Walk on the Ocean: Composer Carter Burwell Crafts a Stunning Studio
By David Weiss
Inspiration doesn’t exactly strike Carter Burwell. Rather, he soaks it in.
The composer’s distinctive voice has been essential to over 100 productions, in an enviably long career that has made him the top choice for many of film’s most inventive directors. Burwell’s is a long list of credits that counts Todd Haynes’ Carol, Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Being John Malkovich from Spike Jonze, plus every Coen Brothers movie save one including Fargo, The Big Lebowski, O Brother Where Art Thou, and No Country for Old Men. Most recently, his assignments have included Apple TV+’s new release The Morning Show, the Bill Condon-directed The Good Liar, and the Golden Globe-nominated stop-motion animation Missing Link.
Burwell’s outstanding orchestrations—especially ideal for subject matter that plugs into the darkly ironic side of mankind’s psyche—have long been connected with his East Coast citizenship. A prolific powerhouse, Burwell helps maintain NYC’s elite film scoring credibility to a world where when LA composers are still king.
Only he isn’t actually in NYC anymore. In this extremely insightful interview from 2011, SonicScoop found Burwell cranking out classics from his WSDG-designed The Body studio in NYC’s chic TriBeCa neighborhood, even after he’d moved his family to Amagansett in Eastern Long Island. But now he’s all the way gone, living and working out of a rebirth of The Body in his home on a bluff looking out over the Atlantic Ocean near Montauk Point.
A 600 square-foot sonic space attached to the second floor of Burwell’s ultramodern habitat, the new The Body was once again designed by WSDG, guided by the firm’s Founding Partner John Storyk and Partner/COO/Project Manager Joshua Morris. The result is nothing less than a creative oasis, one that allows Burwell to dive deeper than ever into every single thing he holds dear.
Here’s my first question for you Carter. It had been about 20 years since you built your studio in Tribeca. Before we get into how technology and creative tools have changed, how have you changed as a composer in that time?
Well, it’s a fair question, but the reason I say that is because I don’t feel like I’ve changed that much. I have more experience, and I guess one of the changes in that time is that now I’m much more comfortable and much more often orchestrating and conducting orchestra, which is something I wasn’t (doing previously).
I came from a rock and roll background, so if you go back 20 years, it’d be right around when I was deciding that I was going to start orchestrating and conducting my own music, which was a big leap for me.
Pursuant to what you just said, Carter, perhaps speaking immodestly, why do productions hire Carter Burwell today? What are they looking for from you? What do you deliver to them that maybe no other composer does or can?
Well, hopefully every composer has their own voice. I think that people do come to me largely to hire my attitude towards film, the angle I take on the storytelling.
Also, for instance, I like melodies and there’s a lot of film music that isn’t melodically driven these days. Of course I’m not in a perfect position to answer your question because I never hire me! It’s the other people who do.
But I think that especially if the film involves a dark, ironic worldview, then I fit that naturally. That is my worldview, I write that way and that’s why I get along with certain writer/directors like the Coen Brothers or Martin McDonagh or Charlie Kaufman.
You’re touching on something that can get overlooked, which is that the personal relationships that you develop with the writers and directors are important. That really matters, right?
Yeah, it is true. It just makes that process easier if you actually trust each other. It means that you can be more creative because you take more chances: I’m not worried that I’m going to send Joel and Ethan Coen something they didn’t expect and they’re going to fire me the next day.
That can happen. In situations where the director’s got a hundred things [they] have to think about. They hear this music from somebody they haven’t worked with before, they don’t understand the music and they say, “That’s it. I’m going to hire somebody else.”
I should also point out, because I live at the end of Long Island, basically as far from the industry as you can be without being in the ocean, it’s hard for people to hire me. The directors know that they’re not going to be able to drop by my studio every day. I totally understand that, t