How do you score something like Macbeth?
When approached with a scoring assignment by frequent collaborator Joel Coen for The Tragedy of Macbeth, Oscar-nominated composer Carter Burwell (Carol, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) knew he needed to create a score that, if at all possible, presented a different sonic texture than the many previous incarnations of Shakespeare’s classic play. Initially, Coen’s take on “the Scottish play” inspired Burwell to explore the marriage between Macbeth (SAG nominee Denzel Washington) and Lady Macbeth (Frances McDormand) and their 40-year relationship.
Then, a strange thing happened to the production.
“While they were shooting it, they were interrupted by COVID. They were shut down for months, and then post-production went on for months because no theaters were open. There was no delivery date for the film,” Burwell explained. “So I really had much longer to work on this film than probably any that I’ve worked on before. I could really just try so many different approaches.”
That time and communication with Coen during the editing process elicited many flavors of a potential score. Sometimes, it sounded like a thriller, taking a cue from the eerie witches (Kathryn Hunter) that announce the prophecy which sets into motion the tragic events of the film. Sometimes, it played like a horror film. Sometimes, it dipped into the action genre.
In the end, as Coen’s take took shape, the thriller aspects became the most prominent.
“Part of the idea of playing it as a thriller is that, yes, it begins with this foul deed, but it’s not over at that point. Like Double Indemnity or Postman Always Rings Twice, the rest of the time you’re watching the inevitable disaster that comes from two people plotting a murder,” Burwell said. “But I think that the thriller elements of this inexorable motions moving forward to a dark end are certainly part of the music right from the beginning.”
Although the play Macbeth takes place in Scotland, Coen did not tie his production to any specific locale. That meant that any instrumentation Burwell selected needed to exist completely devoid of any regional-specific sound. Burwell’s Macbeth score occasionally uses a fiddle sound during transitional sequences. He chose that instrumentation, as opposed to a traditional violin, because it boasted an earthy authenticity, something of a folk sound that would transcend locations.
Aside from instrumentation, one of the more time-consuming decisions was when to actually rely on score within the film. In a traditional Coen Brothers film, the Coens would write sequences specifically for dialogue and sequences specifically for music. Rarely did the two mix. Would The Tragedy of Macbeth feature a score that underplayed the infamous dialogue? If not, then the film would not offer frequent opportunities for a score.
To answer that question, Burwell and Coen sat down and approached the project scene by scene, considering what elements a score could add. Most frequently, the score tells the audience they need to consider a previous event when watching the on-screen action.
“When Macbeth is suddenly promoted to Commodore and he has this speech where he considers that one part of the prophecy has come true. Do I need to take action to make the rest of it come through? ‘Come what come may’ is the phrase. So he comes to the conclusion that it will happen if it happens, and it won’t happen if it doesn’t. During that scene, you want to be reminded of the witches and of that prophecy that comes at the beginning of the film. We thought that would be ideal to have music there that connects what he’s doing to the prophecies from the witches. Then, at the end of his monologue is a transition to Lady Macbeth, and we can use this music to help with that repetition. So, it was really one by one going through and asking so what could the music bring to this?”
Carter Burwell’s score was shortlisted for the 2022 Academy Awards for Best Original Score.
The Tragedy of Macbeth soundtrack from the Apple Original Film with music by Carter Burwell is being released tomorrow (January 14) from Milan Records. The film is available now in select theaters. The Tragedy of Macbeth premieres globally on APPLE TV+ on January 14.