If you’re unfamiliar with Brian H. Kim‘s work as a composer, Panic is one epic introduction.
Panic follows a group of Texas teens in a sleepy, remote town. Kim was tasked with creating the score alongside Isabella Summers of Florence and the Machine, whom Kim affectionately calls Isa—their collaboration is expertly matched, highlighting Summers indie-rock roots and Kim’s flair for experimentation. The resulting music is a mystical, mysterious compilation brimming with tension.
The following conversation with Kim highlights his love of music and his deep understanding of his craft. What’s even impressive is his palpable passion for creating compositions that push boundaries and his advocacy for fellow creatives and others in his profession. Kim is on the precipice of something big, and he has so much more to explore—so much more to give us. We can’t wait to go along for the ride.
Read more from Brian H. Kim below:
Awards Daily: Tell me about your musical sensibilities. How would you describe your work as a composer? And how was your collaboration with Isabella Summers? Specifically, how did your music sensibilities complement one another to create the score?
Brian H. Kim: I have a kind of nomadic background when it comes to my musical upbringing. I studied to be a classical pianist for most of my childhood, then switched to choral singing and theater and playing bands when I was in college. I interned in electronic music studios in New York City and only started writing scores later in my twenties. I think my film and TV work is an amalgamation of all of that. I have this obsessiveness and perfectionism that I believe stems from all the conservatory training I had as a child. But I am constantly experimenting and trying to find new ways of making sound because of all the time I spent in studios. But, I will always love a soaring melody and always want my scores to work thematically as a whole, and I think that comes from all the time I spent in the theater.
Isa has an incredible ear for sound design, especially really abstract synth manipulation. Of course, she has a wonderful sense of songcraft from her time with Florence and the Machine. So I think when you combine her background with mine, you get a really funky cocktail of big beats and big hooks and surgical synth work, all wrapped up in a score that relies heavily on themes to give Panic its structure over ten episodes.
A really great example of this is from the end of the pilot episode when Heather (Olivia Scott Welch) is climbing up the mountain before her big jump. Isa took a first pass at that cue and lay down all the synth basslines and arpeggiations, and then I took a second pass and added some more instruments, like live piano, from my studio, and structured the cue around emotional beats. It was a very organic back-and-forth of obsessive tweaking until the cue felt just right.
AD: What instruments did you use to create the sound and overall vibe of the score?
BHK: We wanted the score to sound super modern and current, to reflect how of the moment these teenage characters are. Anything we did that sounded ‘traditional’ immediately felt dated. So that’s how we ended up with a primarily electronic sound.
We used so many different synths. One hardware synth we relied on heavily was the Access Virus, which is great for making huge, really dirty sounds. For some of the more tweaky arpeggiators, I used a synth called a MicroFreak and some software. But we knew that, emotionally, we needed the score to encompass a huge range, and so we incorporated tons of live piano, big war drums, twangy guitar, some strings, and lots of choral work.
AD: How would you describe the score? There’s an ethereal quality to it that I really enjoyed. The Panic soundtrack is also very indie-rock-heavy. Was the soundtrack a source of inspiration?
BHK: I think that’s a really good observation! The music supervisor, Amanda Krieg Thomas, did an incredible job finding the right vibe for these Texas teens, using songs that were both very current and incorporated that rock sound whenever it suited the scene. We worked in tandem with one another. Most of the time, I would not know what the final songs would be while working on the score. But we would all be included in these large music meetings where we would discuss tone and song possibilities, so the best Isa and I could do is take that information and close our eyes and jump!
There are unique challenges to crafting a primarily electronic score while giving it a wide emotional range. I think the ethereal elements you mention were really crucial in providing the audience a chance to catch their breath and just sit with the characters during weighty moments. This was not a score that was going to have a string orchestra as part of its palette. Instead, we created textures and pads that could match the swelling emotions we saw on screen. There’s a fluttering, almost flute-sounding synth that we use for Heather’s protagonist whenever she’s having pivotal, life-changing moments. Having sounds like that to use throughout the score give it a lightness and color that I think elevates Heather’s journey.
I think the score, overall, is a gut punch— very much a reflection of the life-and-death stakes these kids have put themselves into—while also being very emotionally evocative. It covers a huge range.
AD: What are some of your favorite pieces of music from the show?
BHK: As mentioned, I love the piece of music that closes the pilot. I think it’s a great encapsulation of what Isa and I bring to the project and an excellent thesis for what the score will give you over the next nine episodes.
There’s a sequence in episode 5 where Sarah (Maya Hendricks) sneaks into Bishop’s (Camron Jones) house, and it’s several minutes of constant tension and important plot points. I loved figuring out all the little puzzle pieces to make the scene work in the best way possible.
The scene where Ray (Ray Nicholson) and Heather first kiss in episode 4 is also one of my favorites. Ray Nicholson has a monologue that is both poetic and sexy—weaving a cue that would highlight the language while also heightening the sexual tension was a great challenge. But I love the way it turned out.
AD: In your mind, what makes for a great score?
BHK: I think the greatest scores these days hit you like a freight train full of new ideas and new sounds and new ways of thinking. But they have to balance those new ideas with timeless methods of storytelling—pace, structure, themes. I don’t think a great score can only have new ideas or only thrive on tradition. I think the best scores have that balance. A great example is what Natalie Holt has done with the Loki score —mix retro electronic sounds with big Hollywood-style orchestral textures, with a smattering of pop sensibilities thrown in, while reflecting the mind-bending plot through sound design. I really love hearing a score like that and thinking, ‘Man, I haven’t heard anything like this before.’
AD: You’ve worked on many indie projects during your career. How has that shaped you as a composer?
BHK: The indie films I have worked on have all been incredibly different from my TV work. It’s almost like working on an album, where I’m spending weeks, maybe months, working on 20 to 40 minutes of music and fine-tuning it—then recording it all at the very end of the process. It feels more intensive, more intimate. The film Hello My Name Is Doris only had about 20 minutes of score in it. But, [director] Michael Showalter and I spent a couple of months digging into the cues, rewriting them, and reconsidering their placement— all in the service of characters and humor.
It’s impossible not to learn and grow when you go through a process like that. You really learn about writing and editing—how all of the crafts that come before the scoring process are instrumental in creating the humanity you see on screen. And how it’s the job of the score to be a final step to bring it all together.
AD: Do you have any upcoming projects that you can share?
BHK: As soon as Panic ended, I started working on my first non-film-music solo album, and I hope to have that finished by the end of the year. It’s all solo piano music— something I haven’t written since I was a teenager. It’s been such a lovely experience going back to my roots, especially after all the chaos of 2020.
I also have some other film and tv projects that are too early in their production to talk about yet.
AD: Lastly, Is there anything I haven’t asked you about that you wanted to discuss?
BHK: It’s both a tumultuous and inspiring time for BIPOC creators right now, with more possibilities than ever before. But there are also very big hurdles to clear.
For the AAPI community, in particular, the past couple of years have had monumental moments, Parasite, Crazy Rich Asians, Minari. An influx of new K-Pop and K-Dramas. But at the same time, there is a deep rejection of AAPI citizens happening. So it’s hard to feel like these wins in the entertainment industry are making much headway in real life. But I think the really important thing is for AAPI and BIPOC creators to just keep creating, and keep highlighting the truth. The more that the world sees us making incredible work, the more that we exist in pop culture, the more that we see names like “Yeun” or “Ramos” or “Kaluuya” in credits, the more likely it is that the next generation of BIPOC creators will be inspired, and the more we will see the entertainment industry reflecting the real world and inspiring real change.
Panic is streaming now on Amazon Prime Video. The score is available now. And you can learn more about Brian H. Kim’s work here.