I was familiar with Carter Burwell’s name thanks to his score for the Coen brothers’ film True Grit, but I wasn’t aware of the full scope of his film compositions or of his backstory. A brilliant man who just picked up and learned lots of things. Just out of college and trying to make it as a musician while working a lousy warehouse job:
One day, Burwell saw a help-wanted ad in the Times for a computer programmer at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, a nonprofit research institution whose director, James D. Watson, had shared the Nobel Prize in 1962 for discovering the structure of DNA. Burwell wrote a jokey letter in which he said that, although he had none of the required skills, he would cost less to employ than someone with a Ph.D. would. Surprisingly, the letter got him the job, and he spent two years as the chief computer scientist on a protein-cataloguing project funded by a grant from the Muscular Dystrophy Association. “Watson let me live at the lab, and he would invite me to his house for breakfast with all these amazing people,” he said. When that job ended, Burwell worked on 3-D modelling and digital audio in the New York Institute of Technology’s Computer Graphics Lab, several of whose principal researchers had just left to start Pixar.The Polymath Film Composer Known as “the Third Coen Brother” by David Owen in The New Yorker
His royalties from scoring Twilight funded a house on Long Island, where he lives and works from home, composing on a 1947 Steinway D that came from the Columbia Records studio in New York. “I still fret about having replaced the hammers, but they were worn almost to the wood—some say by Dave Brubeck.”
Worth reading the whole profile.