Carter Burwell - Writer

Composer. Nationality: American. Born: New York, 18 November 1955. Education: Harvard, B.A. in Fine Arts; studied computer animation, Massachusetts Institute of Technology; studied computers and music, New York Institute of Technology. Career: Played keyboards in band The Same, and toured with David Hykes and The Harmonic Choir, late 1970s-early 1980s; chosen by Joel and Ethan Coen to score their first film, Blood Simple , 1984. Awards: Chicago Film Critics Association Award for Best Music, for Fargo , 1996; Los Angeles Film Critics Association Award for Best Music, for Gods and Monsters , 1998. Agent: Creative Artists Agency, 9830 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, CA 90212–1825, U.S.A.

Films as Composer:


Blood Simple (Coen and Coen)


A Hero of Our Time (Almereyda)


Psycho III (Perkins)


Raising Arizona (Coen and Coen)


Pass the Ammo (Beaird); It Takes Two (Beaird); The Beat (Mones)


Checking Out (Leland)


Miller's Crossing (Coen and Coen)


Doc Hollywood (Caton-Jones); Barton Fink (Coen and Coen); Scorchers (Beaird)


Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Kuzui); Waterland (Gyllenhaal); Storyville (Frost)


This Boy's Life (Caton-Jones); Kalifornia (Sena); A Dangerous Woman (Gyllenhaal); And the Band Played On (Spottiswoode—for TV); Wayne's World 2 (Surjik)


It Could Happen to You (Bergman); The Hudsucker Proxy (Coen and Coen); Airheads (Lehmann)


Children Remember the Holocaust (doc) (Gordon); Bad Company (Harris); Rob Roy (Caton-Jones); A Goofy Movie (Lima); The Celluloid Closet (doc) (Epstein and Friedman); Two Bits (Foley)


The Chamber (Foley); Fargo (Coen and Coen); Fear (Foley); Joe's Apartment (Payson)


Girls Night Out (Paci); Picture Perfect (Coron); Assassin(s) (Kassovitz); Conspiracy Theory (Donner); The Locusts (Kelley); The Spanish Prisoner (Mamet); The Jackal (Caton-Jones)


Gods and Monsters (Condon); The Big Lebowski (Coen and Coen); Velvet Goldmine (Haynes); The Hi-Lo Country (Frears)


The Corruptor (Foley); The General's Daughter (West); Being John Malkovich (Jonze); Three Kings (Russell); Mystery, Alaska (Roach)


Hamlet (Almereyda); What Planet Are You From? (Nichols); High Fidelity (Frears)


On BURWELL: articles—

Herson, Bob, "Off the Beaten Track," in Cineaste (New York), vol. 23, no. 4, 1998.

San, Helen, "Carter Burwell: Passion Under Pressure," at Cinemusic Online , , February 1999.

* * *

Carter Burwell is among the most chameleonic of modern film composers. Though his music certainly has recognizable traits, his work for the first seven films by Joel and Ethan Coen is greatly varied in style—far from instantly identifiable, at least when compared to the scores of Angelo Badalamenti for David Lynch, or Bernard Herrmann for Alfred Hitchcock (or for anyone else). In the mid-to-late 1990s Burwell has also been among the most prolific of American film composers, averaging five scores per year while working on everything from risk-taking independent films to big summer spectacles—e.g., from Being John Malkovich to Conspiracy Theory , with A Goofy Movie for good measure. One can single out particular musical characteristics of a Burwell score—favorite chord progressions, a fondness for wistful little themes for solo piano or occasionally celesta or the like against soft strings—but perhaps what his scores most have in common is a general "thoughtfulness" and subtlety, compared to the "blast-'em-with-the-big-theme-again" philosophy of many current Hollywood composers. While "self-effacing" would be the wrong term for Burwell, he does appear to subscribe to the classic position that movie music should seldom call attention to itself, but always serve the drama.

A look at the Coen brothers' first three films reveals some of Burwell's range. His first film score, for Blood Simple (a noirish thriller with black comedy very close to the Coens' later Fargo ), is nothing if not understated, but effective in its quiet way. Lightly scored (mainly with a synthesizer), the music is neither conventionally suspenseful nor grotesquely humorous, though there are occasional menacing groaning sounds; more often we hear a pensive sort of solo piano music ("eerie" would be overstating the case). Raising Arizona is inventive in completely different ways. The cartoonish and mostly illegal activities of the redneck characters are fittingly accompanied by banjo music of the Bonnie and Clyde variety, though with the addition of yodeling vocals and odd bits like a Country version of Beethoven's "Ode to Joy." Yet there are also musical moments that are almost indefinable in mood, though somehow "right," like the abrupt, possibly teasing, synthesizer notes when Nicholas Cage's character is attempting to steal one of the quints. (One might have thought the scene called for the kind of comical suspense music one hears in a Warner Brothers cartoon, but Burwell rarely goes for the conventional.) The historical gangster drama Miller's Crossing does not use music for most of its dialogue, and some violent scenes are backed by old-fashioned songs for Irish tenor ("Danny Boy" and "Good Night, Sweetheart") to ironic effect; but Burwell comes up with a stately, very Irish-sounding theme—this is his first orchestral score—for the opening and final credits and some scenes between Tom and Verna, with solo oboe playing a traditional melody and cymbals punctuating the bigger restatements.

As for the Coens' more recent Fargo , with its murder spree in Minnesota, the title music, strangely enough, has a medieval or folk flavor, modal with harp and what sound like viols; later drums introduce a bigger, more solemn version of the music in a more definite minor key. Hearing the music alone, one might expect something more along the lines of Ivanhoe , but in fact the "medieval" theme will be used again to introduce the crime-solving police officer Marge, and played even as she dines at Hardee's. The film does contain what seems mock-ominous music, as during shots of the Paul Bunyan statue, yet the score as a whole is very far from either suspenseful or satirical in any obvious way, though it does keep a sort of ironic distance from the action. Curiously, it even makes certain scenes (e.g., ones involving Marge) touching that might otherwise seem deliberately ludicrous. Much the same might be said about Burwell's score for Spike Jonze's Being John Malkovich , where the plot itself is sufficiently weird without any need for a joking soundtrack; if anything, the score could be called wistful, as in the puppet music.

Burwell's music for directors besides the Coens is equally varied. For example, Richard Donner's Conspiracy Theory is the sort of film that calls for a great deal of soundtrack music, filled as it is with suspense sequences, extensive driving on the streets of New York, and a much more prominent love drama than most thrillers contain. Burwell does offer some fairly typical "thriller music," including one theme with a Peter Gunn rhythm for some street scenes, and some jazzy passages that may recall the scores of John Barry, but much of his contribution is extremely subtle. As is often the case for this composer, some of the action scenes are accompanied so deftly (but not softly, and not routinely) that one hardly notices how well the music is doing its job. For the romance between Mel Gibson and Julia Roberts, music is particularly needed to convey the true feelings of the hero, who is extremely inarticulate and motivated by repressed memories; again Burwell's music is stirring without being either sentimental or grandiose.

For Richard Condon's Gods and Monsters , about the twilight years of the "forgotten" film director James Whale and his troubled involvement with a young gardener on his estate—a story with echoes of Death in Venice and Sunset Boulevard —Burwell again avoids heavy sentimentality, especially of the sort which Franz Waxman used for Whale's The Bride of Frankenstein , scenes from which are shown in Condon's film. We do get a sad waltz during a dream near the very end, and a solo violin passage that gently connects to the Hermit's playing for the Monster in Whale's movie; but as usual, it is very hard to attach a simple emotional label to most of Burwell's score, whose main theme is more a delicately orchestrated series of chords than an identifiable tune. For certain dramatic scenes late in the film the music editors do seem to have laid on the music rather mindlessly and almost inaudibly, but for the flashbacks and fantasies that Whale (Ian McKellen) slips into, the music is hauntingly appropriate.

In line with what could be called a non-egotistical approach to scoring, Burwell has also proven a successful collaborator and adapter. In a film like Velvet Goldmine , about glam-rock musicians of the 1970s, his synthesizer and guitar accompaniments discreetly contribute to the mostly pop score. For Rob Roy , he combines his own themes with traditional Celtic music performed by folk specialists. For the Coens' The Hudsucker Proxy he features music by Aram Khatchaturian, chiefly the love theme from the ballet Spartacus (truly a "big theme" of practically Max Steiner dimensions, with its "Stormy Weather" first notes), for mocking effect. Like film composers of an older generation Burwell is good at evoking exotic settings—but rather than compose in the "Hollywood-Oriental" styles once standard for pictures set in China or the Middle East, he uses authentic instruments and creates unusual pastiches of Western and other music. An example is his score for The Corruptor , a Hong-Kong-action-comes-to-NY-Chinatown thriller, featuring actual Chinese stringed instruments and woodwinds but with an American pop-rhythm accompaniment. Three Kings , with its Gulf War setting, has an especially eclectic score: it uses Middle Eastern sounds, but also does not hesitate to borrow a chorus from Handel for a drive across the desert. Some stretches of military action have only a drum set accompaniment, while music connected to "treasure" is quiet, with chime-like sounds, later overlaid with Middle Eastern music when the soldiers find the gold.

"Never obvious" could practically be this composer's motto. For better or worse, there is nothing in Burwell's music like Trevor Jones' stirring main theme for Michael Mann's Last of the Mohicans. A recurring theme for Rob Roy is about as close as he comes to such a style: a tender melody, first played by folk instruments, but suitable for statement by full orchestra during the film's grander moments. Still, the moody, thoughtful scores he has created for an astonishing variety of films have made him one of the distinguished film composers of his generation.

—Joseph Milicia

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