Making the Music of ‘Dexter’ with Scissors and Bones

By  · Published on June 26th, 2014

The montage that opens every episode of Dexter is an interesting example of how showing every day images from certain angles can make innocuous actions suddenly look like potential crime scenes. Paired with composer Rolfe Kent’s creepy theme full of Asian and European instruments like a ukulele, bouzouki and saz, Dexter’s open is the perfect way to prepare to dive inside of the mind of a serial killer who ties his shoes just like you or me.

But the violent images in the open (and the show itself) also bleed into Dexter’s score as created by composer Daniel Licht. Dexter (Michael C. Hall) prefers a surgical approach when dealing with his victims, and Licht reflects this preference in the show’s score by taking surgical instruments and turning them into musical instruments that pair surprisingly well with the more classical orchestration. Using scissors and knives as percussive elements helped Licht give Dexter the ominous feeling that something sinister was constantly lurking in the background.

If you ever wondered how all these different sounds come together on the show, Licht created a behind-the-scenes video to show how he created the sound of Dexter. You can see how Licht shifts from conducting an orchestra of classically trained musicians to create bone-sawing percussion that makes you feel like something isn’t quite right.

It is interesting to see how focusing in on an object’s sound (much like the opening focuses in on certain views of an object or action) can give it a whole new meaning. Chains are functional, but transform in the hands of a killer. Hearing their distinctive sound as pounded against a solid object creates percussion, but does so while also alerting your subconscious that there is something unfamiliar and dangerous about the noise.

Dexter may seem like a mild mannered guy, but when you peer closer you realize what a monster he is capable of being. Hall’s portrayal of Dexter makes you think you can trust and be at ease around him (as long as you are not a criminal in need of some duct taped, vigilante justice), but Licht’s score works to creep in around the edges and remind you this is a killer you may find yourself sympathizing with.

On Monday, June 16th, Licht and fellow Showtime composer, Sean Callery, came together to discuss their work in a special panel for the Society of Composers and Lyricists (SCL) in Los Angeles. While the two discussed their work on various projects, particularly Callery’s recent work on Homeland and Licht’s work on Dexter the highlight of the event was an impromptu performance of one of the pieces Licht had written for season four of Dexter called “The Axe/Perfect.”

Licht and Callery are clearly fans of one another’s work and the duo created a beautiful and symbiotic rendition of the song that works to tantalize ones senses even when it is not being paired with picture.

With Licht taking a bow to the glockenspiel and Callery on the keyboard, their version is a bit more raw sounding than the original. Unlike the instruments (both classical and surgical) shown in the previous video, “The Axe/Perfect” almost comes across as a lullaby which works as a perfect foil for the violence Dexter has a tendency to unleash on his victims (as does the dichotomy in the song’s title).

But (at this point in the show) Dexter is also a new dad and it is this ability to add layers to a character that makes the music of any production so important, and the fact that composers from different shows are able to appreciate each other’s work at that high level is really inspiring.

Especially when they’re using instruments you normally have to scrub up for.

Videos and music provided by CW3PR.