It’s been a good fall for Carter Burwell. While WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE garnered the most attention, the latest film from the Coen Brothers, A SERIOUS MAN, opened quietly and to expectedly excellent reviews. The film tells the story of a physics professor (Michael Stuhlbarg) at a quiet Midwestern university who finds his life unraveling after his wife leaves him. After 25 years and 11 films, Burwell once again confirms his status as the Coen Brothers’ musical voice.
Burwell’s reflective score for A SERIOUS MAN is exactly that–serious. The harmonies are desk, the melodies in a minor key. The kernel of the entire score can be heard in the first track, “A Marvel.” Slow moving chords in the low strings, a descending harp line, and a yearning solo violin set the musical tone for the film–delicate and more than a little bit sad. The hemiola effect of the duplets in the harp underneath the augmented triplets of the main theme keep the score, like Stuhlbarg’s professor, off-balance.
Except for the occasional timpani rumble, the brass and percussion are rarely used, heard mainly in brief cues such as “Rabbit Sting 1” and “2”. Instead, Burwell is going for a more reflective tone–poignant yet unsentimental. The yearning theme first heard in the solo violin will occasionally turn in on itself with a sense of resignation, while an English horn will strike a brief note of hope, which quickly dies away to return to the somber tones of the rest of the score.
This is a quiet score, and a short one. Minus the songs by Jefferson Airplane, the score occupies less than 20 minutes of the CD. You can listen to more audio clips at Amazon.
Though I have yet to hear a Carter Burwell score that I haven’t enjoyed, I find his music to be an acquired taste, and one that I have to keep acquiring with each new score. He doesn’t write the long-flowing melodies for people like me (then again, few do these days), but he also doesn’t write the guitar and electronic-laden music that constitutes much of today’s film scoring. Instead, Burwell forces you to listen closely to what’s going on in his music, to concentrate, and I have to sit with the score and give it numerous listens (at least when heard out of context with the film) to grasp what he is trying to do.
The more I listened to A SERIOUS MAN, the more I heard and the more I was moved.