Carter Burwell on A Serious Man's score

By Scott Macaulay | September 21, 2009
Carter Burwell at his piano Carter Burwell at his piano

The Coen brothers’ regular composer, Carter Burwell, talks about writing the music for their new film, A Serious Man.

Composer Carter Burwell remembers the day about three years ago when he received a package from Joel & Ethan Coen. Inside were the scripts for what would be their next three movies: No Country for Old Men, Burn After Reading, and, their latest, A Serious Man. Burwell has scored almost every one of the Coen Brothers’ films, so of course he responded to the scripts, but he says he took a particular shine to A Serious Man. “It’s my favorite script of theirs,” he says. “I thought it was really a piece of literature.”

Burwell sat down with the Coens to discuss the scores for these films. “I knew what order they were being shot in,” he says. “So we had conversations about No Country first and, as you know, music wound up best being not present in the film. Burn After Reading was sort of the opposite musically.” In that film, Burwell created a pulse-pounding score that both referenced the Hollywood spy movie genre while also playfully satirizing the self-seriousness of the characters. For A Serious Man, Burwell says, “We didn’t have any specific music talks. We didn’t discuss what the point of music would be on a scene by scene basis like we did with Burn After Reading, which has a more traditional dramatic structure with good and bad people and nefarious things happening to them.”

So when he sat down to sketch themes and melodic material that might suit A Serious Man, a comedy about a university physics teacher whose wife asks for a divorce during the lead-up to his son’s bar mitzvah, Burwell was initially stuck. The film is full of human drama and surreally hilarious set pieces, but a traditional comic score didn’t seem appropriate. That’s perhaps because the film’s meanings exist not so much within the actions of the characters but within various philosophies and belief systems that figure in the storline, like Hebrew scripture, physics, and even the secular theology of ‘60s rock n’ roll. (Indeed, one of the movie’s best jokes occurs when the viewer realizes that a rabbi is quoting not the Torah but Jefferson Airplane.) Says Burwell of what he wound up composing, an eerie four-note theme for chamber orchestra that repeats in a number of variations, “There is no logic to this choice of score. I initially worked up some themes that maybe had some relationship to Judaism or felt a little bit like the ‘60s, but they just drew attention to what was already on the screen and were not interesting. The theme that I came up with in the end that runs throughout the movie doesn’t relate to any of those things. And I have no explanation for why it is right except that it feels right.”

When meeting with directors, composers customarily begin by playing them not just one piece of music but a diverse group of sketches that represent the various compositional paths that can be taken to develop the full score. So, Burwell worked up additional material other than the one theme that “felt right.” “I always play them the thing I like first, and usually I like having a good explanation for it,” Burwell says. “In this case I didn’t have one.  I just played it, they liked it, and then they said, ‘For argument’s sake, let’s hear the other things.’ So I played them, and anything that had the most remote connection to Jewish musical traditions — even just the sound of a clarinet — felt too on the nose.”

Michael Stulhbarg in A Serious Man

Michael Stulhbarg in A Serious Man

Of his mysterious-feeling final score and the themes of the film, Burwell continues, “There’s a relentless unwinding to [the music]. It repeats over and over again, and it suggests that the movie is heading in a direction and will not veer. The movie begins with the doctor’s appointment, and then a physicist talking about the “Schrödinger’s Cat” [scientific paradox]. From my perspective it is about a man suspended between life and death, so there is something unreal and inescapable about the theme of the music. By the music ignoring the actual events, it suggests that the important thing is not what you are seeing. The music is pointedly ignoring what you are seeing, so that approach implies that there must be something else [the movie is] about.”

One decision Burwell and the Coens had to make was whether to treat the film’s prologue, set in 19th century Poland, in which a husband invites over for dinner a rabbi whom his wife is sure is a dybbuk (a person inhabited by the soul of one turned away from Hell), differently from the rest of the film. “That scene, that ghost story, engendered quite a bit of conversation about the music. Should it be done like Yiddish theater? Like melodrama? In the end we decided that the best thing was to keep it creepy. If you begin the movie with a sense of ill ease and creepiness then when you go to these prosaic scenes at a doctor’s office and suburbs you have set up the idea that something bad is going to happen.”

When I ask if there’s anything really unusual about the score itself, like the use of an excessively wide dynamic range and the taiko drums of Burn After Reading, Burwell pauses a moment before recalling the moments just after that ghost story prologue. “Between the Yiddish scene and the cut to suburbs, there’s darkness and then we discover that we are in the ear canal of the boy in Hebrew school listening to Jefferson Airplane. I had to compose some music to bridge those scenes, and part of that process involved writing music that served as an intro to the Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love.” That song starts immediately with the vocal, but the Coens wanted a few more beats. So we put together a group to come in and recorded them kind of ‘warming up’.  We got the same model bass and guitar, and we tried to get the same amps. It’s a very short piece, but it was a really fun exercise. You cut to black after the ghost story, there’s a sonic collage and you could still be in 19th c. Poland. And then drums start amping up, this rock stuff starts happening and then suddenly you’re in the Jefferson Airplane.”

It’s a tiny little part of the score, and I have to admit to Burwell that I don’t remember it. “You don’t? That’s great! It’s not supposed to call attention to itself, so it did just what it’s supposed to do.”

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