The Guy Who Writes the Music for All Those Coen Brothers Films.Posted: September 30, 2008
Not until I downloaded some iTunes tracks of Carter Burwell’s score for the Coen Bros.’ Burn After Reading did I realize how much his music shaped the tone of that movie. Though the film is a comedy, the score is ominous and dark. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to call it tragic. Try to imagine a more expectedly “comedic” score against the narrative, and you have a whole different, and trivial, film. The Coen Brothers and Burwell—with the sound-world he created for this movie, with its Philip Glass minimalism meets Bernard Herrmann harmonies of fear—are trying to tell us that while we may laugh at the characters in Burn After Reading, we are not to take them, or the world they inhabit, lightly.
Burwell has turned out one creative, idiosyncratic score after another in his movie career, and, unlike the Coens, he doesn’t repeat himself very much. He finds a tonality that uniquely suits the project, and he runs with it. (His first film was the Coen’s first film, Blood Simple, and he has scored all their films since then; he is also the “house composer” for Spike Jonze. But he has worked for a variety of other directors in a great variety of genres. Currently he has about 75 films to his credit.) Film scores used to enhance films, not just accompany them; they brought out psychological dimensions of character and storyline. Burwell’s scores still do this. Of all film composers writing today, he’s the one that can most be counted on to unlock the secret of a film and change it into the film it was meant to be, but wouldn’t have been without him—not just to write music that “works.”
By the way, no trip to Los Angeles is complete without a visit to The Museum of Jurassic Technology—a place that can best be described as a repository of really weird-ass stuff. Carter Burwell’s name is on the wall as a supporting donor. I’m not surprised.
P.S. Click here to read a useful recent interview with Burwell that tells you something about his background and his process.