Blowin’ in the Wind: Music and meaning in the Coen brothers’ films

Lecture with Matthew McDonald, Assistant Professor of Music in the College of Arts, Media and Design

One of the most persistent critiques leveled against the Coen brothers is that they are overly concerned with technical virtuosity and formal rigor, generating characters and scenarios that refer mainly to the cinema itself as opposed to the real world of human beings. The Coens have fueled this characterization by denying the existence of deeper meanings in their films. In contrast, the composer Carter Burwell has frequently stated his desire to reveal the presence of “something else” behind the Coens’ images. Burwell’s commentary may suggest a creative rift, but his music in fact allows the Coens to make clandestine symbolic gestures while maintaining plausible deniability: music is uniquely qualified to imbue filmic elements with the aura of meaningfulness without providing concrete meaning. Focusing on three films, Blood Simple (1984), Miller’s Crossing (1990), and A Serious Man (2009), this talk will examine how Burwell’s music, in concert with other soundtrack elements, points to potential meanings while safely preserving their ambiguity.

For more information, contact Arthur Rishi, Concert Coordinator, at or (617) 373-2671