Carter Burwell


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When directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman approached composer Carter Burwell about scoring their film Howl even before they had a finished screenplay, Burwell cautioned them that he might not be the right choice if they were looking for jazz. It was a reasonable assumption, since Howl is about the famous Beat Generation poem by Allen Ginsberg and the obscenity trial that made it famous in the '50s. Beat Generation writers were closely associated with bebop jazz, as some writers enjoyed reading their works aloud in coffee houses to the accompaniment of a bebop horn player and openly admired their musical contemporaries. Epstein and Friedman went ahead with Burwell, a writer with a sense of mood and nuance, if not jazz, who had worked with them previously on The Celluloid Closet, and Burwell has come up with another of his moody, nuanced scores for Howl. He employs a small ensemble consisting of Maya Beiser (cello), David Torn (guitar), Marc Ribot (guitar), Laura Seaton (violin), Bohdan Hilash (woodwinds), Fima Ephron (bass), and himself on piano. As that instrumentation suggests, the music is a sort of cross between classical chamber music and cool jazz, with perhaps a touch of guitar rock here and there. Burwell is interested in the ways the instruments interact, and he often sets up on playing a slow theme only to add another and another to provide contrasting colors. That's where the cool jazz part comes in, though it must be added that the effect is very cool and not very jazzy. Occasionally, only one instrument is heard: "Weeping in the Parks" is a cello solo. If he eschews bebop, Burwell does bring in another style of the '50s, using film noir sounds occasionally in the minor-key, lower-register playing of the bass and the piano. Inevitably, in any piece of music involving Ribot, there is also some dissonant electric guitar, and that appears in "Prophecy." Howl's music may be appropriate to the film it accompanies, if only because the writer-directors knew what they would get when they hired Carter Burwell. (The actual film does add some jazz as well as concluding with Bob Dylan and the Band's "This Wheel's on Fire" from The Basement Tapes, but only Burwell's music appears on this score album.)

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