There is no widely accepted explanation for the importance of music to humans, but one possibility is its ability to express and relieve emotional tensions that can’t be put into words. In Carol two women are romantically attracted to each other but the culture of 1950’s America hasn’t provided them with a language for this. Expressing these inexpressible feelings is one of the roles of the score in this film.
In addition, Carol, the older woman, is a bit of a cypher herself - a cool, aloof mystery. To keep the music true to this emotional distance, while still conveying the yearning and passion of the characters, it relies on ambiguous harmonies and “cool” instruments, such as piano, clarinet, and vibe.
There are three main themes in the score. 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.
There is also a theme for Therèse’s fascination with Carol, first played as Carol drives Therèse to her house. 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.
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. 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.
I had previously worked with the director, Todd Haynes, on two projects, Velvet Goldmine and Mildred Pierce. Todd sent me the script of Carol before he started shooting, and also sent several CD’s of music from the period that he and Randy Poster had compiled. Sometimes I can draw some musical conclusions from a script, but it’s difficult with Todd’s films because the visual language of each film is so particular, and is not represented on the page, so I didn’t actually write anything until he’d shot and assembled the film.
When we watched it together, we agreed the score should have a lushness to match the period costumes and design, but also a coolness to fit the contained emotions of the characters and their times. Through the process of composing we often discussed the question of how heated or cool the music should be in expressing the characters’ feelings. The music is always saying more than the characters, but we didn’t want it to leave the characters behind either.
Eventually I wrote the score for a small ensemble ranging from 8 to 17 musicians. At its smallest it was a string quartet with bass, harp, piano and clarinet. At its largest it was about twice that. I orchestrated and conducted myself, and the music was performed by players from the Seattle Symphony. We mixed it, as I do all my scores, at my studio in New York with Mike Farrow engineering. The whole process, from writing through recording and mixing, took about eight weeks for 38 minutes of music.
Directed by Todd Haynes
Screenplay by Phyllis Nagy from the novel The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith
Produced by Elizabeth Karlsen, Christine Vachon, Stephen Woolley
Starring Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Sarah Paulson, Kyle Chandler
U.S. Release November 20, 2015
The musicians who performed the score are:
Simon James, Gennady Filimonov - violins
Mara Gearman - viola
Wendy Sutter - cello
Jonathan Burnstein - bass
Brittany Boulding - Violin
Misha Shmidt - Violin
Joseph Gottesman - Viola
Eric Han - Cello
Cristina Valdes - Piano
John Carrington - Harp
Erin James - flute
Frank Kowalsky - Clarinet
Jennifer Nelson - Clarinets
Sean Osborn - Clarinets
Chengwen Winnie Lai - Oboe
Evan Kuhlmann - Bassoon
Mark Robbins - Horn
Carter Burwell - Processed piano
Robert Puff - Copyist
David Sabee - Contractor
Dean Parker - Composer's Assistant
"Carter Burwell’s score swirls with seduction and longing." - Richard Lawson, Vanity Fair, May 17, 2015.
"…Carter Burwell’s haunting score, with its two-step progressions and occasional repetitions, seems an almost perfect distillation of her longing" - Justin Chang, Variety, May 16, 2015.
"I long to see it again, partly to bask in its gorgeous production design (by Judy Becker — Carol’s car is a creamy, silver-taupe Packard, a car to swoon over), and to once again hear Carter Burwell’s tremulously sentient score, a wintry sky-wash of flutes and French horns." - Stephanie Zachary, Village Voice, May 20, 2015.
"Carter Burwell's wondrous score, which swells to a brilliant crescendo in the memorable climax, manages to elaborate on the story's emotional foundation even when words fail the two leads. " - Eric Kohn, Indiewire, May 16, 2015.
"... the movie’s most palpably expressive element is longtime Coen brothers composer Carter Burwell’s score, which is devastatingly spare and sad, recalling some of the lonely grandeur of his work on the filmmakers’ True Grit remake." - Tim Grierson, Screen Daily, May 16, 2015.
"Yes, Haynes’ filmmaking is not without a certain formalist detachment, and at times you can sense his inner semiotician attending to every carefully studied detail. But style is meaning, don’t we know by now, and in Carol all those suggestive noir shadows, the richly enveloping atmosphere, the expressive ellipses in the acting and the piercing refrain of Carter Burwell’s score serve to bridge the gap beautifully, wordlessly conveying thoughts, feelings and insights that a more on-the-nose screenwriter would have felt compelled to spell out." - Justin Chang, Variety, May 25, 2015.
"The film is boosted by sumptuous period detail in its clothes, cars, and restaurants. The cherry on top for this aesthetic package is Carter Burwell's absolutely fantastic score, which will end as one of the year's best. In a film about tension between two people, it beautifully inhales and exhales, with two key parts laid on top of each other, as if in different tempos." - Nick Allen, RogerEbert.com, Sept. 11, 2015.
"The novel of a love society forbids" - from the paperback cover
Having written a successful first novel, Strangers on a Train, that was turned into an equally successful film by Alfred Hitchcock, Patricia Highsmith chose to issue her second novel The Price of Salt, also know as Carol, under the pen name Claire Morgan.
Highsmith knew the novel would be controversial, not the least to her family, for its depiction of a lesbian romance that doesn't end in someone going back to her husband or killing herself. Her publisher, Harper, rejected it but when Bantam put out a 25-cent paperback a year later it sold a million copies and became a cultural touchstone.
Highsmith later desribed the story's inspiration. In 1948 she was working as a holiday sales clerk at Macy's. She saw a "blondish woman in a fur coat" come into the store to buy a doll for her daughter. Obsessed, Highsmith found the woman's address from the sales slip and the next day took a bus to New Jersey to see her house from afar. In a fever dream brought on by chickenpox, Highsmith began the book that night, “It flowed from the end of my pen as if from nowhere.”