Carter Burwell

Scott Macaulay learns how Carter Burwell gets into the character of the films he scores.

A former computer scientist, Carter Burwell is one of the smartest film composers around, but when it came time to score the Coen brothers latest, Burn After Reading, he got a little stupid. Says Ethan Coen, "Since the characters thought they were in a spy movie, Carter Burwell thought the composer should be equally deluded. I liked the idea that the composer is as deluded as the characters so that his soundtrack fits the movie the characters think they are in, rather than the actual film we are watching.”

As a composer who has always defied industry convention, Burwell easily rose to the task of creating intelligent movie music from an idea rooted in the absurd. Rather than add to the movie the musical fillips that would signify “jokes,” Burwell’s score – at some times deafeningly pulse-pounding and at others oddly romantic – envelopes the entire film within a life-or-death grandiosity that is, well, pretty hilarious. “Hopefully people hear the score as being humorous,” laughs Burwell. “I’m operating here as if you’re watching an espionage thriller no matter what’s [actually happening in the movie].”

Fortunately, audiences and critics have picked up on Burwell’s intention. Of his score, Wendy Ide writes in The Times of London, “Carter Burwell’s brilliant score is the most paranoid piece of film music since Quincy Jones’s neurotic soundtrack for The Anderson Tapes – it’s particularly well-judged as it brings a gravity to a collection of characters who we could otherwise dismiss as numbskulls and nincompoops." And says Richard Corliss in Time, “For me, the surest laughs came from the portentous percussion in Carter Burwell's wonderful underscoring; it pile-drives an expectation of suspense that the film never delivers."

As Corliss observes, there is “portentous” percussion in Burn after Reading, and one reason it can be dubbed as such is that it is mixed loud… very loud. The main title music consists of multi-tracked percussion that assaults our ears as a Google-style map telescopes down from a wide view of the planet Earth to the Washington, D.C. neighborhood of our characters. So, even before the movie’s storyline has kicked into gear, we feel that something big is going on. “I had a theory from the beginning that percussion would be good,” says Burwell. “It would lend the illusion of import without telling you anything more. What I was referencing was [the score for] Seven Days in May, which is almost entirely percussion and has lots of snare drums and marching sounds. But the [percussion in the Burn After Reading] score wasn’t about the military but instead a sense of grandiosity.”

The Burn After Reading score was recorded in London’s famed Abbey Road Studios, and for that wall of percussion Burwell used four drummers pounding away at sets of taiko drums. Taikos are high resonating drums with heads on both sides of the body that produce a sharp sound. In feudal Japan they were, in fact, used to march troops. “I built up a big percussion sound with [the taiko drummers],” explains Burwell, “and then I brought in the orchestra as well as some electronic stuff. I like to mix things up.”

Burn After Reading’s instrumentation – an orchestra, taiko drums and electronics – shows the influence of the New Music movement of the ‘70s and ‘80s that Burwell hails from. In those days, at places like The Kitchen and in festivals like New Music America, composers such as Philip Glass, Meredith Monk and Glenn Branca mixed elements of classical, rock and world music to create a new kind of modern composition. “People then had an open mind about what constitutes ‘music,’” recalls Burwell. “It was a time in New York City when all the musical genres were mixed up. The Talking Heads would open for Philip Glass; noise bands would open for Steve Reich. It was very much a melting pot, and that’s my attitude [towards composition] as well.”

In his early professional years, Burwell worked as an animator and then as a computer scientist at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in Long Island where, according to his website, he “wrote software for image processing, lab automation and protein analysis.” Later he was the Director of Digital Sound Research at the New York Institute of Technology. It was during these years that he was pursuing a “parallel career” as a downtown musician, playing in bands like Thick Pigeon and The Same. Burwell remembers, “I had no intention of becoming a film composer. I was playing instrumental music in clubs like CBGB, and Skip Lievsay [the Coens’ long-time sound designer] knew my music. He put me in touch with them and I did Blood Simple.”

Since that first feature, Burwell has scored nearly 80 films, including almost all of the Coen Brothers features as well as other films like Adaptation, A Knight’s Tale, Before Night Falls, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Three Kings. His long relationship with the Coens, however, gives his collaborations with them a special quality. Their relationship “makes it easy for a couple of reasons,” explains Burwell. “There is a lot of trust on both sides. They know I’ll finish and get my job done, and they’ll give me the time to try out different things. And I don’t worry that they’ll overreact if I play them something radical. When you are talking about [the relationship between] music and cinema, there isn’t a completely perfect, established language, but ours is as good as it’s going to get. Another big difference when [working with the Coens] is that we don’t worry about the opinions of other people. It’s rare that we sit around and think, what will the producer or the audience think of this? We are mostly trying to make a movie that we think is good and that will entertain us. And then, of course, we hope that other people will think it’s good too.”

That shared familiarity and boldness leads to things like Burwell giving the Coens those massive taiko drum tracks, which suddenly “set the tone for the whole score.” It also leads to things like the equally startling decision in the Coens’ previous film, the Oscar-winning No Country for Old Men, to include virtually no score music at all. Unless your ear is inhumanly attuned, you were probably scratching your head at that “Original Music by Carter Burwell” credit on the film’s main credits. Explaining how he arrived at a score that is more minimal than might seem possible, Burwell says, “My first thoughts about the music was that maybe it could say something about the landscape. I didn’t think it should say anything about the characters or the story. But whenever I put a musical instrument in, it took the edge off. You were aware that you were in a movie. That’s one thing a score does – even a disturbing score lends comfort to the audience. So what we wound up with were sustaining tones that are pretty much subliminal and that come in six times [during the film].”

This talk of pounding taikos and sustaining tones belies the fact that in addition to being unusual and inventively scored, Burwell’s music is known for being warm, sad, joyful, big-hearted and tragic – often all in the same film. The main theme from Fargo, for example, is a beautiful chamber elegy that embodies that film’s original form of American tragicomedy. And when it comes to describing other elements of his score for Burn After Reading, which is full of beautiful string music with jazzy accents, Burwell likens it to that earlier film, which also starred Frances McDormand. “It’s a little bit related to Fargo in that the music takes itself very seriously even when silly things are happening on screen,” he says. “When it comes to Fran’s character, we went through several themes, and we ended up with one that is sympathetic to her. It plays her as a person with psychology whereas the other characters [are treated] as pawns in a geopolitical game. I did try other things for them – themes that were more ‘human’ – but Joel and Ethan didn’t like them.”