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Not enough grit?

By Kathryn Kalinak

The Oscar for Best Original Score has been in the news recently—and not in a good way.  Three excellent film scores have been disqualified for Oscar nomination because in one way or another, all were deemed not “original” enough:  Clint Mansell’s score for Black Swan (too much Tschaikovsky) and Carter Burwell’s scores for The Kids Are Alright (too many songs) and True Grit (too dependent on pre-existing music). As a great fan of the western and its film scores, I was truly disappointed by the True Grit disqualification.  Burwell’s score is a gem, harking back to the classic western film scores of the studio era while simultaneously updating them.

Classic western film scores (think Stagecoach, My Darling Clementine, Red River) frequently quoted period music—songs, folk music, and hymns—to lend authenticity to filmic representations of the West.  John Ford, in fact, took an active hand in choosing such music himself.  “Shall We Gather at the River” appeared so frequently in Ford westerns that it became something of his musical signature.  The use of period music often triggered the use of “authentic” instruments like the guitar, the harmonica, and the banjo.  Never mind that the guitar was not typically found on the frontier in the nineteenth-century (it was far more common in Mexico) and that if cowboy had a musical instrument along on a cattle drive, it was most likely a Jew’s harp or maybe a mandolin.

Burwell builds his score around four nineteenth-century hymns but completely avoids the traditional instrumentation: no guitars, banjos, or harmonicas here.  The first musical cue in the film features solo piano (and not a honky tonk piano as sometimes turns up in classic western bar rooms) and later we hear a solo clarinet (a clarinet?).  These atypical choices are very affecting, jarring our expectations and asking us to listen anew.  The river crossing cue uses the hymn “In the Glory-land Way” and the manner in which Burwell orchestrates it, beginning simply with strings and gradually adding choruses of instruments until finally the brasses come in on top, is a stunning musical moment.

Come Oscar time, there will be three fewer scores to consider and one of them is the most “original” score I’ve heard this year.

Kathryn Kalinak is Professor of English and Film Studies at Rhode Island College. Her extensive writing on film music includes numerous articles and several books, the most recent of which is Film Music: A Very Short Introduction. She is our correspondent for all things film + music, and is a recurring guest on WNYC’s Soundcheck.

The following audio is from the Wednesday, January 12, 2011 edition of Soundcheck. (c) WNYC

Sounds of the Western

Carter Burwell’s music for the Coen Brothers’ film True Grit turns its back on the legacy of film composer Ennio Morricone, whose scores for Sergio Leone’s “spaghetti Westerns” set the tone for genre’s post-60s films. We’ll talk with Burwell about True Grit’s unlikely inspiration. And we’ll get a look at how the film fits into the canon of Westerns with Kathryn Kalinak, author of the book How the West Was Sung.

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