When Joel and Ethan Coen brought me the script to Barton Fink, they said they weren't sure it would need any score. The plan was to feature Skip Lievsay's sound effects rather than music. But they wanted me to read the script in case I had some musical ideas.
I did feel there was an important aspect to Barton's character that could be communicated with music. We see him as a successful playwright. We see him courted by a Hollywood studio. We see him advocate for the importance of the Common Man and the Life Of The Mind. But I felt there was an essential immaturity, a childlike naivete that music could express. I played the short piano theme for the Coens and they liked it immediately.
Eventually Skip and I spotted the film together, deciding along with the Coens which areas of the film would be played with music and which with effects. And in many scenes we worked together to divide up the sonic spectrum. Skip might have a mosquito pestering Barton in his hotel room while I'd play dark mystery with bass trombones. Or I'd have a high violin line, referencing the mosquito, while Skip would play low submarine groans coming from the hotel. The music and sound effects were so integrated that when the score to Barton Fink was released on CD along with that of Fargo, I included some of Skip's sound design on the album.
Since Barton Fink Skip and I have spotted almost all of Joel and Ethan's films together. It's such a logical thing to do. But the standard approach in the industry is to handle sound effects and music separately. They don't meet until the final mix of the film when music, dialogue and sound effects are all mixed together, at which point each team fights to be louder. It's not pretty and it doesn't produce the best work.
Written and Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
Composed by Carter Burwell
Music Editor: Todd Kasow
Music Scoring Mixer: Mike Farrow
Orchestrated and Conducted by Sonny Kompanek
Contractor: Emile Charlap
Recorded and Mixed at Clinton Studios, NY, NY
Starring John Turturro, John Goodman, Judy Davis, Michael Lerner, John Mahoney
Released August, 1991
The soundtrack of Barton Fink is part of a CD along with Fargo.
Within two years of recording Barton Fink I began conducting most of my recording sessions, so Fink was one of the last scores on which I played piano until Howl and Olive Kitteridge twenty years later.
We recorded at Clinton Studios in New York, partly because they had my favorite piano. It was a Steinway D nine-foot concert grand built in 1947. It had previously resided at CBS 30th Street Studios, where countless classic recordings had been done: Glenn Gould's 1955 "Goldbert Variations," Miles Davis' 1959 "Kind of Blue," Dave Brubeck's 1959 "Time Out". They had two grand pianos there, so I can't be sure which was used on any particular recording - but I feel I can hear Bill Evans playing the Clinton piano on the Miles record.
When Clinton Studios closed in 2010, I bought the Steinway D, moved it into my home, and these days most of my composing starts on that instrument.
"Carter Burwell’s score swirls with seduction and longing." - Richard Lawson, Vanity Fair, May 17, 2015.
"The first thing that stands out in Barton Fink is the sound. Skip Lievsay’s eerie sound design coupled with Carter Burwell's score almost immediately puts the audience at unease, packing the aural walls not only with strings, but with murmurs, phone calls, ringing bells, screams, guttural cries, humming, peeling wallpaper, and just about everything but silence to create the feeling of a world that’s slowly falling apart." - Vikram Murthi, IndieWire, Sept. 23, 2015.
"Roderick Jaynes' editing, Richard Hornung's costumes and Carter Burwell's score all contribute strongly in creating a Hollywood as it might have been sketched in a surrealist short story rather than a fleshed-out novel." - Variety, May 20, 1991.