‘Manhunt’ Composer Bryce Dessner on Scoring Abraham Lincoln’s Assassination With ‘Dark Twisted American Folk Music’

When Bryce Dessner got a call asking to score the music for “Manhunt,” Apple TV+’s thrilling limited series about the search for John Wilkes Booth after Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, it was an easy “yes” for him.

Not only did he and his brother Aaron grow up in West Virginia, they’ve also named the National songs after Civil War battlefields.

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Early in the process, showrunner and creator Monica Beletsky sought Dessner out and, together, they explored ideas for how the music would sound. The seven-part limited series follows Edwin Stanton (Tobias Menzies), Lincoln’s close confidant and secretary of war, who goes on a mission to track down Booth (Anthony Boyle) after he kills Lincoln (Hamish Linklater). The score needed to have edge and grit and gloom, so Dessner crafted a “dark twisted American folk music” sound.

To pull that off, he turned to certain instruments. Speaking with Variety over Zoom, Dessner explained, “The solo cello became the core for dark and twisted themes. I experimented with a lot of process electronics that create the darker momentum of the score.” He also found a way to incorporate the French horn because of the regal sound it created. “It’s associated with Stanton and Lincoln,” he pointed out.

The cello was perfect for Booth, says Dessner. “He’s this semi-famous actor who identifies with this cause but is overshadowed by his brother and his family, and he’s desperate for attention. There’s something about the longing of the cello, and is the instrument closest to the human voice. It’s highly flexible as an instrument. There’s a pulsing arpeggiated action sequences, which are driven by rhythmic cellos.”

As for Booth and the French horn, “Cain and Abel Reconciled” is a heroic cue. “It starts with string, and the French horn carries the melody in. I haven’t written a classic film cue before, but this is something you could hum. That music evolves in many variations throughout the series. It has a kind of B theme,” Dessner says. “It’s five or six notes and has this kind of recognizable thing about it that does feel like these guys were trying to do something good.”

Dessner found the biggest challenge to be scoring Lincoln’s assassination, which is the opening scene of the series. “I went through 30 revisions,” he says.

In the scene, Lincoln and his wife Mary Todd Lincoln (Lili Taylor) are watching a play at Ford’s Theatre in Washington. While watching from their private box, Lincoln is shot in the back of the head by Booth.

“In that particular moment, there’s tension and elements, so you hear electronics blended with acoustic orchestral sounds,” Dessner says. From there, it explodes into a full-blown action cue when Booth jumps on stage and yells the phrase, “Sic semper tyrannis.”

“It’s about keeping the momentum and trying to pace the music,” says Dessner. “It was about hitting the beats and making it exciting, this villain going off.”

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