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The man who’s always there: Carter Burwell’s collaborations with the Coen Bros.

The man who’s always there: Carter Burwell’s collaborations with the Coen Bros.

In his 30-year career as a composer, Carter Burwell’s film scores have run the veritable cinematic gamut. From composing for Spike Jonze (Being John MalkovichAdaptation., Where the Wild Things Are) to his work being the best parts of the Twilight saga, Burwell’s résumé is sporadic and unconventional, even for a man who makes film music for a living — it’s fitting, given his less-than-conventional roots as a cartoonist for The Harvard Lampoon and later as a vagrant New York punk rocker. Undoubtedly, Burwell’s become best known for the his collaborations with Joel and Ethan Coen. Last week, Sound on Sight ranked the films of the Coen Brothers, so what better way to take over The Big Score than with a similarly themed meditation on their work with Burwell? As much as the Coens’ filmography is defined by their trademark cynicism and wit, Burwell’s compositions are an essential element to their success; that he’s composed for a whopping 14 of their films is proof positive of the trio’s creative chemistry.

That chemistry has some serious roots, stretching all the way back to the Coens’ (and Burwell’s) first feature. A dour neo noir, 1984’s Blood Simple. implodes its characters’ shaky moralities through Frances McDormand and John Getz’s vengeful love affair. Rather than pile on to the greedy self-immolation however, Burwell provides Blood Simple. with a sprightly, macabre ornamentation. In his title track, dark rumbles in the piano’s left hand notes sharpen into a scattered, eerie half-motif. The lighter flutters of the right hand occasionally resolve to half-satisfaction, but there’s a palpable restlessness in what’s become Burwell’s instrument of choice.

Burwell would again collaborate with the Coens in their 1987 followup, Raising Arizona. A bonkers family comedy, a zany Nicolas Cage and cartoon sensibility made for a markedly different effort than Blood Simple. The film’s final track, “Dream of the Future,” shimmers with a fuzzy uplift as Cage’s Hi McDunnough imagines a family yet-to-come, but “Way Out There (Main Title)” is the score’s crown jewel. Burwell leaves simple textures in the dust, drawing from whistles, (the recently departed) Pete Seeger’s banjos and Beethoven in equal measure. John R. Crowder’s yodels — mimicking a song copying another song that invokes yet another — are an uninhibited warm welcome, a jubilant, off-kilter introduction to the story of one couple’s ill-advised attempts to start a family.

In the 1990 period drama, Miller’s Crossing, Burwell records big band pieces like “Runnin’ Wild” and Jelly Roll Morton’s standby “King Porter Stomp” to relay the effete excesses of the roaring ’20s. Among his best creations in any film, his “Opening Titles” float throughout the picture, popping up in tracks like “A Man and His Hat” and “The Long Way Around.” A melancholy oboe trills like a gentle kick in the rear, an Irish spiritual throughline that feels as though it’s nudging along Gabriel Byrne’s gangster caught in a mob war’s crossfire. In the track “Miller’s Crossing,” Burwell teases this same oboe line before plunging into shuddering strings, a hammering triangle, and even the far-off clanging of a bell. Succeeded by crying string slides that trickle down like distant shooting stars, there are definite hints of Burwell’s creepier compositions to come.

Miraculously scripted in but a few weeks during a production hiatus in Miller’s Crossing, Barton Fink is among the creepiest of both the Coens and Burwell’s works, inviting analysis while defying explanation in John Turturro’s creatively arrested playwright. “Typing Montage” enchants with simple pairs of keys in slow rises and falls, and the haunting result is not unlike Alan Menken’s Beauty and the Beast “Prologue.” The difference, of course, is the Coens and Burwell are keen to plumb the depths of Barton’s self-absorption, not a fairy tale romance. With faint groans in the background, the picture’s surreality seems to melt through the Hotel Earle’s wallpaper and into the music itself. Cuts like “The Box” seem distant, sticking to its titular character’s preoccupations while boosting Barton Fink‘s limitless richness with an amorphous, unnerving atmosphere. Was that a train whistle? Or a scream?

In the bleak cynicism of Miller’s Crossing and Barton Fink, the Coens and Burwell appeared to be barreling toward a dark trajectory: troubled antiheroes in the throes of indecision. The cheery entrepreneurship of 1994’s The Hudsucker Proxy would pave the way for some sorely-needed levity. In this send-up of Preston Sturges and Frank Capra, Burwell prefaces the farcical rise of Muncie, Indiana’s unassuming Norville Barnes with gentle fluff and a twinkling eye in his “Prologue.” Likewise, “Norville Suite” perfectly embodies its namesake with chipper flutes and bells and a clod-hopping oboe-woodblock combination. It’s goofy with a spring in its step, but Hudsucker isn’t to be taken on face value, and its aw-shucks humility plays right into Burwell’s hands. He weaves together Duke Ellington, Dean Martin, and even Soviet composer Aram Khachaturian’s ballets for the Coens’ referential riffs on screwball comedies of old. “Hulahoop” captures Hudsucker’s occasional cross-eyed lunacy; it’s practically dictated by Khachaturian’s Spartacus. The fervor peaks with straight eighths in the snares, swooning strings and a piercing brass barrage, making for an absurd montage in the R&D offices of Hudsucker industries. The marketing department’s spitballing benefits from the Coens’ surefire dialogue and pointed use of a fluid camera, but its driving urgency is all Burwell.

Burwell would opt for a more rustic palette in the arid Fargo (1996), with track names appropriately revealing the importance of place in their titles. “Fargo, North Dakota’s celesta and harp begin with a flamenco-styled approach to the score’s old country motif before it all comes to a grand, processional head. Timpani, snare, and even sleigh bells buttressing the full-throated orchestra might be too gaudy for Fargo‘s main theme were it not for it bursting through the Brainerd snowfall with a funereal ferocity. Opening divots from percussion bells in “Brainerd, Minnesota” refashion this theme into a quaint, music box rendition. Like the oft-quoted “oh yahs,” Burwell’s Fargo score retains a traditional and time-honored quality, at a begrudging peace with its setting. The key in the Coens’ chilly masterpiece however, is the assurance that as absurd as things get, there are inevitable spurts of carnage. The botched hand-off between Wade Gustafson and Carl Showalter in “Delivery” features massive (and dramatically ironic) gunshots that interrupt “ticking clock” percussion — a Burwell signature he would later simplify in No Country for Old Men. “Delivery’s” clock-like percussion recalls the bottled stress of Jerry Lundegaard; it’s not hard to imagine him strangling himself with that burgundy tie.

Burwell would take a backseat in The Big Lebowski, with T-Bone Burnett’s immaculate soundtrack doing the brunt of the psychedelic heavy lifting, but his faux techno single “Wie Glauben” is a deliciously contrived unofficial theme song for the nihilists; they believe in nothing — not even Kraftwerk homages.

Following the Grammy smash success of O Brother Where Art Thou? in 2000, Burwell went for a three-film stretch in The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001), Intolerable Cruelty (2003), and The Ladykillers (2004). “The Trial of Ed Crane” tickles the ivories in a lament that almost feels sorry for itself. “Intolerable Mambo” is snappy and fun, but Burwell calls for a surprisingly schmaltzy routine in “Love is Good,” turning George Clooney’s divorce attorney soapbox into a rousing fanfare. It’s hard to believe the Coens are speaking on straight terms, and Burwell’s music feels equally muddled.

The trio would come together again in No Country for Old Men, though Burwell’s presence seems more like an overstatement. Clocking in at a sparing 16 minutes, his score is so fleeting that it’s easy to forget the Western features any non-diegetic music at all. Burwell’s gone on record in claiming that “too much music” is a far too common folly in film compositions, but when his music does rear its head, there are moments of sublimity. “A Jackpot” melts away like a fleeting, arid comedown. The one true extravagance, “Blood trails,” drowns in a wandering guitar as it side-steps minor and major keys. It breezes over the devastation of man’s greed and the wrath of Anton Chigurgh like sand in the desert breeze, its supreme coldness less concerned with eternity than inevitability.

2008’s Burn After Reading, while not a signature Coen film, is shrill and elemental — by far Burwell’s most eccentric among their collaborations. Reminiscent of Don Davis’s sparse Matrix fight sequences, “Earth Zoom In” features heavy taiko drums that return in “Night Running,” a fascinating hodgepodge of textures. It first slinks about like a lost Philip Glass cut before bursting into high-octane percussion. For preserving the film’s espionage gone awry, Burwell also works in electronic samples and processed guitar whines, upending a mysterious fog. When it evaporates, all that remains is an a cappella rendition of Princeton’s alma mater, “Old Nassau.” In the film’s signature surprise moment, the final seconds of “Carrots/Shot” turn to panic on a dime, appropriate given the circumstances in which Harbodies Gym’s idiot trainers find themselves. The purported black comedy stylings in Intolerable Cruelty never truly gel with Burwell’s half-witticisms, but the music here feels like it’s laughing at the characters, denigrating their absurdities and selfishness with rapid change and hyperbolic pitch.

A Serious Man (2009) found the Coens return to their Midwestern roots with the financial, professional, and spiritual plight of Jewish physics professor Larry Gopnik. Using their expected bleak humor, the Coens question life’s quandaries with a psychedelic take on The Book of Job. As befuddled as Larry, the confused, simultaneous time signatures of its title theme run through tracks like “The Mentaculus” and “A Marvel.” A timid harp never quite aligns with delayed entrances in the bassoon and flute, but when the lines do flirt with a unison rhythm, the end result is a weary one. Burwell constantly molds textures, solo voices and time signatures for constant imbalance. The score settles on an uneasy limbo, much like the messages Larry seems to keep missing. (Burwell has since admitted this particular element obsessed him more than any other Coens script.) The score’s most ingenious moment appears in “Good Riddance,” its white hot harmonics churning into the darkest version of the title theme, with mordant belches hovering just below percussive thunder cracks. But Burwell’s anticipation doesn’t stop at the finale’s sudden “deus ex tempest.” He uses the throbbing pulse of an electric bass, gnarled guitar and junk percussion for something far more groovy. When timed right, the track’s final cymbal crash hangs, waiting for Grace Slick’s vocals on “Somebody to Love” to kick in. (Seriously. Try it.) Keenly understanding the importance of Jefferson Airplane’s vibes to the picture, Burwell anticipate’s the song’s groove perfectly. A storm’s coming and by God is it a righteous one.

True Grit (2010) would produce the trio’s most straightforward collaboration as well as one of Burwell’s largest efforts. The violins in “River Crossing” are gigantic, committed to selling us on just how massive they sound. Burwell’s ear here is more baroque, with showy ostinatos driving Mattie Ross and Rooster Cogburn on their ill-advised manhunt. Fill your ears, you sonofabitch, for the opening salvo of “One Against Four.” Burwell sprinkles Mattie Ross’s theme, a 19th century hymn, in “The Wicked Flee” and “The Grave” and broadens it in “Ride to Death.” The end result isn’t bittersweet. Its melody grows as it’s played, from mournful to reflective with a touch of cheer. There’s a Simpsons joke about the difference between piano and “piani,” and Burwell changes his favorite instrument to fit the times. Smaller melodies play like expected hymns at a wake while grander moments channel Americana by way of “Appalachian Spring.” In many ways, True Grit feels like a shot at awards contention, however its plucking from numerous church songs would deem a surefire frontrunner ineligible for Academy consideration.

With Inside Llewyn Davis relying on Burnett and newcomer Marcus Mumford for its folk authenticity, Burwell and the Coens have yet to reunite on a project, although their rumored “sword and sandals” picture would seem as good an excuse as any. Whether they’re plunging into the depths of human despair or poking fun at Old Hollywood, Carter Burwell’s scores are a vital piece of the Coens’ success story. He’s the missing link, the third man, and a fitting proxy to the question Michael Lerner’s Capitol Pictures big shot asks of Barton Fink. “Can you tell a story? Can you make us laugh? Can you make us cry? Can you make us want to break out in joyous song? Is that more than one thing? Okay!” More than one thing indeed.

— David Klein

Editor’s note: This article was originally published January 30, 2015.