Carter Burwell made his name providing the evocative scores for the Coen Brothers. Introduced to the Minnesota mavericks while they were filming their 1984 neo-noir debut Blood Simple, he underscored it with subtle piano sweeps and watery ambient swooshes, forming a close bond that endured into the next century and made Burwell an in-demand figure throughout Hollywood. Just like his first sponsors Burwell has shown a great ability to adapt and rewrite his work as required, straddling genres with ease while using the spoils from big budget exploits to finance more esoteric and ground-breaking independent films. Born in New York to a maths teacher and a Fabrics baron, Burwell was classically trained on piano as a child. A keen blues aficionado, he soon turned his attentions to the electric guitar and was seemingly wedded to the instrument when not in classes for architecture and fine arts while studying at Harvard. Afterwards he took up a number of posts, including work as an animator, while gravitating to the New York punk scene for nightly thrills. Bitten by the performance bug he played in bands The Same, Radiante, Thick Pigeon and Stanton Miranda. The latter two were both vehicles for cult songwriter Miranda Dali, and Burwell helped arrange a brace of oblique, minimalist singles for the Belgian independent label Les Disques du Crépuscule before the singer and sometime actress made the jump to Factory Records for 1984's New Order assisted album Too Crazy Cowboys. By the time it was released, Burwell had been recommended to the Coen Brothers by sound editor Skip Lievsay. After viewing an early reel of their debut Blood Simple and composing initial sketches, he won the job, synchronising his score via a stopwatch as the rookie slowly grew into his role by adding the esoteric 'Monkey Chant', a song based on the Balinese dance style kecak.
With several studios in hot pursuit Burwell showed off his diversity by composing the music for the pre-motion capture technology dance piece R.A.B.L., a short that premiered to acclaim at the Avignon Festival. He also toured worldwide with David Hykes' experimental vocal group The Harmonic Choir. Back in New York he was unable to resist the overtures of Anthony Perkins to score the soundtrack for Psycho III, paying discreet homage to original Hitchcock composer Bernard Herrmann and also writing the music played on its jukebox. His next hot film date was back with the Coens' in 1987's gregarious kidnapping caper Raising Arizona. Burwell offering a country music affair suffused with acoustic guitars, banjo, organ, choirs, Jew's harp and yodelling, with nods to Beethoven and American folk singer Pete Seeger. Its coup de grace was getting Holly Hunter's policewoman to croon through Appalachian murder ballad 'Down In The Willow Garden'. After scoring a pair of comedy films for director David Beaird, he got to realise his orchestral ambitions on the Coens' Miller's Crossing (1990). On a creative roll, in tandem with his primary sponsors, Burwell's skills were at the fore for his darkly enigmatic and ground-breaking score for Barton Fink (1991). An arch experiment in minimalism, Burwell composed just 20 bars of music, which were treated, warped and reshaped by sound editor Lievsay, who added detuned pianos, typewriters and the sounds of running water to the mysterious mix.
Burwell's workload shot up sharply throughout the 90s as much more mainstream projects fell into his lap, but whether working on Doc Hollywood (1991), Buffy The Vampire Slayer (1992), Wayne's World 2 (1993) or Airheads (1994), he always made sure he was available when the Coens' came knocking. Away from the silver screen he dabbled with live performance, dance and theatre commissions, presenting his first chamber opera The Celestial Alphabet Event in 1991 while winning acclaim for his 1994 theatre piece Mother alongside experimental troupe Mabou Mines. 1995's Scottish action adventure film Rob Roy proved another watershed as Burwell cultivated an intense studio tan, scoring nearly 40 films up until the century's end. Among the best were Richard Donner's Conspiracy Theory (1997) and Todd Haynes' Velvet Goldmine (1998), while his haunting score for the Coens' Fargo (1996) and cult favourite The Big Lebowski (1998) kept his primary sponsors well in the clover.
He may have taken his foot off the throttle in the new millennium, but Burwell has remained in unprecedented demand, able to indulge in leftfield projects such as playing accordion with eclectic new age artist Gabrielle Roth. In the theatre this manifested itself in composing a series of plays for The Parabola Ensemble in 2005 that included The Coens' Sawbones, Charlie Kaufmann's Hope Leaves the Theater and Francis Fregoli's Anomalisa. His partnership with the Coens' continued to yield exotic fruit as he dug into a deep well of gospel for The Ladykillers (2004), stripped everything down to extreme minimalism on No Country For Old Men (2007) and openly embraced 70s psychedelic rock and included crackly vinyl renditions of three songs from Jefferson Airplane's out-there 1967 opus Surrealistic Pillow in A Serious Man (2009). A composer with a deep well of ideas that seems in no danger of running dry, more mainstream plaudits rained down on Burwell for his sterling work on the blockbuster Twilight Saga.
Copyright © 2016 Omnibus Press