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‘Wonderstruck’: How Carter Burwell’s Percussive Score Carries Two New York Stories Divided by 50 Years

Composer Carter Burwell used percussion and children's music to enter the deaf world of Todd Haynes' "Wonderstruck."




For Todd Haynes’ “Wonderstruck,” composer Carter Burwell created his loveliest and most ambitious score, entering the interior worlds of two deaf children, Rose (Millicent Simmonds) and Ben (Oakes Fegley), who flee to New York 50 years apart and discover a mysterious connection at the American Museum of Natural History.

“It was about how to play those two periods [1927 and 1977] and those two kids, but at the same time not having it feel like two movies,” said Burwell, who previously collaborated with Haynes on the Oscar-nominated “Carol,” HBO Series “Mildred Pierce,” and glitter-rockfest “Velvet Goldmine.”

Finding Their Voices

“Wonderstruck” weaves in and out of the black-and-white silent movie world of Rose, which, without dialogue, relies heavily on Burwell’s score, and the gritty world of Ben. Each kid searches for a missing parent to solve a puzzle and becomes immersed in two very different New Yorks (one ascendant in ’27 and the other at its nadir in ’77).

Burwell, who moved to New York in ’77 after college to join a rock band, was right at home with Ben’s milieu, whose music was dominated by guitars and synthesizers, but steered clear of melodrama for Rose’s silent movie period.

“The music’s really withholding the information and it took us a long time to figure out how much to withhold and how much to say,” said Burwell, who this year also delivered a folksy Americana for the darkly comic “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” and a pastoral score for the somber “Goodbye Christopher Robin.”



Myles Aronowitz

“There’s often music just going continuously for 30 minutes, one scene after another, and it can be overwhelming. I don’t normally work in films like that and, stylistically, it’s not even something that I like.”

At first, Rose’s world was driven by acoustic instruments before a musical convergence takes over during the sequences at the American Museum of Natural History amid the wondrous dioramas. “There’s not much melodic music that plays Ben early on,” said Burwell. “He loses his hearing early on during a lightning storm and the music was about his disorientation. He doesn’t become melodically developed until his trip to New York, whereas Rose, right from the beginning, has a strong thematic presence because she’s putting together a scrapbook.”

Going Percussive

The key to musically capturing Rose and Ben was a percussive tone with glockenspiel, wood block, and marimba. This worked thematically because of its reliance on vibration. The idea first took root in Burwell’s familiarity with a musical education system co-developed by German composer Carl Orff (“Carmina Burana”) in the ’20s.

“One aspect of it was to use percussion instruments for kids that didn’t have the manual dexterity to play the violin or something like that, but they could play a glockenspiel or bang on a piece of wood,” Burwell said. “It’s not overwhelming and you can freely improvise. Orff wrote some simple, poetic marimba pieces.”



Mary Cybulski

Ultimately, the melodies are very simple, almost like nursery rhymes, usually four or eight notes. “But the setting can change in different ways to make them emotionally complex,” added Burwell. “So while the melody can be played on marimba or harp or piano, the strings or woodwinds move around, creating a harmony which can change the way that melody is perceived.”

A high point for Burwell takes place in a bookstore when Ben solves his personal mystery.  Although it’s emotionally intense, the acting and music both benefit from restraint. “A lot of it is just a tremolo on this percussion instrument called an allophone, solo viola, and piano hardly moving at all,” he said. “And when you see people holding all of that in, it’s even more moving as an audience member.”

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