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Carol (Carter Burwell)

November 7, 2015


Carter Burwell, 2015, Varese Sarabande
22 tracks, 62:16

Carter Burwell does Philip Glass, musically speaking. “Carol” is a very intimate, delicate and very beautiful score.

Review by Pete Simons

What is it?

Set in 1950s New York, two women from very different backgrounds find themselves in the throes of love in “Carol”, directed by Todd Haynes. A young woman in her 20s, Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara), is a clerk working in a Manhattan department store and dreaming of a more fulfilling life when she meets Carol (Cate Blanchett), an alluring woman trapped in a loveless, convenient marriage. As an immediate connection sparks between them, the innocence of their first encounter dims and their connection deepens. As conventional norms of the time challenge their undeniable attraction, an honest story emerges to reveal the resilience of the heart in the face of change.

The original score is by Carter Burwell, who recently also wrote the music for the mystery-drama “Mr Holmes” and the crime-thriller “Legend”.

What does it sound like?

There are a handful of songs scattered throughout the album. Bands and artists like The Clovers, Billy Holiday, Jo Stratford and Helen Foster & The Rovers add a sense of genuineness (with respect to the 1950 era) to the album. Personally, I do find them interrupting the flow of Burwell’s delicate score. So, on to that score…

“There are three main themes in the score,” Burwell described. “The music over the opening city scene plays the active engagement and passion of Carol and Therèse. In this scene it’s telling you something about the characters before you ever see them, since they appear for the first time around the last note, but eventually this will become their love theme.”

“Opening” instantly reveals a Philip Glass influence. So much so, in fact, that I thought it might have been Glass himself. It’s arranged for gently see-sawing strings, rhythmically pulsing piano and woodwinds. It’s very pleasant and recurs several times throughout the album, for example in “Christmas Trees”, “Drive into the Night”, “Lovers” (where it’s arranged with a greater emphasis on strings), and “Crossing”.

“There is also a theme for Therèse’s fascination with Carol, first played as Carol drives Therèse to her house,” Burwell continued. “This is basically a cloud of piano notes, not unlike the clouded glass through which Todd Haynes and Ed Lachman occasionally shoot the characters. This piano texture required a little studio magic so the left and right hands of the piano could be processed separately – the left disappearing into a cloud and the right still distinct enough to carry a melody.”

“To Carol’s”, “Packing”, “Waterloo”, “Visitation”, and “Reflections” all feature this second theme. It does indeed sound like a cloud of faintly echoing and reverberating piano notes. It’s very beautiful, very ethereal. There’s something quite magical about, albeit in a very subdued way.

“The third theme is about absence and loss. Its fullest expression is the montage after Carol leaves Therèse and tries to explain herself in a letter,” said Burwell. “It’s the best example of the use of open intervals such as the fourth, fifth and ninth, to veil sentiment. The hearts of both women are broken, but rather than play the pain the music plays the emptiness.”

The third theme is first heard in taxi. It’s a slow and moody melody (perhaps not even worth calling it a melody, as it’s very minimalist) and revolves around a duo of piano notes moving around the scales, with an ambient background. It has a melancholy feel to it, and it too recurs several times throughout the score, all the way through to “The End”. In Burwell’s own words…

Is it any good?

Carter Burwell’s “Carol” is a beautiful, mesmerising little score for strings, piano, woodwinds and the occasional harp. It’s very minimalist at times, resembling the works of Philip Glass (especially the rhythmically see-sawing strings of the first theme); and it feels very intimate. It’s performed by a relatively small orchestra, so each instrument can be heard. The score is a bit of a slow-burner, in that in may take a listen or two to fully appreciate just how beautiful this score is (which each paragraph I wrote, the rating crept up a notch). For the best listening experience I do recommend taking out the songs, as they do interrupt Burwell’s delicate score.

Rating [4/5]


01. Opening (2.13)
02. Taxi (1.43)
03. To Carol’s (1.39)
04. One Mint Julep – The Clovers (2.26)
05. Datebook (0.52)
06. Christmas Trees (2.19)
07. Easy Living – Billie Holiday & Teddy Wilson (3.02)
08. The Train (2.30)
09. Packing (1.10)
10. Drive Into Night (0.52)
11. Kiss Of Fire – Georgina Gibbs (2.25)
12. Waterloo (0.40)
13. Lover (2.40)
14. Gun (3.06)
15. Smoke Rings – Les Paul & Mary Ford (2.56)
16. Over There (1.12)
17. Visitation (1.29)
18. To Court (1.01)
19. Letter (3.25)
20. No Other Love – Jo Stafford (2.57)
21. The Times (2.16)
22. Reflections (1.18)
23. Crossing (1.30)
24. You Belong To Me – Helen Foster & The Rovers (2.53)
25. The End (3.53)

  1. Agreed on this sounding like Philip Glass, I was shocked when I discovered it was by Carter Burwell. Let’s call it Philip Glass lite.

  2. Maryna permalink

    I just saw this movie and honestly thought I was listening to the score from the hours through most of it. Thanks for validating!

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