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THE BANSHEES OF INISHERIN – Carter Burwell

January 10, 2023 Leave a comment Go to comments

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

The Banshees of Inisherin is a dark comedy-drama written and directed by Martin McDonagh, set on a remote island off the coast of Ireland in 1923. Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson star as Pádraic Súilleabháin and Colm Doherty, long-time friends and drinking partners. Colm is a folk musician and fiddle player, and dreams of writing a classic song that will seal his legacy. Things change for the pair when, out of the blue, Colm decides that he no longer wants to be associated with Pádraic, and begins to ignore him. Pádraic, distressed by the loss of one of his few friends, begins hounding Colm, to the point where an exasperated Colm gives Pádraic an ultimatum: if he doesn’t stop bothering him, he will start cutting off his own fingers. From there, things escalate further, with the entire town eventually becoming involved in their feud. The film co-stars Kerry Condon as Pádraic’s kind sister Siobhán, and Barry Keoghan as troubled local boy Dominic, and has been a massive critical success, picking up awards at the Venice International Film Festival, and receiving multiple Oscar, BAFTA, and Golden Globe nominations.

The score for The Banshees of Inisherin is by Carter Burwell, and is the fourth film he has worked on with director McDonagh, after In Bruges in 2007, Seven Psychopaths in 2012, and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri in 2017. It has also been almost universally lauded in 2022, making it onto the Best Score longlists for both the Oscars and BAFTA, and picking up nominations from the Golden Globes and the Society of Composers and Lyricists. In details he provides on his website, Burwell explains that, despite the film being set in Ireland and having a great deal to do with Irish folk music, McDonagh hated the idea of scoring the film with what he describes as “diddly-di olde-worlde oirish film music”. Instead, McDonagh became fascinated with three particular musical ideas that have nothing to do with the film’s setting: Brahms lieder, Bulgarian folk songs, and an Indonesian gamelan piece.

Many of the ideas eventually informed what Burwell did with the score; for example, the intensity of the Brahms pieces translated into the tone Burwell adopted in some of the film’s more dramatic scenes. Meanwhile, the metal and wood percussion of the gamelan piece seemed to Burwell to be indicative of simple, repetitive, childlike tunes, and this gave Burwell the idea to treat the story almost like a Grimm fairy tale. This in turn led Burwell to adopt a specific set of fairytale-esque orchestrations – celesta, harp, flute, and marimba, backed by a small string orchestra – which he describes as “sparkly, dreamy music that matches the beauty of the island but also distances one from the brutality of the physical action, while also playing to Pádraic’s childlike innocence”.

I appreciate all this back story, as it gives Burwell’s music more context, and perhaps explains a little more about why the score has been so wildly praised. At first glance, one might think that the music has been massively over-rated; my own initial impressions of the score put it firmly in the realm of a dozen other ‘sad Burwell drama scores,’ without much to distinguish it from other scores of its ilk – other than the fact that the film it accompanies is also highly praised. When you combine with this with its limited instrumental palette, and its apparent mono-thematic structure, one could be forgiven for wondering why it is being lauded by so many as one of the best scores of the year.

However, upon closer inspection, The Banshees of Inisherin reveals hidden depths. Firstly, the score is not monothematic, and actually contains three recurring themes that weave around each other. It’s not entirely clear what the themes represent, as they tend to play in combination with each other and never clearly identify themselves as relating to a specific idea or character, but here’s my best guess.

The first theme, introduced in “Walking Home Alone,” appears to be a theme that relates to all the dark deeds that occur, the various awful events that unfold throughout the film – the breaking of friendships, mutilations, deaths, and so on. It also appears to act as an illustration of the isolation and drudgery of life on Inisherin – the slow pace, the sameness of the days, the endless grind trying to eke out a meaningful existence in such a remote place. The music is slow and moody, and features many of the familiar Burwell chord progressions that he has used throughout his career. It uses the harp and celesta prominently, backed by haunted-sounding flutes, and it’s very atmospheric.

The theme appears at the forefront of several cues – “Marking the Calendar, the lusher and more fulsome “The Island Comes to Church,” “Delivering Milk But No News,” “Pádraic Wakes” – but gradually gets darker and darker as the score progresses and the antagonism between Colm and Pádraic grows. “The First Finger,” which accompanies Colm’s first self-mutilation, adds in a layer of low, grinding basses that really enhance the seriousness of the situation, giving it a real sense of danger. Later, in “Colm Throws the Balance,” the subliminal percussion textures that Burwell adds in make the score even more ominous. The penultimate cue, “A Smoldering New Day,” uses the theme to illustrate the film’s dark finale, which uses the burning ruins of a house as a metaphor for Colm and Pádraic’s relationship.

The second theme, which is introduced in “Night Falls on Inisherin,” appears to be a theme for the island of Inisherin itself, and is the prettiest of the three thematic ideas. It still uses the same core of instruments – harp, celesta, flute – but is daintier and more lyrical. This is the theme that appears to be more influenced by the ‘fairytale’ idea that Burwell spoke about, and it twinkles and rolls in a quite lovely way. Unfortunately, it’s also the least prominent of the three themes; it comes back in the second half of “Doesn’t Time Be Flying,” at the beginning of “Standing Prayer,” in “Driving Into the Rain,” and in “My Life Is on Inisherin,” but only really asserts itself in the conclusive “The Mystery of Inisherin,” which is by far the most expansive version of the theme, and includes a notably larger string presence.

The third theme, introduced in “Standing Prayer,” appears to be a theme for Pádraic and, by association, his sister Siobhan, but which also appears to musically discuss Pádraic’s general sense of optimism and geniality, as well as his desire to rekindle his friendship with Colm. It’s built around an undulating four-note motif that moves around from harp to celesta and back again, and has an unexpected elegance to it that is rather charming. It comes back in “Colm Takes the Reins” to underscore a moment where Colm briefly set aside his feud to help his old friend, and then in “Jenny and the Fourth,” where Burwell changes the emotional intent of the theme into something rather sad – for context, Jenny is Pádraic’s beloved donkey, and an event involving her drives the film’s entire finale.

“Dark Pádraic” is a menacing cue full of low growling strings – one of the few moments where Pádraic’s pleasant disposition is broken – and then in “Siobhan Leaves” Burwell phrases the flute textures in the cue’s second half to have a regretful, resigned tone. Finally, in the aforementioned “My Life Is on Inisherin” Burwell combines the theme with the Island theme, making it clear that Pádraic’s identity, his whole life, is inextricably linked with Inisherin itself, a deeply held notion that nothing – not even Siobhan’s departure, not even Colm’s desperate actions – can shake.

Having said all that, I will also say that, unless you’re looking for all this deeper meaning in the music, the score is likely to pass by a casual listener without leaving much of an impression. The score is, for the most part, very consistent in its tone throughout its entire length. The dominant emotions are introspection, solemnity, and moroseness bordering on depression, and if you need more life and energy in your film music, then long stretches of The Banshees of Inisherin may have the capacity to bore you. I will also say that a pre-existing affinity for Carter Burwell’s overall sound is needed if you want to get anything out of this score; I’ve written before about the difficulties I used to have fully connecting with the way Burwell composes, his predilections for particular chord structures, the way he uses instruments at the lower end of their register, and so on. Over the years I’ve warmed to his sound more but, if you haven’t, then this score is unlikely to be the one that changes that.

One thing I also wanted to mention: the film itself is bookended by two performances of a Bulgarian folk song called “Polegnala e Todora,” which Burwell did not write and which is not on the soundtrack. This piece is by The Bulgarian State Radio & Television Female Vocal Choir and, if you’re interested in tracking it down, it can be found on a 1975 album called ‘Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares,’ released on the Disques Cellier label.

Intellectually, I understand why The Banshees of Inisherin is featuring so prominently on so many Best of 2022 lists, and having spent a little time picking it apart and thinking about its structure and thematic core, I find myself appreciating it more than I did when I first listened to it. But, without that deeper knowledge of its in-context application and of Burwell’s thought processes, many may find The Banshees of Inisherin to be a tricky score to connect with. It’s slow, ponderous, at times a little abstract, and has as a consistency of tone and style that makes picking out specific highlights a difficult task. Burwell fans, and fans of the film, may find themselves drawn to it, but others may find the whole thing to be something of an impenetrable enigma.

Buy the Banshees of Inisherin soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Walking Home Alone (1:18)
  • Night Falls on Inisherin (0:45)
  • Marking the Calendar (1:09)
  • The Island Comes to Church (1:10)
  • Doesn’t Time Be Flying (1:00)
  • Standing Prayer (1:30)
  • Delivering Milk But No News (1:03)
  • Colm Takes the Reins (2:10)
  • Pádraic Wakes – Driving Into the Rain (1:10)
  • The First Finger (1:14)
  • Pádraic and Jenny (0:48)
  • Pádraic Keeps Quiet (2:15)
  • Colm Throws the Balance (1:50)
  • Jenny and the Fourth (1:53)
  • Dark Pádraic (1:30)
  • Siobhan Leaves (1:46)
  • The Slow Passing of Time (1:46)
  • Pádraic Leaves the Church (1:02)
  • My Life Is on Inisherin (3:47)
  • A Smoldering New Day (1:56)
  • The Mystery of Inisherin (2:31)

Running Time: 33 minutes 31 seconds

Hollywood Records (2022)

Music composed by and conducted by Carter Burwell. Orchestrations by Carter Burwell. Featured musical soloists Karen Jones and Hugh Webb. Recorded and mixed by Simon Rhodes. Edited by Neil Stemp. Album produced by Carter Burwell.

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