Coens' tunesmith sends up political thrillers

Carter Burwell, virtual inhouse composer for Joel and Ethan Coen — he’s done 12 features for them since their 1984 debut with “Blood Simple” — was unable to celebrate with them earlier this year because their best picture Oscar winner, “No Country for Old Men,” contained too little original music to be nominated.

Not so with this year’s Coen brothers movie, “Burn After Reading,” which opens with a startling display of power percussion against a zoom shot from space down into Washington, D.C. Four drummers, playing instruments of various sizes (including massive Japanese taiko drums) over four recording passes in London’s Abbey Road Studios resulted in the sonic equivalent of 16 drummers playing at the same time.

“It gave you the sense that you were observing something that was tremendously important and meaningful — massive percussion to suggest great import but also to be very vague about what that import was,” Burwell says.

The composer was inspired by Jerry Goldsmith’s all-percussion score for the 1964 political thriller “Seven Days in

May.” Unlike the John Frankenheimer film, however, “Burn After Reading” is a comedy (“but it pretends very strongly to be something else,” Burwell notes).

“They needed music to make clear, right from the beginning, that there was subterfuge, surveillance and hidden nefarious workings — a lot of which are imaginary,” he adds.

An even bigger challenge was finding the right musical approach for Francis McDormand’s wacky health-club employee who’s obsessed with cosmetic surgery. “Fran brings a lot of humanity to a part,” Burwell says. His piano-and-strings theme for her suggested just a touch of vulnerability.

Twenty-four years of collaboration with the Coens (on such modern classics as “Fargo,” “Barton Fink” and “The Big Lebowski”) has led to “a lot of trust,” Burwell says. “They’re happy to listen to something at an extremely rough level. But on every film, we start from scratch in terms of trying to figure out what music should do.”

Burwell scored two other films in 2008: “Twilight,” the hugely popular teen-vampire movie, and “In Bruges,” the dark-comic crime thriller. Both featured small ensembles and haunting, quirky piano melodies.

For “Twilight,” Burwell came up with the surprising notion of combining chamber music with rock ‘n’ roll. “I wanted the intimacy of a string quartet, to record them with close miking, maybe even uncomfortably intimate,” he says. “At the same time, electric guitars make it strange and big and powerful, part of the language of youth. And percussion, to suggest the power behind these vampires. To me, they represented adolescent sexuality.”

Burwell’s intriguing piano love theme for Bella and Edward is played onscreen by actor Robert Pattinson, who is a talented pianist, Burwell says. His “Bella’s Lullaby” is so popular with teens that it’s being published as sheet music.

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