November 2011

Once Bitten

In scoring the penultimate film of the megahit Twilight series, composer Carter Burwell zeros in on mood over matter

LORRAINE
ALI

PHOTO: DEAN PARKER

Carter Burwell isn’t into melodrama. So it took him by surprise when he found himself at the piano, writing music by oil lamp for the vampire romance The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn. “I was desperately trying to finish the last scene, when a hurricane smashed into my house,” recalls Burwell, 55, who resides in Amagansett, out on Long Island.

“The windows were all boarded up, and the power was out. Romantic when you think about it, in a vampire sort of way.” The outage lasted three more days—just long enough for him to finish.

As a film composer, Burwell creates ambience out of raw footage. A former punk key-boardist, he has more than 60 films under his belt, including 14 Coen brothers movies, Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are and the first Twilight film, directed by Catherine Hardwicke. And he’s consistently able to turn the esoteric—and the everyday—into a nuanced, captivating score.

“I try to say something you’re not seeing onscreen,” says Burwell of Breaking Dawn, Part 1, due out November 18, with Part 2 set for 2012. “For this film in particular, because it involves vampires, there’s action that could be seen as a little creepy because they’re biting each other. But on some level, it’s also an expression of love. So you’re seeing this, but the music is saying that.”

Burwell and Breaking Dawn director Bill Condon (with whom he worked on Kinsey and Gods and Monsters) went through the movie scene by scene to discuss mood and musical direction. “I think of Carter as an actor’s best friend,” says Condon. “In the movies we’ve done together, many performances have been deepened or enhanced by Carter’s gift for musical storytelling.”

Burwell knew the music for this fourth installment of the young-adult box-office behemoth called for a different approach than Twilight. “In the first film, you have what appears to be a melee of high school normalcy,” he says. “Now Bella is getting married, she and Edward finally have sex, and they’re planning to turn her into a vampire. It reminds me of a Michael Curtiz film from the 1940s—it’s all very intense.”

But doing the music for a movie spawned from a series of beloved tween novels seems a stretch for Burwell, even by Holly-wood standards. In addition to features, he’s written a chamber opera, made an award-winning animated film and composed for theater. So...adolescent angst and fangs? “If someone other than Catherine (Hardwicke) had sent me the script to Twilight, I probably would have dismissed it out of hand,” he offers. “What can I say? It’s not really my cup of tea—completely non-ironic, sincere and melodramatic. I went to Portland when she was shooting, so she could convince me it was more than a teen romance, and it was. That they’re young and vampires is all metaphorical—the themes resonate no matter what age you are.”

The New York native studied computer animation and electronic music at Harvard, where he graduated in 1977. Then, after a short stint as a computer scientist, he was spending his days at New York Institute of Technology as a digital-sound researcher and his nights in punk clubs, playing synthesizer with his band, Thick Pigeon. A friend introduced him to the Coen brothers, and before long, he landed their Blood Simple.

Though Burwell has since made a name for himself among directors, like Todd Haynes (Mildred Pierce) and John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side), winning over his fellow composers has been another matter. “There was a definite looking down on those coming from rock and roll,” he says. “I’d love to say the injection of all these non-conservatory-trained people had the effect of pushing film music outside traditional constraints, but I’m not sure that’s really true. If you look at the last 50 years and who’s done the most interesting work, it’s people who are conservatory trained, like Ennio Morricone and Bernard Herrmann.” The legions of Twilight fans might disagree, thanks partly to a number by Burwell that has become the series’ unofficial anthem: “Bella’s Lullaby,” played by Edward for his entranced lady as a sonic ode to their bond. Burwell wrote the ballad for a real woman and repurposed it for the film. Perhaps tellingly for Bella and Edward, that woman is now his wife and the mother of his three kids. “I need to play the true feelings of the characters, yet at the same time, I can’t write any music that isn’t me,” he says. “I was in love.” And now, so is Hollywood.

NOW HEAR THIS

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ARTIST: Vince Mendoza

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Tom Nolan, music author and critic

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SONG: “My Shoes”
ARTIST: Syleena Johnson

Featured on Kanye West’s “All Falls Down,” Johnson—daughter of blues and R&B singer Syl Johnson—is one of music’s most underrated voices. And it soars here, twisting and turning on this aching yet empowering, walk-in-my-shoes ballad about the sacrifices made for an undeserving lover, off her CD Chapter V: Underrated.

Gail Mitchell, Billboard

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SONG: “Princess of China”
ARTIST: Coldplay (featuring Rihanna)

Although Chris Martin has been no stranger to hopscotching through format lines of musical genres, Cold-play fans should be pleasantly surprised by RiRi’s appearance on the new album Mylo Xyloto. This track is “Umbrella” catchy—and hearing Chris and Rihanna harmonize is texturally stunning. In a word, genius.

Julie Pilat, 102.7 KIIS-FM

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SONG: “Somebody That I Used to Know”
ARTIST: Gotye

This epic ballad from the Australian singer-songwriter’s album Making Mirrors has garnered more than 10 million views on YouTube and become an unlikely hit. Tapping the universal themes of heartbreak and betrayal, he and sidekick Kimbra deliver an emotional potency and lyrical sincerity we don’t often come across in pop music.

Jason Bentley, KCRW