Sound Composition in A Serious Man

A Serious Man—by the Coen Brothers—wrestles with a theme of hopeless disparity. The film follows Larry Gopnik, a Jewish man metaphorically stuck between life and death. A man with a myriad of problems. It is understood that these complications, the motifs of the film, are difficult to articulate with words. Words, that is, do not suffice. This idea is seen specifically through conversations Larry has with two rabbis. Larry’s introspective questions are merely dismissed by the rabbis who postpone legitimate answers in lieu of unnecessary anecdotes, suggesting that language is an insufficient means of understanding the answers to life’s questions. Here is where we turn to sound. In order to fully understand the purpose, and the meaning of this film, one must dissect the film on a purely sonic level. Although the entire film is rich in aural aptitude, I will be focusing on three specific scenes (or sequence of scenes) in the following paper. Through an examination of the first two scenes of the film, a conversation with Rabbi Nachtner, and the scene in Ms. Samsky’s house, this paper will demonstrate how thoughtful sound composition can enhance a film.

The film opens with an ancient fable to illustrate a broad theme of uncertainty. It is bridged seamlessly with the second scene—set in a 1960s America—by the composer of the film, Carter Burwell. Burwell’s score is a layered and colorful fabric encompassing “wind, cowbells, drums, and then electric guitar and bass,” where he was punctilious in matching the guitar and bass lines to that of the soundtrack beginning in scene two1. As such, Burwell’s score blends effortlessly with the succeeding number, “Somebody To Love” by Jefferson Airplane, as if part of the same track. Before this transition between scenes, however, we are subject to a handful of moving sound effects. As the first scene builds to a moment of confusion and fear, a discordant piano overlays a melodious harp sound that creates a sense of uncertainty when played in different meters. The sounds are subtly jarring. This inharmonious orchestra is abruptly stopped by the creaking of an opened door and a cold wind that whistles. These sounds undoubtedly connect to what the film is saying about uncertainty, in that, one never knows what is behind the hollow knock, knock, knock of a wooden door. Even the sounds of a fire that crackle in the background are texturized and prominent. Burwell further explains how the harp motif is “polyrhythmic: you can count it in three or you can count it in four—The piece is so repetitious, and yet you’re not sure where the bar lines are…”2 It is this sense of audial ambiguity that lends itself well to an unsettling film about misfortune and, as I previously mentioned, hopeless disparity.

This despair takes shape in Larry Gopnik, the man with many questions and nowhere to turn for answers. From an audial perspective, Larry’s conversation with Rabbi Nachtner is infinitely complex. Larry and the Rabbi sit in a silent room. I must submit, however, that I follow John Cage’s idea of silence when he puts, “in absolute terms, it does not exist.”3 The idea that even in a secluded room one begins to hear the sounds of hearts pumping, blood flowing, and nervous systems at work. What is important to take away from Cage’s ideology is that this “silence” forces us to listen to sounds that would otherwise evaporate in the ambience. For instance, in this scene we hear Rabbi Nachtner’s tea bag slip in and out of his teacup, and every word spoken in the short dialogue is isolated, therefore emphasized. Like a musical note, the language in this scene is reduced to mere sounds. When Larry asks, “what is going on?” Rabbi Nachtner begins his convoluted parable as if the words Larry spoke were entirely inaudible. Larry, to whom no one listens, is grasping at answers to orient himself, but in keeping with the film’s theme, the rabbi’s response is anything but satisfactory. What is most intriguing about the rabbi’s story, however, is the accompanying music. “Machine Gun” by Jimi Hendrix comes alive and we here a guitar riff, a repetitious bang bang bang of the drum as the rabbi tells the story of a dentist who finds a message inscribed in Hebrew within a patient’s teeth. The unpredictability of this song choice paired with the banality of dentistry and the tediousness of teeth cleaning is what makes the piece memorable. Hendrix’ song is jazz-like, improvisational, roaring, and as Burwell so eloquently puts it, “when music pointedly ignores the apparent proceedings of a film it implies that there’s something else going on.”4 Meaning, the thematic sound elements are more deeply rooted than simply surface material. I affirm that the rock-and-roll repetition symbolizes the film’s unflinching philosophy of a skepticism towards the things we believe: love, religion, and the meaning of life.

The meaning of life is a debated topic, however, the film suggests—unbeknownst to Larry—that life’s complexities are far more simple than they’re made to appear, and everyone deals with these complexities in a different manner. Larry uses philosophy and music. So does his son Danny. Larry and his son share a passion for music, but there remains a fundamental difference in taste. Larry enjoys the Yiddish tune, ’Dem Milners Trern,’ by Sidor Belarsky, whereas Danny is more partial to contemporary music like the aforementioned “Somebody to Love.” Similarly, Danny memorizes a portion of the Torah, not through understanding the Hebrew language, but rather through the sounds played back through his vinyl record; to which he cannot keep a harmony. When I refer to harmony here I am following Michel Chion’s definition.5 I digress. What I mean to say is this, music drives A Serious Man forward because the characters use music as a means to cope.

Similar to how Larry and Danny turn to music, so does Mrs. Samsky. Here I will be analyzing the scene when Larry smokes pot for the first time at Mrs. Samsky’s house. As Larry approaches her door we here the faint echo of a vinyl record. A melodious tone. Another Jefferson Airplane song. He turns to leave without knocking. We hear a door open, and our hearts race because of what David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson refer to as “the power of sound from an unseen source;” that which “engages the audience’s interest.”6 We don’t know who is behind the door, or why Larry is there, but when the camera cuts back to the door frame we see Mrs. Samsky. The music grows louder. A car rumbles past. Larry enters the house, and the floorboards creak. The music grows louder. Ice cubes dropped in an empty glass. The music grows louder. Mrs. Samsky bursts through her beaded drapes, a faint echo as the beads bounce off each other. The music grows louder. Mrs. Samsky pulls the joint out of a small wooden box. A lighter strikes. The music grows louder, and the music grows louder. A single toke. Up until this point we are given a fair balance of ambience, foley sounds, and music (that which Mrs. Samsky enjoys). However, the music builds until the moment Larry gets high for the first time. That is when the sound composition of the scene changes. As one may surmise, high Larry becomes hyper-aware of his surroundings. There is an ethereal “silence” to the room. The ice cubes in his glass clank together as he slides them about, and before it is audible to the audience Larry hears a siren in the distance. The ingenuity of this scene can be traced to the fact that it can be dissected from both a musical as well as a strictly audial reference-point. The scene begins with a record that invites us into Mrs. Samsky’s world, and ends in the head of a high Larry Gopnik who hears absolutely everything.

Much like this film’s theme, the sound composition is creatively complex. This, of course, is the very reason why it makes for a profound piece on sound analysis. Each scene is meticulously composed. Burwell improvises. But also returns—over and over again—to his harp phrase in a number of variations; nevertheless, the same instrument. This elucidates what Tom Schneller calls “leitmotif” in his article, “Unconscious Anchors: Bernard Herrmann’s Music For Marnie.”7 Leitmotif is the concept of a recurring musical phrase associated with a particular idea or person. In this case, the repeated harp melodies pertain to an ironic peacefulness. There is nothing peaceful about life’s struggles. However,  A Serious Man unquestionably sings, and while each note may not be in pitch or harmonious, it is executed with great thoughtfulness. That is, every musical expression is carefully articulated to represent something greater than itself.


1“Carter Burwell’s Notes,” (December 3, 2009).
2“Carter Burwell’s Notes.”
Nardelli, M. “Some Reflections on Antonioni, Sound and the Silence of La Notte.” The Soundtrack 3 (2010): p14. Web. 18 Mar. 2016.
4“Carter Burwell’s Notes.”
Chion, Michel. “Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen.” New York: Columbia University Press (1994): p36.
Bordwell, David, and Kristin Thompson. “Film Art: An Introduction.” New York: McGraw-Hill Companies, 1997: p270.
Schneller, Tom. “Unconscious Anchors: Bernard Herrmann’s Music For Marnie.” Popular Music History 5.1 (2010): p55-104. Academic Search Premier. Web. 19 Mar. 2016.


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