The Third Coen Brother
February 23, 2016 4:02 AM   Subscribe

Much like Steven Spielberg and his longtime collaboration with John Williams, it’s incredibly difficult to imagine a Coen Brothers film without the indispensable work of Carter Burwell:

Carter Burwell and the Coen brothers both broke into Hollywood with Blood Simple in 1984. With only two exceptions, Burwell has served as composer on every film they have made since (T Bone Burnett handled the period-specific music for O Brother Where Art Thou and Inside Llewyn Davis). Here are some highlights:

Raising Arizona - "Way Out There"
Miller’s Crossing - "End Title"
The Hudsucker Proxy - "Prologue"
Fargo - "Fargo, North Dakota"
The Man Who Wasn’t There - "The Trial of Ed Crane"
Burn After Reading - "How Is This Possible?"
A Serious Man - "The Roof"
True Grit - "The Wicked Flee"

And this is to say nothing of his vast work outside of the Coens, including Being John Malkovich, Where the Wild Things Are, and In Bruges (not to mention a certain beloved/hated YA franchise). This past year featured four major theatrical releases in which he served as composer: Mr. Holmes, Legend, Anomalisa, and Carol. This last film has granted him his first ever Oscar nomination in his over thirty year career. PBS Newshour recently sat down with Burwell to discuss his career as well as his approach to Carol.
posted by AlonzoMosleyFBI (14 comments total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
I spent a lot of time trying to find notes for the Fargo theme. Turns out it's a Norwegian folk melody called "The lost sheep" ("Den bortkomne sauen").
posted by Snjo at 4:49 AM on February 23, 2016 [2 favorites]

T Bone Burnett handled the period-specific music for O Brother Where Art Thou

And yet, the Coens commissioned a little musical fragment that runs after the closing titles, so that Carter could still receive his usual on-screen credit, "Music by Carter Burwell."
posted by StickyCarpet at 5:04 AM on February 23, 2016 [3 favorites]

Was hoping this was about Roderick Jaymes.
posted by pxe2000 at 5:17 AM on February 23, 2016 [6 favorites]

I always feel compelled to mention Burwell's origins in dark minimalist new wave with the NYC art-pop duo Thick Pigeon (iTunes) (Spotify).
posted by mykescipark at 5:25 AM on February 23, 2016 [2 favorites]

I interviewed Carter Burwell once about his attitude towards the emotional nature of music. You can read the whole thing via google books here.
posted by leibniz at 6:12 AM on February 23, 2016 [8 favorites]

I interviewed Carter Burwell once about his attitude towards the emotional nature of music. You can read the whole thing via google books here.

Thanks, most sincerely!
posted by Wolof at 6:42 AM on February 23, 2016 [2 favorites]

Interesting interview, thanks. I had just listened to the FPP's link to the Fargo theme and was wondering a little whether the over-the-top nature of the third iteration of the melody was entirely intentional (those rolling drums!), and now I know!

It's also funny that the studio gave him a hard time over the Twilight music. "The youth of today can't handle dissonance!"
posted by praemunire at 7:23 AM on February 23, 2016

The soundtrack to Miller's Crossing is a very strong part of my love for the film. It's quite nearly the perfect soundtrack.
posted by Ghidorah at 8:17 AM on February 23, 2016 [1 favorite]

A few years ago I wanted to send a mystery present to one of my friends who is a big fan of the Coens. I decided to burn him an audio CD of the main musical theme for each of their movies, with the tracks arranged chronologically. I didn't tell him a thing about it, nor did I label the tracks or even the CD. I just said, "Listen to this and tell me what it is."

Here's an excerpt from the email he sent me later:

Anyway, I finally had a chance to sit down and put the CD in my little player on my shelf and listen again, uninterrupted by students, dogs, life, etc.

I went through the first song again, and thought "Man, what could it be...I don't recall it from No Country, Fargo, or The Man Who wasn't there...although they all appropriately seem dark enough to fit...

Anyway on to the 2nd track and Raising Arizona...ah... familiar territory... sweet, sweet Seeger.

And then to the third, glorious, glorious Burwell composition which, by the way, I am asking to be played at my funeral. I am not kidding.

And then I thought, "I know Raising Arizona was their second, but wasn't 'Barton Fink' their third?" "WAIT! "Maybe NOT!... WAS Miller's Crossing their third??" Holy cripes, I think it was...

I promise, I didn't look. But it makes sense now... the first composition was ENTIRELY appropriate for 'Blood SImple'... Followed by Raising Arizona, then Miller's Crossing...

I am listening to #4 as I write this, and I guess I was wrong about it being from 'Hudsucker,' ... it is from 'Barton Fink," isn't it? Although, if memory serves, #4 and #5 have very similar qualities and ... atmosphere...

... and yes, yes, they do, because #5 just started and I think I can see the snow falling around a skyscaper...

#5 is as far as I've gotten... I think #6 will be from 'Fargo' and #7 will be another big "tell" with a song only The Dude could dance to...

Fun fact: at the time that I did this, there was no way whatsoever to find Blood Trails, the one true song off of No Country for Old Men (which plays over the credits). I really really like that piece and I wanted to be able to listen to it, so I had to dig out my No Country DVD and figure out how to rip audio, then trim it to the appropriate times, etc.

(of course now you can easily find a copy of a Blood Trails.mp3 on your googles or torrents or youtubes but then there weren't any available to me)

Once I had that track in hand I started thinking, "Well what are the main songs / musical themes for all of their movies?" and that's what started this project. I already had the Miller's Crossing audio CD. The rest I had to track down. I borrowed several CDs from the library, and purchased through iTunes some stuff I couldn't get my hands on otherwise. It only took me a few days but it was great fun putting together.

Oddly enough someone out there has chosen to package the Fargo and Barton Fink soundtracks together. Very strange choice, in my opinion. And that brings me to my main point in all this: Barton Fink sure doesn't have a single recognizable melody as its theme. It's funny they chose to package it with a movie which has such an iconic and identifiable theme. Anyway, I had to watch parts of the movie again and listen to all the audio CD tracks and eventually just kind of pick one that I felt worked best. I knew that my friend would figure it out by process of elimination. I would bet dollars to donuts that if you played the soundtrack for me right now I couldn't pick out which one I used.

All of this came to mind when I saw that AlonzoMosleyFBI had skipped over Barton Fink in the highlights list above.

and yet ... I'm not dissing Burwell's work on that score. The whole thing has that Barton Fink feeling.
posted by komara at 8:22 AM on February 23, 2016 [4 favorites]

I know Burwell through his contributions to Clodagh Simonds' Fovea Hex project, not so familiar with his film scores - this post is a great reminder to rectify that, thanks!
posted by remembrancer at 9:23 AM on February 23, 2016

True Grit - "River Crossing"
posted by Auden at 11:24 AM on February 23, 2016

I think it's worth highlighting that the main reason why Carter Burwell has never been nominated for an Oscar before is because he tends to make use of folk melodies, rather than compose entirely new ones. The Oscar is specifically for best original score and so it was decided somewhere that's it impossible to write original innovative soundtracks unless you make up the melody yourself. I mean I get that they have rules, but this is contrary to a major tradition of classical music.
posted by leibniz at 2:54 PM on February 23, 2016

My favorite is still Blood Simple. It really makes the movie, and he had never scored a film before.
posted by How the runs scored at 7:50 PM on February 23, 2016

Blood Simple. It really makes the movie, and he had never scored a film before.

When the Coens first approached him, Carter and I were sharing a house on Long Island, with a Steinway grand piano in the living room. Carter had left a job doing genetics software development at Cold Spring Harbor, to do contract 3D modeling for NYIT Computer Graphics Lab in Old Westbury.

He had some side projects in musical performance, with Clodagh and with Miranda, his bandmate in Thick Pidgeon.

Carter had a small number of his personal compositions that he could play on the piano. Of these, what was to become the Blood Simple theme was the clear standout, a precious little miniature that he had worked and polished.

When the Coens approached him and he saw the workprint for Blood Simple, and showed it to us, none of us including Carter thought that the film was all that great. Carter described being blown away when it was first screened in a theater because of how the presence of an audience changed the whole experience, and he was impressed that the Coens had known that and worked with that.

But, while the film in progress was still being seen by him as a modest first effort, there were discussions among his close friends about if it was a good idea to give that theme, his best piece, to this movie. He ultimately said, if I'm going to do this at all, I've got to go all in.

That single little theme caught a lot of people's attention, in particular he got a call from Anthony Perkins, who just loved it, and on that basis alone asked him to score Psycho III. This was rather sweet because Carter had always had a thing for Anthony Perkins, he had Anthony Perkins photos taped on our refrigerator, etc.
posted by StickyCarpet at 6:08 AM on February 24, 2016 [16 favorites]

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