Essay

Daniel Licht 1957 - 2017

You've heard his music before. The creepy, creative approach he took to scoring Dexter inspired many a composer (for me it was in a "why didn't I think of that?!" sort of way). His music played a massive role in setting the show apart from others, carving out a niche for itself and launching it to the most extreme heights of popularity.

I met Dan in early 2014, right after my first job in LA as an intern for Bear McCreary ended. Dan was looking for an assistant, and I applied. He invited me out to his awesome Topanga Canyon home (formerly owned by Jimi Hendrix) and immediately relaxed my nerves with easy conversation and a great cup of coffee. It's difficult to overstate just how warm and inviting a person he was. No pretense, no ego, no expectations. He was fantastically friendly and (pardon how cliche this is) radiated warmth--a rare quality in someone so accomplished in such a harsh business.

Ultimately, I wasn't the right guy for the job. However, he introduced me to his nephew and frequent collaborator Jon Licht, whose band The Roustabouts was searching for a bass player. I joined and played with them for a few years, ultimately recording the album Little Brother last spring. Dan was a constant presence the whole way through, nearly always supporting the gigs and joining us for a drink and a laugh afterwards. The band was a sort of Dexter family--the band's drummer, Mark Bensi, was music editor for the show, and Jon wrote a good deal of music for it with his uncle.

It's difficult to reconcile how quickly someone can leave us. I had just spoken to him a month ago about helping him find someone to fill the position I once applied for. His music was and will remain a constant source of inspiration: his approach to writing was inventive, curious, always searching. He could never have enough instruments or make enough new sounds. He embraced mistakes and imperfections with a very Zen, specifically Wabi-Sabi mindset, and nearly always preferred live performance and the human touch to programmed sound.

Wabi-Sabi

He left us far too early and leaves a giant hole in the LA scoring community, his circle of friends, and most importantly, his family--nothing else mattered to him beyond his family. 

Loss, messiness, and imperfection is inevitable; how we deal with it and move on is the art of living itself, and Dan was a true artist. We'd all be well-served to take inspiration from his approach to music: rather than trying in vain to fill the hole his life leaves in those who knew him, we can instead try to understand and appreciate the beauty that it happened at all.

Thanks, Dan. Safe travels.

New Years

I originally wrote this sometime in the autumn of 2013. I rediscovered it today and happily found it to still resonate with me. I hope it does something for you, too.

New Years

On January 1, 2012, I woke up with a lump in my throat.

The night before had seen yet another night of hard drinking at my friend’s annual New Years Eve party. I stumbled over snoring lumps and made my way to his kitchen sink, picked out what appeared to be a reasonably clean glass, and very nearly inhaled the water I filled it with.

The sun was just rising. I sputtered. Residue of Glenlivet, single malt. Ugh, I thought, Can’t ever sleep when I’ve drank… Not that I could ever sleep, anyway. My usual moderate insomnia had worsened as of late. It was six months to the day since I hurt my wrist. Six months of wading through Berklee, half-asleep, trying desperately to find a new path for my life. My old one was gone, inflamed.

The lump in my throat didn’t leave.

The silence of the living room made me uncomfortable, so I braved the cold and left for home. The silence of the road was just as bad. The freshly plowed highway was empty save for the standard way-too-many-cops-for-such-a-small-town looking out for the especially hard partiers who would be driving drunk along side me. Thankfully, the cops didn’t have much of a job to do. Like they ever do…

I was tired of Indiana, as usual. By this time each year, my friends would all be back at their respective college campuses, each about two hours away, give or take. God, I can’t wait to get back to Boston. But why? What was there for me? My spring schedule was full of guitar classes I couldn’t play in, and the way my fast-track degree was going, I’d be out in the so-called “real world” by September of 2012. If I somehow managed to miraculously heal and finish my degree at all. Without my livelihood, my love, the only thing I’d ever wanted…what would I do? My future looked as empty and grey as the highway, but I had no choice but to keep driving.

Little did I know that in exactly a week, I would opt out of the Spring 2012 semester at Berklee College of Music. I would stay home, depressed and scared, wearing braces on my wrists to sleep every night, painfully dipping both my forearms in ice water three times a day, going to intense physical therapy twice a week. I would get a catering job that depressed me even more but hardened my resolve to return to music and make a life for myself that I could stand to live.

Little did I know that my best friend of twelve years would die in just 43 days, two weeks before her birthday that came only once every four years. That I would demand on being present at her death so she wouldn’t have to go it alone, and that I would, for the first time in my life, understand that “crying yourself asleep” isn’t just a melodramatic saying.

Little did I know that over the next four months I would rediscover a love of orchestral music, of film music, of story-telling in general. That in three months I would befriend the conductor of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, and in three and a half would be wakeboarding, something I thought I’d never do again. Little did I know that in just two months, I would lose the use of three of my four limbs (instead of just my two arms/wrists) for five weeks due to the removal on my one-day-going-to-probably-be-cancerous mole on my toe. I would hop around on crutches, hurting my wrists even more, building up a reservoir of anger to unleash in the gym once I got walking again.

Shivering in my car at 7:30am at the start of a new year, I couldn't know that my little vegan experiment two months away would change the life of one of my best friends forever. I didn’t know that the horrible news regarding a musical employer of mine that said now-vegan friend delivered to me just four days earlier would hit the internet in two months. As he said, “The shit hit the fan.” And oh, what shit it would be.

I quietly shuffled inside my home, taking care not to wake my sleeping parents. Their car was gone. Right…Sunday…church…I didn’t know that on the same day of my dog’s death, I would talk to my mother about being an atheist, and she would finally be mostly/sort of ok, but would still curiously maintain that “you have to believe in something.”

I stripped and let the hot water do its best at washing away my hangover. It failed somewhere between “splitting headache” and “ALEX NEED SLEEP,” but I left the bathroom light off, so that helped. Reveling in the warmth, I had no way of knowing how fun my upcoming summer break would be, about all the dating I’d do (and the subsequent songs written about my failures), about the friends made in the fall semester, the extent to which I’d push myself farther than I ever had before. I didn’t know about the amount I’d learn of production and composing and about what I wanted and didn’t want out of a musical life. I had no way of knowing that I had a voice inside that, with a little brushing-up, could entertain some peoples’ ears…even though it still pained mine.

Hungover in the shower, I definitely couldn’t imagine that in just six months, I’d be jumping out of a goddamn plane.

While ravenously munching down an English muffin (covered in extra crunchy peanut butter, of course), I didn’t yet entertain the idea that my creative idols could disappoint me, and that I could come to love musicians whose music I was just so sure I hated. I didn’t understand the depth to which I would come to love former acquaintances and lose faith in old friends.

And while drinking my coffee, I had no idea I’d actually start enjoying the process of writing just as much as the final product of having written. Or that in a year I’d have enough scoring projects to feel comfortable putting together a reel and hopping on a plane to LA next spring break. Or that I could learn about something as seemingly foreign as the insides of computers.

I didn’t know that I would be typing this on my laptop’s keyboard instead of my ergonomic one that looked like it belonged in the Millenium Falcon. Sure, the pain would still be there, and it always will be to some extent. But it would be my pain, and I would own it, control it, reel it back in when it became too much.

At that quiet moment in time, scared shitless, I had no way of knowing that I was exactly where I needed to be. I could not have possibly understood that all the pain I would go through over the coming months was just what the doctor ordered. That life, in its mysterious, chaotic, crazy way, was putting me on the right path, and that in just 21 months, I would look back on that morning and smile, truly understanding how much a life can change.

I type this from my new home of Los Angeles, California, with a lump in my throat. Tomorrow I begin the next chapter of my life, starting at the bottom of the ladder (this time, as an intern). A freshman, of sorts.

So now I’m off to not sleep again (my usual moderate insomnia, you know), but first, cheers to the things I don’t know yet. Cheers to the life that still is yet to happen. Glenlivet, single malt.

Home

I’m sitting at The Spot. You know the one. On Boylston, sandwiched between that sorta-new burger place and the old-ish bookstore. Where we re-charge and catch-up. The one that starts with P- and ends with -avement.

I just walked out of 150 Massachusetts Avenue for the last time, and I feel an unshakable urge to stop and reflect. Note that my mother will attest that I’m not generally one for nostalgia. I waltzed out of her car on my first day of kindergarten like I was going to an amusement park. But this–this is different. I have four days left in Boston, and yet I’m paralyzed. Whatever gene is responsible for this feeling is screaming out, not to be denied another minute.

I’m sitting at The Spot, my Spot. Can you believe that I have a Spot? And all of you, my friends, know exactly what I’m talking about. You would even if I didn’t give it away up there. If that isn’t a home, I don’t know what is. It’s the rare times like these–your life's “little deaths" where, even for a moment, a transition thrusts upon you with a clarity oh so profound–it’s times like these that life reveals exactly what it’s made of. What I’m going to be missing when I violently up-root myself, again, bittersweet, too soon. 

The blurry and hurried mosaic of my life is slowing down for a moment, opening up to me with its dying breath. The small details–that particular beautiful hue of Boston’s blue sky (on a criminally gorgeous day, no less–not fair, Boston); the shell-against-your-ear sound of traffic, interrupted by incessant honks; the weird guy at that other burger place that insists on hitting on me every time I walk in. The significance of these threads is due to their apparent insignificance in everyday life–they’re important precisely because of how little I notice them on any given day. These are the backdrop upon which life takes place, and soon they will be gone.

I’m at The Spot, sitting at My Spot. The one I go to when I want to see my friends–or when I want to be left alone. My earbuds are in so people won’t bother me, even though I’m not listening to any music. It’s not that I don’t want to see them--I’ll get to that. I’ll say my goodbyes. But these are emotions that are difficult to put in to words, and that’s exactly why I’m doing what I’m doing right at this very second. Writing, creating, trying to make sense of my experience. Thankfully, no one has come in yet, which is great, because I might be lightly crying every now and then. 

These aren’t all happy tears. It’s been a weird year. A weird four years, shit. I’ve loved with abandon and it’s abandoned me every time. I’ve lost my life’s passion, found it again, found myself more often than I can trust.

My hair isn’t blonde–I’ve just grayed so much that it’s gone full circle.

But these are happy tears. I’m happy with where I am, with where I’m going. And as one of the greatest men I know says, “That’s proof that you’ve never had a single regret.” I’m inclined to agree.

I’m leaving one home for another. I’ll have another Spot, and all my friends will meet me there. But unlike the move from Indiana to Boston, the home I’m leaving still calls to me. I know I’ve left my mark in Boston, and in turn it's left its mark on me. There’s a connection there that won’t ever truly die, like a friend so close that you can go without speaking to for eight months and it not be weird. 

So…let’s wrap this up. This is goodbye, Boston. This is goodbye, for now, to the city I’ve come to love, and the people I’ve loved in it. Let’s not make this too sappy. 

Thank you, and goodbye.

Hulk Out

In one of the more memorable scenes from The Avengers, Bruce Banner reveals to his team how he manages to keep his green alter ego under control.

“I’m always angry.”

As a writer of both music and sometimes English, I’ve come to adopt a similar attitude. For years, I viewed my in-the-zone, down-in-the-nitty-gritty, actively-creative self as a sort of alter ego separate from my “everyday self” that I had to pull out whenever I wanted to create. Sometimes it came when I called, other times it resisted, and still other times it showed up unwelcome, pleading for attention at inopportune times.

A rather romantic view, yes. But entirely impractical.

So how does one always keep their creative “Hulk” close to the surface, ready to come up at a moment’s notice, creating something just as beautiful and full of depth as if they had been meditating on the subject for two hours?

It’s simple: throw out the side that does nothing for you. 

Discard the split-mindset. Instead, integrate ourselves as Bruce Banner does. Always ready. Throw away the non-essentials. This might mean major lifestyle changes, but that’s the price of being an artist. That’s the price of possessing the ability to unleash your own creative monstrosity and lay waste to the blank sheet of paper in front of you.

Some of the changes are little. For example, even a single beer will absolutely destroy any chance I have of writing well. Apparently, the Hulk can’t hold his liquor. So I can’t just go “have a beer.” I have to plan for that–if the work isn’t done, I have to turn down the request.

Some changes are much larger. You must welcome the inspiration when it wakes you up at 3am. As I’ve said before, you must embrace the chaos. You might want to begin meditating so as to further harness your focus and creativity–a road without end and a blog post for another day.

Your Hulk is the real you. Let it take you over.

It's All Nonsense

Save for maybe Danny Elfman, Howard Shore is almost entirely responsible for my desire to become a film composer. Elfman’s scores to Tim Burton’s two Batman films and Sam Raimi’s Spiderman piqued my interest; Howard Shore’s score to the Lord of the Rings trilogy solidified it.

I’m also a huge Tolkien fan in general, but that’s besides the point.

Shore not only writes some of the most detailed, expressive scores in Hollywood, but he's also an accomplished concert composer. He conducts all of his scores, and as far as I know keeps his number of assistants and orchestrators to a minimum. The Lord of the Rings Extended Edition special features only spotlights a single assistant, and Shore was writing up to six minutes of music per day!

I stumbled upon (or, more specifically, Reddited-upon) an interesting video of him, entitled A Composer’s Dream. I suggest you watch it here before reading on.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about--for lack of a better term–-the “nature of composing.” How do we get in to the right state of mind to begin writing? Should we just let it “come” to us? But what if we have a deadline? (When do we not have a deadline?) How do we pick up when we’ve left off for a significant amount of time? Should I write in a DAW, or pencil and paper, or does it matter? Should the music totally come from an emotional place, or should I try and work in some new technique in each piece?

Does the word “should” even belong in music at all?

The first thing I noticed about Mr. Shore while watching this video is that he doesn’t seem bothered by these questions, these insecurities. Because that’s what they are: internal crises caused by our inability to accept where we are in our creative development. It reminds me of a certain Ira Glass quote that's been making the Facebook rounds as of late. The only way to escape these questions is to work through it, to keep on creating. As Shore says at 01:16:
 

“To make music everyday, there’s a certain discipline to that. And day to day, the thing I try to do is not to look too far ahead. And in that day, if you have done your work–-you’ve expressed so many ideas, you’ve done some orchestration, you’ve worked on the film, you’ve worked on the cello concerto–-then you’ve accomplished what you’ve done that day and you’re relaxed, ready for the next day. So what I always try to do is just chip away at it. And you look back and there’s just masses of music–-there’s so much of it, you know.”


Notice that this shot reveals his work environment: Excluding the amazing house, it’s really just a desk, pencil & paper, a piano, a laptop, some basic computer speakers (read: not speaker monitors) and what appears to be a cheap M-Audio 49- or 61-key MIDI controller. My fellow Berklee composers-in-training and I are working with the same gear, if not more. I wonder what he has that we don’t…?

Apparently, great minds think alike. Ralph Waldo Emerson said nearly the exact same thing two centuries ago:
 

“Finish every day and be done with it. You have done what you could; some blunders and absurdities no doubt crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day; you shall begin it serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense.”


The main idea here is that if one is to be a composer, one needs to be a composer. Because what are you if not the thing you spend the majority of your time being?

Since coming home to Indiana for a two-week break before the fall semester-–a definite “calm before the storm”–-I’ve slept in until noon everyday and generally done nothing. I’ve spent the majority of my time being a lazy slob, not writing, not studying, not doing anything productive. And I feel terrible because of it–-who knew?

To be a great composer, one must write every day. Not just study scores and techniques, or wistfully think about “the nature of composition.” No. Important as all of these things are, they’re only satellites to the planet. Write every day, and pretty soon your ability will match your taste.

An important point not to be overlooked is the part about relaxing, letting go, getting ready for the next day. This is something I’ve struggled with for years, and no doubt has been the leading cause of my chronic insomnia. The work you do is important, but it’s not everything. Music is inspired by life–-go and live it every once in a while.

In addition to writing music, I enjoy writing these blogs. I have a good dozen blogs that are sitting around unfinished due to a mix of perfectionism and procrastination. If one is to be a writer, one must write. And one must accept one’s writing as never perfect, always unfinished. So that’s why I’m not going to edit this. I’m going to push the Publish button…right…now.