Des is a grippingly disturbing three-part series starring David Tennent as Dennis Nilsen, the serial killer who murdered at least twelve young men and boys between 1978 and 1983. Known as “The Muswell Hill Murderer”, Nilsen’s case is less famous than it is infamous. The series itself was tightly scripted and overwhelmingly bleak, so what kind of score would Sarah Warne produce to accompany one of the most grizzly true crime events ever seen in the UK?
The use of electronic sound and discordant traditional instruments is nothing new, and one might be forgiven for expecting a predictable, edgy yet safe affair for a series about a necrophiliac serial killer. Yet Warne has managed in the most part to sidestep that temptation, and instead brings us something far more interesting, even insightful.
Rather than using the music to focus us on the horror of what Nilsen did, instead we find ourselves listening to the state of mind of how he might have been able to do them. It feels as though Warne has attempted to step into his head, understand how a person can commit such despicable crimes and yet be a part of society for five years. Nilsen was famous for his cold, unfeeling stare, a look that Tennant remarkably recreated for the series. Warne’s music allows the listener to immerse themselves in that manufactured calm, to appreciate, even if to a small degree, the discipline needed to remain so detached from yourself in public.
At times this is more like a mindfulness album than a television score. As we hear electronic waves lapping against a digital beach in track five, ‘Ocean Chamber’, it’s hard not to imagine a calm, soothing voice guiding us through a set of meditative actions with a disturbing twist. “Bring your awareness to your chest. Notice as it rises and falls with your breath. And now, as you exhale, squeeze the life out of your helpless victim.”
Des was an understated production, focusing far more on the unsettling character of Nilsen than the horror of his actions. It would have been all too easy for Warne to have created a sensational score, one that simply would not have worked with the handling of the subject matter. Instead, her work infuses the series with a thoughtfulness that enhances everything we are presented with.
In allowing us to come with her as she explores the mindset of a real-life monster, Warne has created a far more chilling and unsettling score than any amount of jump scares or obvious minor tones might have elicited. Anxiety isn’t created by mounting paranoia, instead it’s from increased understanding as we find ourselves in a killer’s world, in his mind. We’re anxious because it was far too easy to get here. Warne has led us – Pied Piper-like – to a place we don’t really want to be.
This is an excellent score, one that doesn’t feel the need to simply enhance the subject, but to develop it in its own right; explorative as well as experimental.