A Serious Man Composed by Carter Burwell
Lakeshore Records (2009)
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“Sometimes, ... ,
the emotion is there, and just when you think it’s getting
interesting, it vanishes."
A Seriously Reticent Score Review by Helen San
A Harvard graduate who majored in computer animation, CARTER BURWELL
stumbled into film composition by chance. The sound editor of BLOOD SIMPLE
liked his piano playing in a club and asked him to write a few sketches
for the Coen brothers’ first movie. Since then, BURWELL has loyally scored
all Coen brothers features to date (except for O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU?
), as well as countless other movies. The history of film music sometimes
finds a few powerhouse director / composer partnerships that stand out:
Alfred Hitchcock and BERNARD HERMANN, Steven Spielberg and JOHN WILLIAMS,
and James Cameron and JAMES HORNER, for example. But it is rare for
directors to find a lifelong partnership, a shared creative vision so
seamless they always turn to the same composer.
A SERIOUS MAN is BURWELL’s latest Coen project, right on the heels of last
year’s BURN AFTER READING. The serious man in question is Larry Gopnick, a
Midwestern Jewish professor in the 60’s whose life unravels around him. To
depict Gopnick’s helplessness and loss of control, BURWELL composed a
darker and more dissonant score than usual: a gently cacophonous ambience
with cowbells, harps, and strings, at times juxtaposed against electric
bass and guitar. Now this is not the first time BURWELL has used unusual
combinations of instruments. But unlike his other efforts, there is almost
no melody in this one, so most of what you get is somber unease. This
quiet sadness actually complements the folk-guitar 60’s style of the rock
band Jefferson Airplane, which played a prominent role in the movie. Since
I am not fond of Jefferson Airplane, the style is not particularly
interesting to me.
BURWELL fans might be disappointed that this album has almost nothing of
BURWELL’s usual ardent energy or romantic swells. His signature minor
chords are there, just barely, but with no real melody and in very short
tracks. When I say short, I mean seriously short. There are altogether
little over 18 minutes of score, with half the 16 score tracks less than a
minute long, and the rest averaging 2 minutes or so. In tracks such as
Rabbi Sting (7) and Rabbi Sting 2 (12), you get an ominous utterance akin
to one long sound effect that really should have been combined with
another track; they offer nothing musically on their own, especially
outside of the screen. There is a noteworthy rock melody in the last 30
seconds of Good Riddance/The Canal (4) that transitions nicely into
Jefferson Airplane’s "Somebody to Love," though the rest of the track
doesn’t offer much beyond mood music.
Sometimes, as in Thirst (8), and Uncertainty (9), the emotion is there,
and just when you think it’s getting interesting, it vanishes . Those
tracks sound like a man overwhelmed with unspeakable feelings who starts
to express himself, but stops midstream and leaves you wondering what he
was going to say. Maybe this was inspired by the hapless Mr. Gopnick and
works well in the movie, but it provides no listening satisfaction.
Needless to say, the most highly rated tracks are those that are long
enough to develop the main theme. It is a four note motif repeated in
various chords that is best heard in Canada (16) and A Serious Man (19),
where it moves past the usual reticence and resembles a completed thought
and sentence. While this motif doesn’t represent recent BURWELL as smartly
as WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE or even BURN AFTER READING, when completed,
the forlorn and fragile theme is delicately beautiful, as beautiful as
heartbreak can be.
The album includes three Jefferson Airplane songs and closes with a
Yiddish folk song that reminds us that this is, after all, a Jewish black
comedy, Coen style.