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.”