Composer Interview: Daniel Licht (Dexter, Dishonored, The Red Road etc.)

In the score for Dexter, you use a lot of very real found instruments, sawing bones and using medical instruments etc to invoke the sinister element of Dexter. How do you switch on and off from such evil subject matter and make sure you’re “clocked off” for the night?

I have no trouble switching off. For the record, much of the music in Dexter is about humanity or at least becoming human. A surprising amount of what I did for Dexter was sensitive, emotional cues. To answer your question, I give my full attention to every project or scene that I work on, and when I finish one I just move on to the next, or I relax and enjoy dinner with my wife.

Is this process of using every day objects in the score to reflect the subject matter something that you’ve taken with you into other projects since Dexter or does it only work for certain scores?

I’ve been interested in music for found objects and novel instrumental playing techniques since my time in NYC, playing with experimental downtown ensembles. Most of the time I am looking for a way to create a mood using sound. I might incorporate some kind of world music element if it relates to the subject, but with Dexter I took it to an extreme using related objects for the fun of it.

When beginning any project (film/TV/games), how do you initially decide on the overall “sonic palette” (sound/instruments) required?

I always try to define my palette before scoring a project. The best way to create a musical character is to limit the textures and instruments you will call on. I also like to write my themes before scoring a scene, so that I know the structure of a melody in pure form before I fit it into a scene. How I choose my palette of sounds may be determined by the scope of the drama. Is it intimate and psychological? Then I might use piano, harps, guitars, etc. Instruments that feel close and can be played quietly. Is it grand? Then maybe large orchestra or layered synth pads. This is a simplification, but generally the idea.

The go-to advice for composers is generally “Be in LA if you’re serious about scoring” – do you think this is still the case, considering how much communication technology has come along in recent years?

Things are changing so I would hesitate to make a blanket statement, but I think you need to be near a center of production. It could be Boston, Austin, San Fran, New York depending on what kind of media you are looking to score. If you are interested in television or film I think Los Angeles is the best place to be. Here is where you will meet the young filmmaker who will carry you along with his career, or the agent that believes in you and hip pockets you, or the composer who you work for as assistant for who gives you shared credit that leads to your own career blossoming. This is how people get in to the biz.

You recently scored the music for Sundance TV’s six-part drama series, “The Red Road”. Tell us a bit about that.

The Red Road is a thriller that revolves around a Native American community just outside NYC. The music that I did for it was very minimal and restrained. When I was hired, I thought “Oh cool. I can use all sorts of Native American sounds.” As it turns out I did not use a single one, but created the sound with a palette of hand designed mutating synth pads and low detuned guitars.

Daniel Licht tv composer

There is a lot of debate recently about the lack of melody in current film and TV music. What do you think is the future of ‘melody’ in these mediums and do you think it has disappeared like people are saying?

It really depends on the project. There has been a move towards a colder “Nordic” feel in scores, using sparse pads and ethereal sounds. There is always a place for melody though, you may just have to redefine what a melody is. It might just be a two note echoing motif for two voices, or a bending harmonica note. Classical long spun out melodies in the John Williams vein are less common, it is true, and I think all of those jobs which call for such go to Andre Desplat.

What’s your definition of success?

Getting to work on projects that challenge me to grow as a composer.

Click here to watch Daniel Licht performing the Dexter theme live with Sean Callery.

To learn more about Daniel Licht, visit his website at http://www.danlicht.com/

Written by: Emmett Cooke

Emmett Cooke is an Irish composer for film, tv and video games. His music has been used around the world by high profile companies including Sony Playstation, Ralph Lauren, ABC, CBS, NBC, Lockheed Martin and many more.

  • http://about.me/yairyona Yair Yona

    that was a very interesting interview – thanks. his work on Dexter is excellent.

Film and Game Composers

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