'Dexter' Composer Daniel Licht on Using Human Bones as Instruments and the Season Finale

Categories: Q&As
Danielle Bacher/ OC Weekly
There is only one episode left in the fifth season of Dexter, and the suspense is killing everyone...perhaps even Dexter himself. The wickedly enjoyable Showtime series centers on the protagonist Dexter Morgan, a forensics expert by day and a serial killer by night, and how those identities merge to create one fascinating and disturbing character. But the program's secret weapon is Award-winning composer Daniel Licht's creepy, indelible score.

"It all started on season four when I included an ancient instrument called a bone rap that was actually made out of human bones," says Licht. His use of unusual methods and traditional instruments enhances the original score on the show by creating eerie, even otherworldly tones. During his time working on the series, Licht has employed medical tools, animal and human bones, duct tape and uncommon musical instruments to match the creepy vibe of the characters and their surroundings.

Even though Licht is given the episodes to score in advance, he watches each episode like any other viewer. He prefers to see the show without any expectation. After, he makes mental notes of his emotions, and tries to create those same feelings when composing the music in his personal studio in Los Angeles. Although Licht wouldn't reveal any hints about the finale, he did confirm that there will be a Season Six filming in June (perhaps shooting again in Long Beach)! Stay tuned for the last episode on December 12, you won't want to miss it.

OC Weekly (Danielle Bacher): How did you start composing for
Daniel Licht: I was recommended by the music supervisor Gary Calamar, and I think one of the reasons they were so interested in me is because I had comedy, Latin music, thrillers and horror films in my background. I think that I might have been one of the few people that had all those elements. The show takes place in Miami, so they wanted to have Latin-influenced music. That was definitely a stroke of luck, and they hired me.

Were you nervous to write such "creepy" music for this show? What about the horror genre interests you?
My first film was a vampire film, and I've also done Children of the Corn, Hellraiser, Amityville and a lot of horror sequels--so I've done plenty of bloody, gory stuff. I guess there is a lot of possibilities for music in the darker genres. Doing romanic comedies all the time could make you go a little crazy. What's nice about Dexter is that there is such a variety of music. I could never get bored working on it. I'm not really interested in the straight horror and slasher films anymore. There are only so many ways you can find a score from somebody jumping out and grabbing someone. 

How did you come up with the concept to use animal and human bones to create interesting sounds for your music?
In Season Two, I used human bones. Unfortunately, I couldn't get the human bones this year. I thought it would be kind of creepy. I heard about a woman who had some ancient Aztec instruments that were made out of human bones, and I thought it would be really cool to use for Dexter. I contacted a woman by the name of Elizabeth Waldo, and we hit it off. She had said to me that she had never let anyone use her instruments for recording. In fact, the last person that asked her was Maurice Jarre, a composer for Lawrence of Arabia, and she turned him down. So I felt honored that she let me use them. I don't know if I should feel honored, or times are just harder now than they were then. Anyway, that was a lot of fun.

Do you feel like your sound really developed from each season using these unique instruments?
I think the sound has developed. In the first season, I really covered the groundwork for setting up the sound to the show. Using guitars because of the Spanish flavor, a lot of percussion, piano, and small string groups kept the sound very intimate. I guess it has developed over the years. I have a lot of different instruments from around the world. I like to use as interesting textures as possible, and sometimes I will take instruments and play them in unusual ways to stretch the envelope a bit.This season incorporated some low woodwinds, and it has some different flavors than the other seasons. Specifically with Lumen, I used more orchestral, woodwinds and harp--just a softer, pastoral sound. Some people have heard the music and say, "Wow, this doesn't sound like Dexter music at all." 

How involved are the producers and music editors for the show?
The producers and editors have a little input into the show, and they edit the music that I've written in the form of a temp score. Sometimes we use that as a jumping-off point. A lot of the cues they cut in are placeholders, and that's usually a starting point for the pace and the mood they are looking for. Generally, I'm left on my own. Either the music works or it doesn't. In terms of plotting the overall episodes, I try to get the arc of each episode and try to push the story along. If it feels slow, I pick up the pace. If it feels fast, I'll try and slow down the pace. The acting is very good, so when you work with good acting, you have to learn how to not make it bad acting through poor decisions--which composers can do if you have a very complex scene, basically you can wash over and simplify it. 

Are you given the script to score ahead of time? And do you create the music for each specific scene?
I don't actually read the scripts in advance. I get the show as its cut because I want to be surprised by it. Whenever I watch a show for the first time, I take physical or mental notes on my reaction to the scene. Then I can try and stay out of the way of what's working and help what is not working. Frequently, I ask questions for both the writer and producers on the characters and their importance. In general, I don't know any more than the audience. I'm seeing the video three or four months ahead of the viewer, but I see it per episode.

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