An interview with Carter Burwell by David Kraft
Originally published in CinemaScore #15, 1986/1987
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor and publisher Randall D. Larson
Much like a Hollywood star-is-born story, 30-year old Carter Burwell went from being an obscure, unknown New York composer for a low-budget thriller (BLOOD SIMPLE) to landing the enviable assignment as composer for a major Hollywood studio feature, PSYCHO III. Even though PSYCHO III fared poorly at the box office, Burwell’s career should profit immeasurably. He now has an excellent Hollywood agent, Brian Loucks (who also represents Mark Isham, Tangerine Dream and Brian Eno) and a bright future.
Burwell was born in New York City, where he now resides, but was raised in Connecticut and Virginia. He learned music “on the streets” and majored in Fine Arts in college. After graduation, his interest in music led him to work at the Harvard Electronic Music Studio. He then spent five years at the Musical Sound Lab at the New York Institute of Technology, where he set up a digital audio lab and wrote software and codes for musical computers, such as the Synclavier.
The following interview was conducted by telephone on July 16, 1986, the week after PSYCHO III’s nationwide release.
How did you get your first film scoring assignment, BLOOD SIMPLE, which has now become a ‘cult classic’?
I’ve been playing in local bands here in New York for about 5 years, and through one of those bands I met the sound editor of BLOOD SIMPLE. He told me that a score for the film by another composer had been rejected and the producers were looking for a new composer. I never got to hear the first score by the other composer (who also came from a local band) but he ended up doing some sound effects work in the film. Anyhow, I met the producers – Joel and Ethan Coen – but didn’t have any portfolio of my work to give them as I’d never scored a film. So they showed me a reel of the film for which I made a tape of three or four ideas for sounds and themes. The Coens liked what I did and hired me to score the film. The main theme we finally used came from that early tape I made.
Your music for BLOOD SIMPLE is very haunting and, at times, employs many strange sounds. What was your approach to scoring the film?
One of the first things we agreed upon was that even though the film is set in Texas (and the geographical locale is important to the look and feel of the movie) the music should not suggest Texas at all. We felt it should be almost contradictory to the locale and should be there to create an eerie, foreboding feel. I used two basic elements as the approach to the score: the first was the use of mechanical sounds that I sampled (recorded) on the Emulator and Synclavier and from which I developed rhythm tracks that sounded very industrial and dark. At the other end of the spectrum, I used the piano for one of the main themes. The piano added a nice warmth to the film; it made the danger seem more striking.
One of the “sounds” in the film that I remember was something that sounds kind of like a swarm of locusts. How did you get that sound?
I know the sound you mean. That was taken off a Library of Congress recording of some chain gang men doing hard labor somewhere in Louisiana, which was played backwards and processed in weird ways. You can sort of recognize some elements of human voices in it, but otherwise it’s impossible to decipher what it is. Another “locust”-type sound (as you call it) is Kecak, a Balinese chant. After splicing some Kecak recordings, we got a steady rhythm that builds.
The music for BLOOD SIMPLE was done on a very low budget – written and recorded in three weeks. We built the score onto 24-tracks so we could re-mix cues at the final dubbing of the picture. This gave us flexibility in coming up with many different cues without having me compose and record my music for each specific scene that was to be scored. It all worked out quite well.
BLOOD SIMPLE got a lot of critical acclaim and was a modest success. Did other scoring offers pour in?
I got some strange offers. Several people who were making low budget horror films wanted me, but I had no interest in doing them. Some were among the worst movies I’ve ever seen in my life! Hollywood wasn’t banging down the door until Universal called me to score PSYCHO III.
How did that major scoring coup come about?
Tony Perkins, who was both star and director, had a very open mind about the music. He had the music department at Universal provide him with tapes of virtually every film composer who seemed even remotely appropriate. As it turned out, Perkins had seen BLOOD SIMPLE several times. PSYCHO III was his first film as director and since he liked the way BLOOD SIMPLE was made, he wanted to “study” it. He showed it several times to his crew. In the course of doing that he found something interesting in the music and, after some effort, they found me. I got a letter from Universal in an old post office box here in New York that I go to only once a month or so! I first met with Burt Berman, the head of music at Universal, and then Tony Perkins. I’ve been a Perkins fan for years, so I was incredibly excited by the whole proposition.
Tell us about working with Anthony Perkins and your approach to your PSYCHO III score.
The approach I took was to do the instrumentation organized around the Synclavier’s large sampling ability. I wanted to gather musical themes and sounds such as different vocal things, the sounds of wine glasses. I don’t have much interest in sampling actual instruments, though. I feel this treads the line of plagiarism. One of the sources I did use was a Japanese Noh play that had some amazing vocal sounds – striking and scary. Scary in almost a spiritual way that strikes a resonance in me that is almost at the core of my being.
I recorded the Japanese elements when I was in Tokyo. ‘Noh’ is a style of speaking that’s considered an art. These vocal techniques haven’t changed much since the 14th Century. It’s very strange and haunting. I felt having a sound that has a deep, unidentifiable quality, yet is human, would be disquieting and effective. In PSYCHO III I have vocal sounds welling up out of the mix that have a way of disorienting the viewer. I also used a live female choir, a boys’ choir and percussion overdubs. The rest was Synclavier. (I also did the “source” songs for the film, but that’s a different story.)
Tony Perkins left me alone to more or less do what I wanted. He never even showed me the film with a temp-rack. I guess he wanted to see what I’d come up with on my own. I’d play him things on the Synclavier as things progressed and we’d come up with ideas for different orchestration. But, in the end, Tony was not the kind of director who had preconceived ideas about the music. I was very pleasantly left alone which wasn’t what I expected. Here I was, some guy from New York’s “new music” scene coming to Hollywood to work on a major feature film. I expected the worst – executives peering over my shoulder and making all kinds of suggestions. But my fears were never realized. Burt Berman was especially supportive.
Were you influenced at all by the scores for the original PSYCHO or PSYCHO II?
I was very familiar with PSYCHO – a fantastic score. I’m a big Bernard Herrmann fan. But Perkins and I had no desire to try and use any of that in PSYCHO III. At one point I thought of mixing in some of the shower-scene string glissandos with a telephone ringing or something like that, but that never came about.
Who are your favorite composers?
From the film world, definitely Bernard Herrmann, but my music shares almost nothing in common with his. Also, Ennio Morricone, with whom I probably have a little more in common. I also like Danny Elfman’s music, especially PEE WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE. At one point, Danny was going to contribute a song to PSYCHO III but, unfortunately, things didn’t work out. However, I must say I don’t care much for the trend of putting pop music in films just to get an MTV video. I’ve been very influenced by Brian Eno and Tom Tcherepnin, the professor of composition who runs the electronic music studio at Harvard. He has a very rock-and-roll approach to electronic music.
What’s next for you?
I’m in a group called the Harmonic Choir and we’ll be performing in Italy. We do an all-vocal, experimental technique much like a Tibetan monk’s chant, but the content of our stuff is much different. We use many voices and construct the scales harmonically. We have three records out.
I want to continue to do films. It’s one of the few areas in which a composer can do something other than pop music and still get paid. However, I don’t plan to move to Hollywood as I love the cultural opportunities in New York. My next film score will be for the Coen brothers’ next film, RAISING ARIZONA. It’s a comedy set in Arizona and will be scored largely for traditional American “country” instruments, which is something completely new to me. It should be fun.