The Curious Case of Carter Burwell

How does a punk-rockish performer experimenting his way through the New York scene of the 1980s end up pasting together a languid soundtrack for a period-piece melodrama involving sumptuously-suited lesbians? I refer, of course, to the curious case of Carter Burwell, a wide-ranging artist and outsized talent, whose score for director Todd Haynes’s too-much-talked-about love story Carol is the latest product of a film-composing career that extends over thirty years and encompasses dozens of soundtracks, many of them for movies that are among the best the American entertainment industry has yielded during the last three decades.

To trace Carter’s biography is to admire the contours of what appears to be genius. Here is someone who can apparently do anything he puts his mind to. As an undergraduate at Harvard, Burwell studied animation and electronic music and was a cartoonist at the Lampoon, the college satirical magazine that has been an incubator for much irreverence and later success in Hollywood. His 1979 animated short, Help, I’m Being Crushed by a Black Rectangle won prizes at international film festivals. Though Burwell had majored in fine arts in college, he became Chief Computer Scientist at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in 1979, just two years after graduating from Harvard. He took up a position at the New York Institute of Technology in 1982 where he ultimately became Director of Digital Sound Research, at the same time playing in various bands—The Same, Thick Pigeon and Radiante. The corners of this repertoire that I have surveyed courtesy of YouTube show that as a performer Burwell was making music that was restlessly energetic, unapologetically repetitive, cleverly irreverent, and irresistibly danceable—each of these attributes a vital antidote to the cryogenic dread and dolor of the late Cold War years.

To mere mortals it would seem Burwell was already a fantastically busy man, what with gigging, modeling electronic sounds and human movement at his computer, and writing “legitimate” music for modern choreographies staged at internationally important venues such as the Avignon Festival. Yet it was during this period that his film-composing career took off after the Coen brothers unexpectedly approached him to do the soundtrack for their first feature, the neo-noir, Blood Simple (1984).

That score begins with a fateful synthesizer ticking: neo-Norns weaving their tawdry polyester braids of fate. Enter circling, predatory left-hand piano chords that cannot escape their own claustrophobic desires. These harmonies seethe coolly as if in a smoke-filled air-conditioned bar. Disingenuously reluctant to make this duet into a love triangle, a terse romantic melody makes its (her) appearance. Who knew that a romantic melody could be terse or that a fragment could slink? Only Burwell. What this soprano delivers is a both seduction and condemnation, as if meting out in advance the sentences the still-to-be introduced characters deserve for their twisted schemes and lusts. With compelling artistic economy, Burwell’s contribution was from the start crucial to evoking the shadowy, seedy world of this vision of rural Texas. Little wonder that this inspired debut would be the beginning of an illustrious career.


That Burwell is adept at the art of adaptation is clear from his Coen catalog. As the siblings traversed the history of American cinema from one genre to the next, Burwell lugged his trunk of musical wares dutifully along with them, drawing from it the appropriate retrospective styles, from the banjo-picking fun of the desert screwball comedy Raising Arizona (1987) to the classic mob movie Miller’s Crossing (1990) whose Old World Irish modal nostalgia and sweeping orchestral strains take themselves, like the film itself, far too seriously. Also memorable is the kaleidoscopic fun Burwell shone on the sun-laced L. A. noir Big Lebowski (1998): for this movie, now itself a cult classic, Burwell virtuosically added swinging big band verve and even threw in a techno-pop tune that brims with the energy of his 1980 New York club days. Burwell’s classic Hollywood screwball strains in The Hudsucker Proxy (1994) are better than the banal pieties of his Protestant hymns for the Coen remake of True Grit (2010), a movie that purports to be a real Western, though it is in truth a suffocatingly elegiac one.

One could go on with this litany, even mentioning Burwell’s interesting and always adept work for visionary writer Charlie Kaufman’s scripts, Adaption (2002) and Being John Malkovich (1999). More recently Burwell has done the soundtrack for Kaufman’s latest, Anomalisa, a project would seem to unite two of Burwell’s abiding interests: music and animation.

Given the diversity of Burwell’s oeuvre and the rigor of his craftsmanship, it is not surprising that Todd Haynes has sought the composer out again for Carol, his latest look behind the Potemkin calm of that most curious of edifices, the twentieth-century American family. Haynes enlisted Burwell for the remake of the 1945 Family-Romance-from-Hell, Mildred Pierce as an HBO miniseries in 2011. For this exercise, Burwell drew on a paired-down Hollywood chamber group: strait-laced oboe, doubting bassoon, watchful violins, demure piano. Before this five-hour Oedipal disaster concludes there are the necessary musical outbursts: a few shrieks and terrors are expected and delivered, but for the most part the mood is kept suspended and cloying beneath Burwell’s sonic scrim of disquiet.

If anything, the portfolio of musical poses struck in Carol is even more stilted and stultifying. That is not necessarily a negative thing, since it is likely just what the director ordered. As Haynes taxies his perfectly outfitted and made-up beauties down slushless Manhattan winter streets and across rural byways to one baronial neo-Tudor mansion, bohemian apartment, or cuddly motel to the next, Burwell is there spritzing out his sonorous perfume.

From the start Burwell turns to his default minimalist idiom, the oscillating piano interval of the fourth projecting many, often contradictory things: containment, disaffection, desire. The piano rocks back and forth, woodwinds ruminate, effuse, languish. There is a harp!

For all those like me whose own nightmares often feature the instrument of the angels, recall that Burwell’s score for the frozen anti-fairy-tale of the Coen’s Fargo also featured the harp, but one as dreamily devastating as a slow mo wood chipper. Christmas Carol—as in most melodramas, this one has the requisite Yuletide scenes—is devoid of irony, its music as inert as the action. Haynes is a meticulous creator, but his design is far too intelligent for its own good. It is dispiriting to hear a composer of Burwell’s restive talents add his neat little tray of ear bonbons to Haynes’s overladen buffet of eye candy. To survive the visual surfeit, I’d recommend following the example of the onscreen inebriates: bring a hip flask.

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DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His recording of J. S. Bach’s organ trio sonatas is available from Musica Omnia. He can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com

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