Carter Burwell was a self-described dilettante (math, fine arts, biology, philosophy, electronic music) when he took a trip to New York with three other recent Harvard grads in 1977. There he found religion in Iggy Pop.
It was the height of the punk era, with groups like the Go-Go’s and the Sex Pistols,” Burwell recalls. “It was iconoclastic, spontaneous, sexy. We decided we’d just be a band for a while. We called ourselves the Same.”
But the Same didn’t last, nor did Burwell’s follow-up band, Thick Pigeon. After a while, it appeared he might just have to drift into a respectable career. But a sound editor for the Coen brothers heard something in Burwell’s offbeat energies. A meeting was taken. A match was made.
Synthesizer music was the thing then,” says the editor, Skip Lievsay. “Carter had a better skill set.” Plus, Burwell was a novice willing to work on the cheap. With his pared-down, piano-driven score for 1984’s “Blood Simple,” Burwell and the Coens struck an artistic pact that continues today with “A Serious Man.”
I discovered early that I enjoyed film composing because you’re always doing something different, following 10 separate lines of thought before you decide on one,” Burwell says. One of the reasons he works repeatedly with the Coens is that, in the best sense, they don’t know what they’re doing.
If a director knows exactly what he wants, I’m not that interested,” Burwell says. “Which isn’t to say that I don’t admire directors like Martin Scorsese and Stanley Kubrick. It’s that the Coens and I seem to have a common sensibility. We see humor the same way. We’ve never had to discuss what a film is about.” For “A Serious Man,” he provided an ambiguous score.
What I liked is that what the movie is about is debatable. I was able to free-associate. I enjoy those kinds of discoveries.”
On “Where the Wild Things Are,” on which he collaborated with Karen O., the facial expressions for Jim Henson’s puppets hadn’t been inserted when Burwell was assigned the score. He had to sit through every scene with director Spike Jonze to determine what those emotions were.