where Hansu sees Sunja on the other side of the fish market at the end of episode 1. I wanted the choir music to be right, when they’re making white rice, which is incredibly important. And I wanted to put some music together for Solomon, knowing that there would be these edits in episodes 6 and 8 where we connect directly from Solomon to his grandmother.

Much of the score has an intimate, almost chamber music feel.

It’s a small set. I don’t think there are more than 10 players, just with a nifty overdub. We did it in three or four sessions. We never had more than five violins, a viola, a cello, a flute, an oboe and a solo voice.

How many times have you chatted with Soo Hugh?

A few thousand times a day! Soo went into this project knowing exactly how the music was going to work. She sent me a [detailed] document before anything was shot, and where we ended up was more or less there. She already knew what the arc was, and she was absolutely right. Our meetings went incredibly fast because we both knew what had to happen. We were so on the same page all the time.

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