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Carter Burwell - offbeat, dark and weird

Carter Burwell conducting Carter Burwell's association with the films of the Coen brothers has brought him widespread recognition. Their vivid style of story-telling in familiar settings doesn't require a lot of embellishment which makes this composer their ideal partner. His style can best be described as quietly unobtrusive, yet supportive in all the right places. If you're looking for a composer to enhance your film without attempting to dominate the story or any particular scenes, then Burwell is your man. Perhaps because of the type of films he has worked on, his music has largely avoided the fuller orchestral sound, and instead used small and frequently striking combinations of different instruments.

Carter Burwell - Fargo and Barton Fink soundtrack CD cover One benefit of working with the Coen brothers with their somewhat unconventional approach to film making, is that there are less rules acting as constraints on your creativity. This has allowed Burwell to indulge in a number of different experimental approaches to the story's musical accompaniment. He has used different styles from Jazz to Pop and Classical, he has taken unusual instrument combinations and effects sounds, and he has also experimented with different approaches to thematic material. Those unusual slightly quirky results, have brought Burwell's music to the attention of other film makers and he has been very successful in a number of different movie genres. A good example of this quirkiness is the soundtrack to "Raising Arizona" which mixes unusual samples and effects with acoustic instruments.

Carter Burwell - Rob Roy soundtrack CD cover One of his films without Joel and Ethan Coen was the soundtrack for "Rob Roy" which was overshadowed by the box office success of "Braveheart" released shortly afterwards. The music for "Rob Roy" includes much authentic sounding Celtic folk music from Burwell, augmented by some music from the Scottish band "Capercaillie" (whose name is a rare flightless bird found in some parts of the country). The music demonstrates all the qualities described above, the movie suiting the composer's style perfectly, i.e. depicting the deeds of a quietly unconventional yet heroic figure. Much of the film was shot in Ireland and this is where the soundtrack was recorded, with some help from Bill Whelan as Music Consultant. (Whelan composed the stirring dance music for the "Riverdance" show.) However some of the external scenes were shot in Scotland, and a rounded hill known as "The Pap of Glencoe" features prominently in some shots.

Carter Burwell - In Bruges soundtrack CD cover "Fargo" is an unusual film set amid a snowy backdrop with a subtle black humour. The music is required to keep that balance in check between the commonplace and the unusual. There is a solo violin playing the main thematic idea in a folksy way supported by harp, cor anglais and strings (both plucked and bowed). "The Man Who Wasn't There" is a recent soundtrack featuring many excerpts from the piano sonatas of Beethoven including for example the well-known first movement of the Moonlight Sonata. Burwell's original music both complements this and contrasts with it, being largely based on strings and piano. It ranges in mood from the thoughtful and reflective through to troubled, and uses a recurring thematic idea which seems to be loosely based on a short section from one of the Beethoven Sonatas. One track "Nirdlinger's Swing" is in period style scored for a small combo led by saxophones.

Carter Burwell - True Grit soundtrack CD cover For "Being John Malkovich", Burwell's music is based around a chord progression which in a number of different guises supports the weird happenings on screen. In keeping with this general weirdness and moments of self-reference or shifts in point-of-view, the soundtrack album has a track called "Carter Explains Scene 71 to the Orchestra" where scene 71 is a rather unusual orgasmic moment. Interesting scores which Burwell has created in recent years include the black comedy "In Bruges", and two Western remakes for the Coen Brothers "The Alamo" and True Grit, both of which make use of pre-existing material to a greater or lesser extent. While "The Alamo" makes use of the Mexican Bugle Call known as Deguello, the main theme of "True Grit" is based on the hymn Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.

The television series "Mildred Pierce" has garnered a lot of attention for its mix of period music (including jazz arrangements of classical works) and darker underscore by Burwell. It's certainly great to hear woodwind again, when so many composers seem to avoid these evocative and versatile instruments. After a gap of two films, Burwell returned to the Twilight Saga for "Part 1" and very soon "Part 2" of Breaking Dawn. With Burwell the featured composer for Film Fest Gent in 2018, an album has been released called "Carter Burwell: Music for Film" with Dirk Brosse conducting the Brussels Philharmonic orchestra.

Carter Burwell photo by Dean Parker

Films by Carter Burwell:

    Carter Burwell - Raising Arizona and Blood Simple soundtrack CD cover
  • Blood Simple - the music in this film is sparse, yet there is a recurring theme based on a minimalist no-3rd chord progression and some sound design to enhance the experience
  • Raising Arizona - weird, with an unusual mixture of acoustic instruments and samples
  • Psycho 3
  • Miller's Crossing - the music hints at the Irish background of many of the gangsters in this movie, long before you here the strains of Danny Boy
  • Fargo - a quiet musical backdrop to let the story speak for itself
  • Barton Fink - strings and piano, with bells (of the glockenspiel and tubular variety) and some strange sound effects
  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer - original movie version of the now familiar TV series
  • Doc Hollywood - includes a little bit of Prokofiev's Lieutenant Kije
  • The Hudsucker Proxy
  • The Big Lebowski
  • Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? - mostly a song based soundtrack but there is some scoring in between
  • Rob Roy - including Celtic sounds and folk music from the band "Capercaillie"
  • The Jackal
  • This Boy's Life - the early part of the film is full of period source music, but Burwell's quiet theme of hope emerges as a dominating factor on guitar, strings and woodwind
  • Mercury Rising
  • Gods and Monsters - reflective music matching the mood of triggered memories, there is a brief use of Franz Waxman's music from "Bride of Frankenstein" and Burwell's violin theme becomes that of the blind man in "Frankenstein"
  • Being John Malkovich - as well as Burwell's music, the album has tracks by Bela Bartok and Bjork
  • Conspiracy Theory - has a wide range of music, including a number of cues in a jazz band style
  • Three Kings - with additional tracks from Thomas Newman and Graeme Revell
  • A Knight's Tale - though the soundtrack has some distinctly modern rock songs, Burwell's music presents a more timeless quality
  • The Man who Wasn't There - amid Burwell's original music there are excerpts from several of Beethoven's piano sonatas including the Moonlight.
  • Intolerable Cruelty - another from the Coen brothers
  • The Ladykillers (2004) - an excellent remake from the Coens, whose music stretches between Renaissance and Gospel
  • The Alamo (2004) - completely different in tone to Dimitri Tiomkin's original score, and arranging the Deguello bugle call in one track
  • Kinsey - the film starring Liam Neeson as the pioneering sex researcher Alfred Kinsey, the music has a classical simplicity
  • No Country for Old Men
  • In Bruges - the score hints at the dark comedy and is dominated by piano with occasional overdriven guitar
  • Burn After Reading - slightly Philip Glass but it works fine for the comedy in this movie
  • Twilight - though "New Moon" was scored by Alexandre Desplat and "Eclipse" by Howard Shore
  • A Serious Man
  • Where the Wild Things Are - adaptation of the children's fantasy story by Maurice Sendak
  • The Blind Side
  • Howl
  • The Kids are All Right
  • True Grit (2010) - like "The Alamo" this is another remake of a classic John Wayne movie, and this time Carter chose to use a selection of Hymns as the basis of his music, in particular a hymn called Leaning on the Everlasting Arms
  • The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Parts 1 and 2 - Burwell returns to the Twilight Saga
  • The Fifth Estate
  • Mr. Holmes - starring Ian McKellen as an older Sherlock Holmes
  • Legend
  • Carol - in places sounding like a romantic version of Philip Glass
  • Anomalisa
  • The Finest Hours
  • Hail, Caesar! - satirical Hollywood movie by the Coen Brothers
  • The Founder
  • Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
  • The Ballad of Buster Scruggs - another Coen Brothers movie
  • Missing Link - animation
  • The Good Liar - with Helen Mirren and Ian McKellen

Television Music by Carter Burwell:

  • And the Band Played On - TV Movie
  • Mildred Pierce - acclaimed mini-series starring Kate Winslet, and earning Burwell 2 Emmy nominations in 2011 for the Theme and the Dramatic Score

Carter Burwell Recommendations:

To further explore the music of Carter Burwell, we can recommend some of his earlier albums which combine two film soundtracks: "Raising Arizona" and "Blood Simple" share a CD release as do "Fargo" and "Barton Fink", and many of his later albums which are all interesting in many ways: