Steinway Artist Feature: Seeing The Music. Carter Burwell Brings Music To The Big Screen

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Maybe it was the fire that did it. Twenty-five years ago, a Steinway Model O survived a fire in suburban Virginia, making it through with a bit of case damage but with all sounding pieces intact. Carter Burwell’s mother spotted the charred instrument, which the homeowners had written off, and spoke up. “Could I have that?” she said, “for my son?” And it’s easy to speculate—perhaps when Carter sat down at the restored piano, there was some residual heat banked in the soundboard of the old Steinway, or some wayward flames licking outward through the keys. How else can you explain the roaring talents of Carter Burwell, whose music career has encompassed performance, composing, conducting, and scoring across genres ranging from punk to country to classical?

The diversity of his oeuvre notwithstanding, Burwell is best known for his film work. A Steinway Artist since 2012, Burwell has scored more than eighty movies from every major Hollywood studio and has worked with such renowned directors as the Coen brothers, Spike Jonez, Mike Nichols, and Bill Condon. His current project, for which he just wrapped up recording in June, is the score for Olive Kitteridge, an HBO miniseries drama based on Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer-Prize winning novel of the same name. The Lisa Cholodenko-directed series will star Frances McDormand, Richard Jenkins, and Bill Murray. In addition to composing the score for the eight-piece ensemble which performs the pieces, Burwell himself also plays piano on all tracks.

Like almost every project Burwell has composed, the Olive Kitteridge score began in a very specific place: at the keyboard. “Oh, yes,” he said, “the piano. It always begins at the piano.” Or, to be more specific—Burwell’s work always begins at one of two Steinway pianos: the charmed Model O from the Virginia fire or the venerable Model D that resides in his Long Island home. The reason is simple, he explained: to score a piece of art as complex as a film, which combines multiple visual and audio elements, he needs to take a step back and begin at the beginning—with the core question of why the music appears in the film.

“Typically,” he said, “even if the score will not feature a piano, I begin at the piano. After I’ve seen the film or read the script, I usually try to get away from the image and sit at the piano to come up with ideas—melodic ideas, harmonic ideas, whatever.” Burwell said he has to start at a very foundational level, simply asking why the music should exist in the particular film project. What is it there to do? For this exploration, he explained, the piano is the purest instrument.

Music as an Interpretive Tool

There’s no denying the power of music to shape what a film audience experiences. (To understand how dramatically music can change interpretation of a scene, check the exploration of Burwell’s score in the Coen brothers’ True Grit in the video link below.) But in the early stages of working on a score, Burwell said, a question sometimes arises: how hard should the music be working to advance particular features of the film—say plot points or character motivations?

“This can be an interesting exploration,” he said. “For example, in Olive Kitteridge, Frances McDormand, who plays Olive and is a producer on the series, brought up the idea of allowing the music to have a hand in developing the characters. It’s interesting because that’s a logical approach, but it actually ended up taking things in a direction that didn’t work as well. When the music is telling you what’s going on inside the characters’ minds, it can become melodramatic.”

“Also,” Burwell continued, “in a way, the mystery of what’s going on inside the characters is one of the most engaging things about watching a film, and watching this film, Olive Kitteridge, in particular. If you clarify that mystery too much, it can take away one of the things that’s fun about the experience of watching a film—wondering why in the world is she doing that??”

In the end, then, he explained, the music of Olive Kitteridge mostly sits outside the characters. “It does not tell you that much about the characters, which is interesting. It’s not what you might at first think a story like this would do. But one of the things I like about this work is trying to think first about what the real role of music is. Why do we want it in this piece?”

Why Steinway?

Burwell always begins at one of his two Steinways, and the reason has to do with pulling back to get a global view of the function of the music in the film.

“The nature of the music for Olive Kitteridge—and the nature of the characters that embody it—is pretty quiet. There’s a lot going on with these characters, but they keep it inside. The music, therefore, is quiet in that same way. It is designed to express a sense of tension—there’s some level of conflict going on inside the character—but I don’t think we ever get to mezzo piano in the whole score. So I wanted a very particular piano sound. It’s hard to put it into words, but it’s a warmth and a bell-like quality I look for in a Steinway, and a quality I knew I could get from it. We made a special arrangement to have a Model B brought into the recording studio, and it worked out beautifully.”

HBO’s Olive Kitteridge will debut at the Venice Film Festival in August. Look for a stateside air date in November.

Can’t Miss: Watch Carter Burwell and the Coen brothers discuss “The Art of the Score: The Mind, Music, and Moving Images” with Alec Baldwin and neuroscientist Aniruddh Patel.

About Carter Burwell
New York native Carter Burwell is one of the most widely-regarded composers in American film. Among his best-known film scores are Twilight, Where the Wild Things Are, Miller’s Crossing, And the Band Played On, Conspiracy Theory, and The Blind Side. His music has been an integral part of the Joel and Ethan Coen Brothers oeuvre, with Burwell providing the scores for Coen Brothers classics including Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, Fargo, Hudsucker Proxy, Barton Fink, and True Grit. He is a graduate of Harvard College, where he studied animation and electronic music. He had an early career working as a computer scientist at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in Long Island and later as a computer modeler and animator at the New York Institute of Technology before segueing into his music career—first as a musician with NYC bands The Same, Thick Pigeon and Radiante. He and his wife, the artist Christine Sciulli, live in Long Island and New York City, where Burwell teaches and composes for film, dance, theater, and television.

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