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The Mind and Music of Carter Burwell

By Tom Kenny

World-renown composer for films Carter Burwell returned to John Storyk and commissioned WSDG a new recording studio at his ultra modern Maziar Behrooz-designed home. Control Room Side View.

Photos by Tycho Burwell

A few years back, at age 40 and well into a highly successful career as a music composer across all forms of media and art, Carter Burwell enrolled at NYU to take master’s level courses in the biology department, He wasn’t considering a career change; he was simply interested in learning more about viruses and how they behave.

That may seem unusual on the surface, and it would be for most people, but it’s not when you consider that Science and Art—in all their many and varied forms— have been parallel and consistent tracks throughout Burwell’s life.

He’s been a cartoonist at the Harvard Lampoon, an early computer animator, a computer musician after auditing coursework at MIT in the 1970s, a vocal performer with The Harmonic Choir, specializing in overtones, a director of technology at the New York Institute of Technology, and he has maintained a lifelong interest in biology, neuroscience, architecture and human perception, among many other pursuits. He still doesn’t consider music his career.

“I knew a lot of musicians at the time where music was their only interest, career-wise,” Burwell says. “And they might grab a day job to make ends meet. That’s not true for myself. I’ve always had a lot of different interests and I never expected music to be a career. Music was more of an avocation, something I did for pleasure and therapeutically. I never expected to have a career as a musician. I just always wanted a good random mix to whatever was interesting to me. I wasn’t raised with the concept of, ‘You should have a career.’ That’s not something my parents ever imprinted on me. And so I never have.

“But I do think that as a matter of course, artists should be exposed to and investigate lots of different modes of expression,” he continues. “Even if you are ‘just a composer’ or ‘just a sculptor,’ I still think that there’s a lot that you can get out of, say, the literature of architecture. But of course, once you have a career in some field, I think circumstances conspire to force you to spend most of your time and effort in that one area, and you have to make more of an effort to try to see what’s going on in other fields.”

World-renown composer for films Carter Burwell returned to John Storyk and commissioned WSDG a new recording studio at his ultra modern Maziar Behrooz-designed home. Carter in action at his WSDG-designed studio.

Carter Burwell in his WSDG-designed studio, located at the end of Long Island at Montauk Point, NY.

For someone who doesn’t really consider music a career, Burwell has nonetheless been quite successful at it, with a filmography that is as wide and varied as Barton Fink, Raising Arizona, Being John Malkovich, Three Kings, The Blind Side, Fargo, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Conspiracy Theory, Adaptation, No Country for Old Men and countless others. He has been nominated twice for Oscars, for Todd Hynes’ Carol in 2015 and Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri in 2017. He has done all of the Coen Brothers movies, save O, Brother, Where Art Thou? and Inside Llewyn Davis. In 2009 he received the ASCAP Henry Mancini Award. Not a bad resume.

The only formal music training Burwell received was piano lessons as a ten-year-old, followed by drum lessons. Neither really interested him, though he does give them credit for teaching him to read music. It was at Harvard in the early to mid-1970s that he found some kindred souls, some misfits and outcasts, the types of people he’s always been attracted to. Music was a side project to his bachelor of science degree. He says that “he played for himself through college,” and in his senior year found a group of friends who were also interested in bands, and in what was happening in punk rock at the time. At the end of the year, they decided to go back to New York, his hometown, and be a band.

And that’s where the interview begins.

MIX: New York City must have been quite an exciting place to be when you came back home.
BURWELL: Oh, yeah. That was 1977, ’78, and it was it was a very exciting time musically. There’s no question. In my mind, it was a decision to go to New York or go to London. Those are the two places where the music I was interested in was happening, but New York did have a sort of special hybrid between the contemporary classical world, people like Philip Glass and Steve Reich, and the mom and pop music world. Those composers would appear on the stage in the same evening as talking heads or any number of punk bands.

New York’s the kind of city, unlike, say, Los Angeles, where you are really at street level with people all the time, literally rubbing elbows with people from around the world. And so it’s very easy to come into contact with musicians from Poland or China or India, you know. There’s a nice fluidity to it simply because of the nature of New York.

World-renown composer for films Carter Burwell returned to John Storyk and commissioned WSDG a new recording studio at his ultra modern Maziar Behrooz-designed home. WSDG-designed control room front view.

The centerpiece of Burwell’s studio is an Avid S6 32-fader console and a 7.1 Genelec monitoring system.

And then, just a few years later, while playing a gig at CBGB’s, the Coen Brothers walk in and at the end of the show ask if you would be interested in scoring a film they’d been working on called Blood Simple… True story?
Yes. True story. I didn’t know them at all. We’re the same age. And it turns out we have similar sorts of interests, and certainly similar sensibilities. I will say that as a general rule, when someone asks you to do something isn’t done before, it’s almost always a good idea to say yes. I mean, unless you think it’s actually going to kill you. Especially when you’re young, you have to say yes to things.

That first film, Blood Simple, was really just me playing piano and a bunch of tape loops and things like that. I didn’t have to put music on the page for anybody. So it was perfectly simple to do in terms of my knowledge of music. And Joel and Ethan kept saying, ‘Oh, this movie will probably never be released.’ So there wasn’t the same pressure you might have with an 80-piece orchestra sitting in a recording studio for a Marvel movie—not that I wouldn’t like that. But it was more like a soft introduction.

So you learned about spotting a film and things like that?
I don’t recall. I mean, I guess it must have happened that at some point we all sat at the KEM, which was the editing desk back then, and went through that film and spotted it.

But Joel was trained as a film editor. And I know that whatever we recorded, he then took it and moved it around. So whatever we spotted ended up, I think, largely being a moot point. They took whatever I wrote and they placed music over the frame. I put down something for three, four or five minutes, even though I don’t think anything in the film runs for that long. But I would do different renditions of things. I do remember having sitting with a stopwatch on the piano and playing something in thirty five seconds if they needed it.

There’s one fortuitous thing happened with regard to Blood Simple. I’m a film lover but I hadn’t really thought in any depth about scoring music to it. And I thought, ‘Well, I’ll, um, I picked up the TV Guide to see what movies were on. And Hitchcock’s The Birds was on. I watched it, and I recorded it so that I could then play it back to study the score. And at the end of each big dramatic scene, I would slap myself and say, ‘I forgot to listen to the music!’

Then after the whole film was over, I rewound it and watch again, and I soon realize that it doesn’t have a traditional score; it’s entirely scored with bird sounds. It was actually my first lesson in film scoring, and it was a very fortuitous choice of film. It showed me that a film could be really effective with a score that has nothing to do with violins and brass.

I don’t have a traditional compositional background, like a conservatory and composition training. I’m not that interested in some of the traditions of, you know, the voicing of Bach chorals and things like that. That’s just not my background. That’s not particularly interesting to me. But understanding how sound works and how it affects the mind is interesting.

I will never be able to recapture the innocence of Blood Simple, when we didn’t know how to synchronize the tracks, the