Carter's Notes

From the liner notes to the CD:

Three themes wind through this musical score. "The Swamp" - the unknowable, the primordial soup of doubt. "The Ghost" - the unattainable object of desire. "Creation" - the great process, which is always the unfolding of some earlier creation, suggesting a spinning wheel of recursion. Hopefully these themes are general enough that they can apply simultaneously to the characters in the narrative of the film, and also to the processes of evolution and adaptation which they study and within which they are bound.

Musical equivalents evolved to help with this. The inharmonic overtones of struck metal and the plaintive sound of english horn suggested the random walk of mutation and the endless losses of natural selection, while also playing the confusion and sadness of the characters. Cyclical structures in the score mimic the meaningless engine of life and death, sad on the personal level but so awfully necessary for life itself, while also playing the spinning wheels of the creators of the story.

Is there anything entertaining about looking into the mind of a creator? Wasn't postmodernism supposed to save us from considering the creator at all by seeing creation only in the eye of the beholder? Isn't it hopelessly modern for writers to write about the act of writing? And why do I have to write my own liner notes?

I didn't want the music to state what the film is "about", since this ambiguity is one of the film's attractions, but to write these notes I have to pretend that I do in fact know what it's about. Unknowable, primordial soup of doubt? Meaningless engine of life and death? Would I have made any of these ridiculous claims if I didn't have to write these notes? And what's with all these rhetorical questions? Who do I think I am, Socrates? If he was so great, why didn't he make it to the final cut of the film?

In the end, I guess that's the moral of the story, of evolution. That's why you read this. I made it to the final cut.

   - Carter Burwell, October 2002

Carter Burwell conducting
Carter Burwell conducting
(Photo by Spike Jonze)

Film Info

Directed by Spike Jonze
Written by Susan Orlean (book), Charlie Kaufman, Donald Kaufman
Produced by Vince Landay, Jonathan Demme, Ed Saxon

Composed, Orchestrated and Conducted by Carter Burwell
Music Editor: Adam Smalley
Music Scoring Mixer: Mike Farrow
Contractor: Sandy Park
Recorded at Right Track Studio A
Mixed at The Body Studio

Starring Nicolas Cage, Meryl Streep, Chris Cooper

Released December, 2002

After a long negotiation, Carter and Spike agree on terms

Music Production Notes

This score was recorded and mixed by Mike Farrow. We recorded at Right Track Recording's Studio A in New York City on March 21-27, 2002 and mixed at The Body during the following 5 days.

The score was orchestrated and conducted by Carter Burwell. The contractor was Sandy Park, the copyists were Tony Finno, Adriana Marinescu, and Evan Barker. The music editor was Adam Smalley, the second engineers were Ryan Smith, Jason Stasium, and Dean Parker was Carter's assistant. Special thanks are due to Christine Sciulli who gave birth to my first son Tycho two weeks after we finished mixing.

The musicians were:

VIOLINS: Sandra Park, Sharon Yamada, Myung Hi Kim, Sarah Kim, Elizabeth Lim, Lisa E. Kim, Jung Sun Yoo, Yurika Mok, Melissa Kleinbart, Ann Kim
VIOLAS: Robert Rinehart, Rebecca Young, Vivek Kamath, Tom Rosenfeld
CELLOS: Alan Stepansky, Eileen Moon, Judith McIntyre
BASS: Jeremy McCoy
ELECTRIC BASS: John Patiticci
HARP: Stacey Shames
ENGLISH HORN: Shelly Woodworth
PERCUSSION: Gordon Gottlieb, Erik Charleston
GUITARS: David Torn
SYNTHS & SAMPLES: Carter Burwell

Burwell, Smalley
Carter Burwell and Adam Smalley
(Photo by Spike Jonze)
David Torn
(Photo by Mike Farrow)
House of gongs
Gordon Gottlieb's House of Gongs
Cooper, Streep
Chris Cooper and Meryl Streep


"As in 'Being John Malkovich,' Kaufman’s imaginative leaps are perfectly served by Jonze’s quicksilver directing style. Able to communicate key information in highly economical ways, Jonze keeps the film light on its feet even as it ponders (in a nifty early sequence) the creation of the world or the way nature has matched individual flowers to their perfectly color-coordinated pollinating bee. And as before, the vibrant lensing of Lance Acord, nimble editing by Eric Zumbrunnen, eclectic production design by KK Barrett and charmingly offbeat percussive score by Carter Burwell — all 'Malkovich' vets — are all of a piece with the whole." - Todd McCarthy, Variety, Nov. 10, 2002.

"On an aesthetic level, the film is so wonderful in every department, with smart and stylish cinematography by Jonze’s regular lenser Lance Acord, a playful yet inquisitive musical score by Carter Burwell, and crisp editing by Eric Zumbrunnen." - Nick Clement,, July 14, 2017.

Nicholas Cage as Charlie and Donald