‘Carol’ Composer Carter Burwell Reflects on Performing in Bands in the ’80s

Carter Burwell Big Break in Hollywood
illustration: Viktor Miller-Gausa; photo: tycho burwell

Carter Burwell has waded into unfamiliar waters, having earned his first Oscar nomination for scoring the drama “Carol,” and doing the requisite rounds on the awards season circuit. The film represents his third collaboration with director Todd Haynes, after the HBO miniseries “Mildred Pierce,” which resulted in an Emmy for Burwell, and the glam rock fantasia, “Velvet Goldmine.” When told of his first appearance in Variety on Sept. 27, 1977, related to short he directed called “Help, I’m Being Crushed to Death by a Black Rectangle,” Burwell appeared flabbergasted.

At that time in your life what were you working on?
I was an animator. I was doing hand-drawn animation and that’s what that was, it was a piece of hand-drawn animation. It played at a bunch of animation festivals.

You also performed in bands in the ’80s, with music that was kind of art pop. It’s very different from the sensibility of somebody who grew up in your generation that might have been weaned on classic ’60s-’70s rock.
There’s some ’60s-’70s rock that I like, but a lot of it was too pompous when you get down to it.  When punk rock came around in the late ’70s, that was some of the first American pop music that I could honestly say that I liked. When I was in high school I listened to old blues records. I’m not a trained musician so it was that sense that punk rock had of inviting you to just get on stage. As long as you’ve got something to say, if you know how to play your instrument, it doesn’t matter. That was basically directed at me. I was a guy who didn’t know how to play his instrument, but I really enjoyed expressing something at the keyboards.

You’re a Harvard grad. You studied animation, electronic music and computer science. The electronic music you studied, how was that different than a classical music curriculum?
I didn’t take an official class, but I worked with this guy at Harvard, Ivan Tcherepnin. It’s all about him, really. The type of music that he made was completely different than what everyone else was doing at Harvard, which was more what passed for academic concert music in the ’70s. Ivan would take a parabolic microphone, stick it out the window and point it at a sidewalk down below and send it into tape loops.  We’d basically set up a patch. We’d spend the first hour doing that and the second hour we’d simply sit back and listen. His open definition of what could be music was really important to me. Exactly the opposite of what you would have experienced if you would have taken most of the music classes at Harvard.

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