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Artist Spotlight: Daniel Licht/ Questions by Troels Folmann & Jan Hoeglund. December 2012.
Daniel Licht is a film, television and video composer whose line of work includes hit shows like Dexter, video-game franchises like Silent Hill series and an incredible list of horror features, including Children of the Night, Amityville series, Hellraiser, Children of Corn, Thinner etc.
Tell us a little bit about your musical upbringing and your first experiences with music?
I started playing music at the age of eight. Clarinet was my first instrument. At the age of twelve I got into rock music and realized it was time to switch to guitar. I listened to Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Cream, and others like that, in fact just the other day I was listening to “i Talk to the Wind” by King Crimson and realizing how it influenced my compositional style, harmonic and melodic choices, especially the way the background melodies work with the main melody. Growing up in Detroit at a very young age I would stay up at nights lying in bed and listening to late night college radio which played music ranging from Balinese Gamelan to Herbie Hancock’s “Sleeping Giant” and all around the compass.
A part of your musical training goes back to Berklee School of Music and Hampshire College. What are your thoughts on music education today? How important is it for young composers to receive conventional training?
I did not go to a classical conservatory because I was interested in many different styles of making music, I had gone from rock to jazz to world music to Western Classical Music . I went to Berklee at the age of 16 and learned how to analyze chords for improvisation as well as how to drink alcohol in bars. Hampshire College interested me because I was able to take classes with people like Max Roach at U Mass. Lou Spratlan in composition at Amherst, Schenkerian harmonic analysis ( ultimately useless knowledge) at Smith, and so on. After college I spent time studying music in Indonesia and performed with NYC downtown avant guard ensembles at CBGBs with art noise punk bands which was also a very important learning period.
I would recommend that composers learn keyboard harmony and orchestration. It is funny that younger composers are learning about the various instrumental articulations through sample libraries. They may have know idea how spicatto is produced but they do know what it sounds like. I suppose they are learning the ranges of instrumnents as well by the limits of the key ranges of their various sampled instruments. As far as composition is concerned I always recommend writing out your ideas even if you composed them on your computer. If you do that I guarantee you will find slight improvements to your original idea.
You and Christoper Young (composer) have back story – tell us a little bit about that and how you got to know each other?
I went to college with Chris. We played in a jazz band together and would get together with friends and perform freeform vocal improvs in the stairwells. Chris was instrumental in inspiring me to come out to California to pursue a career in music for film and TV.
What was your first major film score and what do you remember from the process of making it?
My first theatrical film was Children of the Corn II, This was also the first Dimension film. I recorded it in LA. I didn’t have the budget for a full orchestra so I split the session between wind/strings/ harp piano for the pretty stuff and low strings brass/ choir for the scary stuff. At that time composers were not required to demo cues, but what i did was play four handed piano part with singing of main melodies for the director to click. Coincidentally, Marco Beltrami, who used to work for me time to time, played the other piano part.
You have scored a great amount of darker and horror oriented movies. What’s up with all this darkness?
It really is because the first film I did out in LA , recommended by Christopher Young, was a vampire film. From that point on I was pigeon-holed into thrillers. For a while I moved into dramatic films like Zooman, Permanent midnight, but working on Dexter brought me right back to that dark world. I would say though that I do have an attraction to darker themes. I love minor waltzes as listeners may have noticed.
Dexter is one of the darkest TV-shows in existence. Tell us how it all came to be and how you got involved?
Actually I think one of the reasons I got hired on Dexter is that I had done some lighter genre movies that incorporated Latin flavors. Because of it’s location in MIami they were looking for someone who could handle very dark material but also understood how to work with a spanish feel. I use guitar quite a bit in Dexter and it probably helps that I was a guitar player.
One of unique parts about the Dexter show is all the small signature melodies used in different situations. What type of themes did you write and how/when do you decide to use them on the show?
Some of the themes I wrote for scenes in the first season and just kept adding to them or developing them for other scenes. Each season I will write new themes for new characters or new developments in the story. There are also themes that are unique to Dexter: the blood theme for when he’s talking about his “Dark Passenger”, his various sneaky themes, stalking themes. These themes will never be used with other characters, they are Dexter’s special blend.
What is the most difficult Dexter scene you ever had to score? The death scene of Rita was so one of the hardest things I have ever watched…
Scenes which are hard to score for me are scenes that do not work dramatically. Fortunately there are very few of those in Dexter. In terms of a sad horrific scene like Rita’s death I like the challenge of burrowing into the pathos and trying to make the music pull at the audience’s already taut heart strings.
You are also the composer on the new NBC show, Deception – tell us a little about that?
It is a gripping mystery thriller about a murder in a very wealthy and powerful american family. I have approached this show very different from Dexter in that it is a character driven show but with more of an ensemble feel. The central character is more of an observer as opposed to the primary focus of the series. The music is more focused on the overall uncovering of the mystery.
You are also the composer on the next iterations of the Silent Hill franchise (video game). How do you approach scoring for Silent Hill – and how does video game music differ from non-interactive scores for film/TV?
I was very happy to be approached by Silent Hill to take over for the music. The games had been scored by Akira Yamaoka and the fans were very, very loyal. There was some trepidation about me taking over, but ultimately I think the fans were happy with the new sound that I had brought to the game. The main difference between interactive and film/TV is that on a video game you are creating moods within a world that may not be tightly synced to a picture but to a part of game-play. On silent hill for each level I would provide differing intensities of music , weird ambiences, impending danger, full on battle and so forth. As well there would be cinematics, which are scored in that they are animations of story points and are cut like a film. I started Silent Hill much the same way I would start a film or tv show, by creating the sound palette to use and then the thematic material. For silent hill I used an ambient industrial sound with featured solo instruments such as mandolin, piano, etc through a lot of FX. I have recently done the music for as popular new game called “Dishonored” and I am getting a lot of good feedback for the score and for the end credit song which I did with my very talented Nephew Jon Licht.
Tell us a little bit about your studio and setup? What’s your favorite pieces of gear/plugins/instruments etc?
I have a Mac 12 core with the Apogee Symphony system, I keep my computers in a quiet box sp that I can sit at the compouter and record parts when I am working alone. I use Neumann microphones through a TL audio Dual Valve Compressor mostly. I like to keep a ton of real instruments around me – A set of vibes, a piano with mics. in it ready to go, Guitars, percussion my voice, etc. I find that it always nicer to add something live to your mix. There’s something more real about the imperfection and I think it makes music more personal. For Plug-ins I probably use them all, Absynth, Alchemy, Omnisphere all of which I like because they are tweakable. I always try to make a sound my own by changing it or processing it. I also make my own loops or have someone program them. I do not like the feeling of hearing something I have used prominently show up in someone else’s score. Of course I use Kontakt instruments – and 8dio’s are among my favorites; Rhythmic Aura, Hybrid Tools series, and now the Adagio series.
What 8Dio libraries do you use? Any specific examples of where we can hear them?
I use Requiem Pro, Liberis, Rhythmic Aura and recentlyas I mentioned: the Adagio series which is awesome! Requiem Pro and Liberis I used quite a bit in the sixth season of Dexter because that season was more gothic than the other seasons. Liberis i use quite a bit for many things. Sometimes I just shadow string melodies with the legato choir to make them “sing”. Rythmic Aura I use all the time becaouse it is an awesome film scoring tool for adding just enough background movement and not distracting from an underscore pad or keyboard part. I have just started to use the Adagio strings but so far I am loving them. I tend to use the divisi sections because I like to keep my sound more intimate. Generally sample libraries with big sections in huge churches do not work for my style of scoring. You will be able to hear the Adagio on the new show Deception which is out in January.
What instruments would you like to see sampled in the future? Perhaps even an imaginary instrument.
I would love someone to do a library of ethnic harps and zithers : Celtic, metal string irish harps, psalters, etc. . As well a library of non-standard percussion with cool, tweakable loops: mixing bowls, brushes on crotales, odd shakers, puilli sticks, etc. . Imaginary: Perhaps a Unicorn horn sample library?
What emerging trends are you seeing on the soundtrack scene? What do you think a score will sound like 10-20 years from now?
One great emerging trend I am seeing is a new focus on melody in scores and fading of the drone/fx score. I think we are in a very creative period for for film, TV and game music. I am very impressed by the talent and knowledge of the new crop of composers. I think 10 to 20 years from now we will all pull our heads out of our ipads, phones and computers and go back to making music with real instruments , not because its cheaper but because it’s just more fun than sitting in a room looking at a computer screen.
Any final words of wisdom for the young and aspiring composers?
Learn to emulate others as a way to expand your abilities but never forget that your success as an artist will depend on finding your own sound. Learn to listen to your inner ear.
You can read more about Daniel Licht at his official website
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