A Serious Man


A Serious Man

Film Info

Written, Produced and Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
Produced by Eric Fellner, Tim Bevan and Robert Graf

Composed, Orchestrated and Conducted by Carter Burwell
Music Scoring Mixer: Mike Farrow
Music Editor: Todd Kasow
Contractor: Sandy Park
Recorded at Clinton Recording Studios, New York City
Mixed at The Body Studio

Starring Michael Stuhlbarg, Richard Kind, Fred Melamed, Alan Arkin, Katherine Borowitz, Aaron Wolff

U.S. Release October 2, 2009


The Coens with Roger Deakins
on location in Minnesota
Arthur Lecture Hall Michael Stuhlbarg Teeth Bar Mitzvah
Joel and Ethan Coen on location

Carter Burwell's Notes

The milieu of this film is a Jewish community in the Midwestern United States in the 1960s. Every attempt to incorporate these elements (Judaism, the Midwest, the 60s) into the score was unsuccessful. I ended up using a polyrhythmic harp phrase repeating endlessly against various harmonic variations, but could only throw up my hands when I played it for Joel and Ethan - I liked it but I couldn't say why.

Something about the relentlessness of this theme seemed right for the helplessness of Larry Gopnik against the unwinding of his life. And when music pointedly ignores the apparent proceedings of a film it implies that there's something else going on. Something that may be more important than what you see.

Danny's Ear

The first piece of music written for the film was actually the piece that bridges the the black space between the opening story of the Dybuk and the 1960s Hebrew school of Gopnik's son. The Coens needed some music against which to edit this transition, which begins in the Old World of the shtetl and travels through an undefined darkness to end in a boy's ear canal, into which is placed a portable radio earpiece playing Jefferson Airplane's "Somebody to Love."

In this space I placed wind, cowbells, drums, and then electric guitar and bass. When recording this piece, we used the same models of bass and guitar that the Airplace had used. Still, to be honest, it was difficult to reduce our overall sound quality to that of the original recording. We did our best.

Doctors Office

Interview with Carter Burwell

David Schwartz, curator of the Museum of the Moving Image in New York, interviewed Carter in December 2009. Here are excerpts related to "A Serious Man".

How did you start imagining the music for A Serious Man?

Like many of the Coen brothers' films, the film takes place in a very specific milieu. In this case, it's a Jewish suburb of Minneapolis in 1967. It's pre-psychedelia, and you're not quite into the sexual and drug cultural revolution of the late 1960s yet, so this particular neighborhood is balanced between a culture that's thousands of years old and the oncoming one that's just being born in this country. The script had specific musical references: Jefferson Airplane, F Troop, Sidor Belarsky. Belarsky was a Jewish opera singer who also made some Yiddish records, and there's one Yiddish song that [the Coens] just loved. These songs were in the script, and that was basically what I had to go on at first. Joel and Ethan had no suggestion about what the score should be. They just said, "Well, this is what you've got. You've got Jefferson Airplane and F Troop and Sidor Belarsky."

...But for me, the film is really about a person who is balanced somewhere between life and death. Throughout the whole movie, death is hovering on the periphery. The metaphor of the movie is the first lecture that the university professor, Larry Gopnik, who is our main character, gives about Schrödinger's cat, which is a thought experiment in which a cat is simultaneously dead and alive. It maintains that situation until you observe it to determine which it is. I see Larry as being in that situation himself, so the question for me as the composer is what can I do musically to suggest that. I found it was useful to have a motif that would repeat endlessly, to suggest that no matter what goes on in the film, he's not really getting anywhere. He's blocked at every point in his personal, professional, and spiritual life. And there's something about the delicacy of the harp that I think on the one hand seems sympathetic to this character's travails, but on the other hand is a little bit funny, because in fact none of these characters reveals any delicacy whatsoever. In every way, they're indelicate. One thing I enjoy about this harp motif is that it's polyrhythmic: you can count it in three or you can count it in four. I personally enjoy that ambiguity. The piece is so repetitious, and yet you're not sure where the bar lines are, so it's kind of interesting.

And it has a thematic connection to what the film is saying about that kind of uncertainty.

Right. I tried to put other things against that motif that didn't quite fit with it. So there's a piano melody that's in a different meter than the harp piece. There's also this very slowly moving chordal stuff underneath which is more dark. None of what I've said explains why this would be the right music for the movie. I tried other instrumentation that sounded like it bore some relationship to Jewish music, but anything like traditional Jewish music, like violin or clarinet, seemed to immediately tell you, "Oh, the surface is what we're looking at. It's a Jewish community and a guy who is having issues within that community." That didn't seem right to me, but I developed some of those themes anyway, just to show to Joel and Ethan. But I played them the harp-piano piece first, and happily they immediately got it, even though I didn't have any good verbal explanation for why it was right...

Mike Farrow, Carter Burwell and Todd Kasow at Clinton Studios
(photo by Dean Parker)


"Filmed in the flat, half-toned hues that dominated the time period, with unadorned staging, 'A Serious Man' finds its propulsion in longtime Coen composer Carter Burwell's delicately layered score, which infuses the enterprise with the taut somberness of a thriller." - Ann Hornaday, Washington Post, October 9, 2009.

"The philosophical conundrums in 'A Serious Man' can be posed only in jest — or, at least, in the cultural tradition of Ashkenazic Judaism that stretches from the shtetls of Poland to the comedy clubs of the Catskills, that is how they tend to be posed. But a deep anxiety lurks beneath the jokes, and though 'A Serious Man' is written and structured like a farce, it is shot (by Roger Deakins), scored (by Carter Burwell) and edited (by the Coens’ pseudonymous golem Roderick Jaynes) like a horror movie." - A. O. Scott, New York Times, October 2, 2009.

"The always surprising Coen brothers have finally made a very serious movie with 'A Serious Man.' It's about God, man's place in the world and the meaning of life, so naturally it's one of their funnier movies. And because the year in question is 1967, the oracle of human wisdom and experience can be found in the lyrics of the immortal rock band Jefferson Airplane." - Kirk Honeycutt, The Hollywood Reporter, September 11, 2009.

"...The story takes unexpected twists and is exquisitely mounted, with an evocative score by longtime Coen collaborator Carter Burwell." - Claudia Puig, USA Today, Oct. 2, 2009.

"...Working with their usual ace cinematographer, Roger Deakins, and their usual ace composer, Carter Burwell, the Coens remember these newly planted suburban streets, which we see at one point from the point of view of Larry, fixing the TV aerial, as a boundless source of anxiety." - Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune, Oct. 9, 2009.

"Nobody makes movies as richly and densely composed as the Coens. I've said it before that when I'm watching one of their films it's like being exposed to the distilled essence of cinema, and it makes me realize how anemic and unfocused most movies are. They pack a world of information into their words and images, but they also find the music within them. Their movies sing, every dimension in harmony or counterpoint with every other. Their soundtracks, created with the collaboration of sound designer Skip Lievsay and composer Carter Burwell, are the most vibrantly imagined anywhere... The music itself demonstrates a sympathetic understanding of the movie's themes, extending the film into uncanny dimensions." - Jim Emerson, RogerEbert.com, Dec. 31, 2009.

"The magnificent, haunting score by Coen regular Carter Burwell sets a foreboding tone which hovers like a stormy cloud over the whole movie. It’s more than just a comedy, and the added dramatic dimension enhances the overall experience... 'A Serious Man' belongs in its own genre category – a uniquely Jewish film noir." - Abe Fried-Tanzer, Heeb Magazine, October 3, 2009.