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Interview: Made in Abyss Composer Kevin Penkin

by Callum May,

When interviewing anime creators, it's not common to talk to someone from outside Japan, and it's even less common to interview someone from my own country of Australia. Kevin Penkin's score for Made in Abyss is already being hailed as one of the most captivating soundtracks of the year, playing a major part in how the show introduces its world as Reg and Riko venture down into the abyss. As a huge fan myself, I reached out to Kevin for an interview about his career and work on the show.

It appears that all of your anime soundtrack work has been with Kinema Citrus. How did you come to work with them?

I met Kinema Citrus when we were attached to the same project called "Under the Dog", which raised just over $875,000 on Kickstarter to fund a 30-minute OVA. Since then, we've enjoyed a wonderful relationship on other projects such as Norn9 and most recently, Made in Abyss.

Do you expect to be working on anime outside of Kinema Citrus in the future?

That would be lovely. It's not entirely up to me, but that would be lovely. I'm very grateful to get any work in anime, as I'm very, very passionate about this industry. If I do get the opportunity to work on another project from any company, I would consider it to be a great privilege.

What was your first reaction to Made in Abyss when you were approached with the project? How much of it did you get to read?

I was given the first 4 books as source material to read and was immediately taken by the world that Tsukushi Akihito had created. The early stages of production were just me going through the books and finding interesting scenes or artwork to write music to.

Who did you have the most contact with on the Made in Abyss staff? What sort of questions did you ask?

I have a music director named Hiromitsu Iijima, who I would talk to on a daily basis. Every couple of weeks after a large chunk of the soundtrack had been written, we'd set up a meeting with Kojima-san and Ogasawara-san to discuss the current state of the soundtrack. We'd discuss if there were any points of concern or if anything needed to be changed. We essentially repeated that process until we were ready to record, mix, and finalize the music.

What sort of instructions and materials were you given in regards to making tracks for Made in Abyss?

In addition to all the manga books, I got a lot of background and concept art that I could reference. Trying to match the visual color palette and the musical "color" palette was really important to me. For example, looking at how the foregrounds and backgrounds were so juxtaposed gave me ideas such as writing for a small ensemble of instruments, but recorded in a large space. This was meant to act as a metaphor for Riko and Reg exploring in this humongous, expansive cave system.

Could you elaborate on the idea of developing a musical "color" palette? How do colors and music correlate?

It might be best for me to give some examples. Starting more broadly with Reg, he's a character made up of both organic and mechanical body parts. So combining organic and mechanical sound sources when writing for Reg felt perfectly natural.

Talking more specifically about color correlation, there is a lot of information in color that allows us to perceive essential things such as relationships and distances between objects. Sound has this as well. Depending on how you combine the essential components of sound (pitch, timbre, harmony, loudness, etc.) and controlling how they either complement or clash against each other is going to result in a specific listening experience. Some of the tracks on the OST like “Roar of the Abyss” have rising textures and ascending musical intervals.

“Depths of the Abyss” is another example of the musical key slowly “ascending” over time to act as a sonic metaphor for the Abyss rising up to surround and engulf our main characters. There's the flip side to this as well. The title track “Made in Abyss” features descending string passages to represent Riko and Reg's descent into the world of the Abyss. I've personally found that thinking about these sorts of concepts can be very helpful when trying to establish the palette of sounds (colors) that you think will complement and/or enhance what's being displayed on screen.

How much did you know about how your music would be used? Did you know that Underground River would be used to introduce the world in a montage just six minutes into the first episode?

Syncing music to anime is a slightly different process than what I've experienced with films here in London and in other parts of the world. In the limited amount of anime that I've done, I've typically been instructed to create music away from the picture, which is then matched to the desired scene(s) at a later stage of production. This might contribute to why a lot of anime music can feel like a music video at times. From what I've experienced and from what I can research, I've seen directors take large chunks of time out of an episode to let the music take over so that the audience can “breathe". Underground River is a good example of this. You get a lot of information in the first 6 minutes of MiB Episode 1. You're introduced to characters, their motivations, world building, monsters and action all in a very short amount of time. Taking a minute or two to let the viewer digest all this can be very effective, and music can help with that.

You're also known for your work on Necrobarista and Kieru, two Australian indie games. What draws you to working on Aussie games, even after making your debut internationally?

Being a fellow Aussie like yourself, there's a lot of pride in how interesting and unique Australian indie games are. I've always had a connection to games and Australia. So even though I'm currently living in the UK, the fact that I'm still able to work on games with friends who are living back home is something really special.

It's not common to see an Australian in the credits for anime. Do you think musicians from outside of Japan are becoming more common?

You and I are probably around the same age, which means we probably both grew up watching Dragon Ball Z on TV, right? There's actually two scores composed for that series depending on if it's the FUNimation English Dub or if it's the original Japanese version. So I actually grew up listening to Bruce Faulconer's music for DBZ, not Shunsuke Kikuchi's original score. There's also other examples such as Blood+ with Marc Mancina, Gabriele Roberto with Zetman in 2012, and Evan Call has done quite a few things as well. So I think while it may be becoming more frequent to see musicians from outside of Japan being attached to anime projects, there has been some precedent for a while now.

How would you say composing for games differs to composing for an anime series like Made in Abyss?

Speaking for myself, composing for games, anime, or whatever typically starts the same. I feel that if you're able to nail the concept and/or tone of the project, that's a big part of the process already completed. Then it's just up to the individual needs of the project. Games are typically approached from an interactive point of view. If it's film or TV, you need to know if you're writing to picture or if you can write with no time contractions like I described before. You sort of go from there really.

How would you describe that concept/tone of Made in Abyss?

Made in Abyss offered the perfect opportunity to get really specific with instrumentation. We had analog synthesizers, field recordings, vocal samples, and much more that were heavily manipulated to create distinct electro-acoustic textures. Deciding where to record was also a really important discussion, and we ended up recording at a studio in Vienna called the Synchron Stage.

The Synchron Stage is a huge, state of the art recording facility just outside central Vienna. I asked for a custom chamber orchestra comprised of three violins, three violas, two celli, one double bass, two flutes, two clarinets, one bassoon, two french horns, one trumpet, one trombone, and one tuba. Totaling 19 musicians. Each musician had their own “solo" part, meaning that there was up to 19 different “lines” being played at the same time during a piece of music.

The concept behind such a setup was to represent the small company of characters exploring the Abyss. Everyone's in this massive underground cave system, so I felt having a small group of soloists in a space designed to fit over 130 musicians was the perfect sonic metaphor for this. It just so happened that we were also working with some insanely good musicians and an unbelievable technical team as well.

If you were given the chance to collaborate on a soundtrack with one composer working in anime today, who would it be?

That's an interesting question. To be honest, I think I'd rather be an understudy of someone really experienced, rather than write side by side with them. If I could be a fly on the wall while Cornelius was writing Ghost in the Shell Arise, or Yoko Kanno while she was writing Terror in Resonance, that would be so, so informative. That said, Flying Lotus just got announced as the Blade Runner 2022 composer so I'd do anything to get in on that, even though it comes out in a few days (laughs).

Made in Abyss is one of the most highly regarded anime of the year. What do you think about the reaction to it?

I can't tell you how happy I am about the reaction to Made in Abyss. Writing the soundtrack was tough. The music is experimental in nature, and it required a lot of time and effort from many, many people. Everyone came together to make this work, and I'm over the moon with how it turned out.

Thanks so much for your hard work and we look forward to your next anime!

Thank you!

The Made in Abyss soundtrack is now available on Amazon and iTunes.


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