‘Pachinko’ Composer Nico Muhly Gets Intimate in Scoring Epic Series

·3-min read

Classical composer Nico Muhly rarely writes for TV (the BBC “Howard’s End” was the last one, five years ago), making his score for Apple TV+’s eight-hour “Pachinko” something of an event. The century-spanning epic follows a poor Korean woman and her descendants as their lives intertwine, often unhappily, with those of their Japanese neighbors. Variety talked to Muhly about his sensitive music for the miniseries.

Why did you want to tackle this project?

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

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

Not at all. That was one of the first things I said to Soo: “If you want someone to do East Asian music, you’ve got to hire someone else.” Yes, it is a story that is so incredibly specific to this one period of time and this one colonial gesture. It does take us to America, and this very modern vision of what Japan and Korea are like now. [But] instead of being temporally specific, the music latches on to the characters a little bit more.

How did you begin?

I wrote longer pieces of music that could be manipulated and put into appropriate places. The most narratively and emotionally important was the music for the younger Sunja. That’s the genetic material that governs the whole piece. This story is so specific, but it’s also the story of any colonial overseas enterprise, and the story of any large-scale immigrant thing. That’s another way that I thought the music had to function as glue, as a bridge, a way to be with the characters but also float above them a little bit.

What were some of the key moments in the score?

I laid all the groundwork early; I generated a lot of material. I wanted to do the piece where Hansu sees Sunja from across the fish market at the end of episode 1. I wanted to get the choral music right, when they are making the white rice, which is incredibly important. And I wanted to get some music together for Solomon, knowing that there would be these montages in episode 6 and 8 where we are connecting directly from Solomon back to his grandmother.

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

It’s a small ensemble. I don’t think there are more than 10 players, just with clever overdubbing. We did it over three or four sessions. We never had more than five violins, one viola, one cello, flute, oboe and solo voice.

How often did you confer with Soo Hugh?

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

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