Everything about No Country for Old Men, the new Joel and Ethan Coen movie, is, in a word, stark: the landscape, the atmosphere, the violence, the faces, the performances. It’s not that the film has shed any vestige of filigree; it’s that there was no filigree to begin with.
Key among the movie’s spartan pleasures is the virtual absence of music. That isn’t a critique of past work by the Coen Brothers’s longtime composer, Carter Burwell, who also scored No Country; it’s a tribute to how reticent and cautious he was in placing any tonal or melodic material in the film.
Burwell has posted two No Country MP3s on his website, carterburwell.com, and they evidence the film’s sublimated passions and arid exterior. One is an exercise in tonality nearly as distant and flat as the horizon (“A Jackpot,” MP3). The other is the music that runs under the movie’s end titles; it builds slowly from a meager set of footsteps to a forlorn swagger (“Blood Trail,” MP3). Performing the score are Burwell, guitarist David Torn, bassist John Patitucci, and percussionists Gordon Gottlieb, and Jamie Haddad. It was mixed by Mike Farrow.
Alongside the MP3s on his website, Burwell explains in detail the decision-making that led to what is by far his least self-evident, and most sound-focused, score yet. What follows is an excerpt of his description of the film’s production:
Often there is no sound but wind and boots on hard caliche or stocking feet on concrete. Then sporadically there are shootouts involving an unknown number of shooters with shotguns and automatic weapons. It was unclear for a while what kind of score could possibly accompany this film without intruding on this raw quiet. … Skip Lievsay, the sound editor, and I spoke early about these approaches and he sent me some examples of processed sound effects just as I sent him examples of tone compositions, mostly sine and sawtooth waves and singing bowls. The effect is that the music comes out of and sinks back into the sound effects in a hopefully subliminal manner.It’s helpful to consider, for a moment, the fact of those “processed sound effects” mentioned by Burwell. Despite the movie’s rigorous structure and pacing, No Country is first and foremost a film; it’s a production, one with far more people working off-screen than on, and the effort that went into depicting a fiercely rural state is belied by the seemingly natural sound of the film. Burwell’s accomplishment isn’t that he somehow set aside a composer’s ego and allowed the real world to retain its primacy; it’s that his use of sound-as-music and music-as-sound (what’s come to be known as “underscoring” and has parallels in the work of Lisa Gerrard, Clint Mansell, and Cliff Martinez, among others) fits so perfectly into the overall production.
On his website, Burwell quotes several positive responses by critics to his No Country score, along with the following headline from a Cannes Film Festival report: “Carter Burwell Takes a Holiday.”
I saw the movie when it first came out, and ever since I’ve been wondering just how much music is present in No Country for Old Men, so I got in touch with Burwell, who answered my question. He replied:
There are 16 minutes of music in the film, almost 6 of which are in the end titles.That’s 16 minutes of music in a film that’s just over two hours long — which means that the six and a half or so minutes of score Burwell posted on his website account for more than a third of all the music heard in those two-plus hours. When I first wrote about No Country, last week (disquiet.com), I joked that the score would probably fit on a 7″ single, which it turns out isn’t far off.
If Burwell’s score to No Country for Old Men is nominated for an Oscar, parallels may be drawn to actress Judi Dench’s having won for a particularly brief appearance in Shakespeare in Love. Any such comparison, though, will be unfounded, because the general silence Burwell imposed on No Country is just as considered — just as deliberate — as are the sounds that he did contribute.