In his Oscar-contending "Carol" score, Carter Burwell used a trio of poignant themes to convey the complexity of Todd Haynes' lesbian love story between the eponymous socialite (Cate Blanchett) and aspiring photographer Therese (Rooney Mara), both Oscar-nominated.
"A lot of the dialogue is spare and the most important emotions are not openly discussed, so it was a great opportunity for the score to express them," said Burwell, the director's long-time collaborator. "The difference here is that I threw a lot more ideas at Todd, who didn't mind because he's so musically astute."
The three themes focusing on the process of love, "The Opening," "To Carol's" and "The Letter," contain their own emotional arcs. "The first one is almost through the physical excitement of seeing a person and infatuation and the beating of the heart," Burwell explained. "And that happens with the first scene, the love scene that's the center of the film, and the very last scene.
"The second theme is about the fascination, the feeling of an altered state, the way everything else just disappears and you focus on the little things like a person's hand or clothing. An example of that is this scene where they take this drive through a tunnel. The way the film was shot, it's very subjective and it allows the music to go into Therese's head.
"The third theme is the sense of loss and emptiness when your love is not around. Or in the most extreme example in this film, when Carol writes Therese a letter and explains why they cannot be together."
Although "Carol" takes place in 1951, the composer didn't want to be confined by period music per se. However, he had to be careful that it didn't appear out of place, either. "What I wrote would not have been written or performed during that period, yet the instrumentation is in keeping with what you would've had in a film at that time," Burwell added.
"Musically, the first theme, the one that's more about activity and action, has a very distinct beat to it. The rhythm is played by the strings, there's some polyrhythmics, which means the piano might be playing three beats against two beats or four beats in the strings. And it makes use of an orchestra that plays around 17 instruments: five woodwinds, nine strings, piano, harp, bass."
"To Carol's" consists of solo piano, but it's highly processed, "so that the left hand of the piano is doing these figures that go into visual processing and piles up into a cloud of notes," Burwell continued. "You can't tell where the beat is and on this one, it disappears into this miasma of notes. And then the right hand is playing a very simple melody and, again, the notes are processed in such a way that it seems like the notes are bouncing around in Therese's head.
"The piano theme doesn't fit, of course, because the sound is so processed. It occurs in scenes that are very subjective, out of time, so it's not really an issue."
"The Letter" is spacious yet stripped down—there's not much rhythm to it. Rather, there are careful intervals chosen for piano, strings or woodwinds.
What makes the "Carol" score unique is a timeless quality that helps convey both the passion and pain of forbidden love.