I visited the Coens while they were shooting in Arizona, more a social call than a professional one since we hadn't spoken at all about me scoring Raising Arizona. That night they had dogs barking all over Scottsdale during the shooting of the "Huggies Chase."
When Ethan did call me, he was clearly not convinced that the film and I were a great match. He suggested the film was probably not "groovy" enough for me. I loved the script but it's true that I have no affinity for country music or other things Western. But I did want to give it a try.
The first thing I mocked up was a Spanish Rock Opera for the Biker From Hell (Tex Cobb's character), using early sampling technology to simulate dementedly swooping sopranos. When it came to yodeling the only lead I had was a Polish singer I'd worked with for a while, Mieczyslaw Litwinksi, who could yodel you to tears. I didn't know any banjo players, but Ben Freed, whom I believe was optometrist to one of the Coens, fit the bill. For percussion I enlisted Geoffrey Gordon and Skip La Plante who had a group called Music For Homemade Instruments which seemed appropriate for this film. Geoff and Skip are featured in the scene in which Nicholas Cage wrestles John Goodman in a small trailer home. The score is pretty well improvised using household objects - vacuum cleaner hoses, hubcaps, peanut butter jars, etc.
Mieczyslaw's yodeling was indelibly Eastern European - a fine point I'd overlooked - and Ethan and I tried to relocate the sound from the mountains of Silesia to the plains of Arizona. Ethan would say "You're riding your horse across the prairie - no one around for miles - the sun is shining and you whip off your hat and let loose a joyous yodel!" and what came out sounded like an Orthodox chant. Heart-rendingly beautiful, but not Arizona. Not even Utah. In the end Mietek whistled and hummed and played Jew's harp on the score, and we hired an honest-to-goodness Okie, John Crowder, to do the yodeling.
To play over the scroll of credits at the end of the film I proposed a varied arrangement of the upbeat tunes from the film - in particular I wanted to do something with ukelele, bagpipe and kazoo. We only had a bit of free time remaining in the recording studio and the Coens were dubious about my concept so they left assuming that they'd use edits of the music we already had for their end titles. I went on and recorded the ukelele variation with a group of uke players called Songs From A Random House. Knowing this tune was not going to make it into the film I went home and mixed my variation as "Raising Ukeleles" and I don't think the Coens actually heard it until it was placed on the CD many months later.
Here are excerpts from the score, which is available from Amazon and iTunes.
From David Morgan's interview with Carter Burwell in Knowing The Score:
I believe while Joel was shooting the movie he was thinking about yodeling. Joel and Ethan are both into old timey country music, and Ethan actually does yodel. I give them credit for that because it's a brilliant idea.
The music treats the movie like a cartoon. No one's really ever going to get hurt in this movie is what the music tells you. People can be firing shotguns at each other and no one's going to get any more hurt than Bugs Bunny would in a similar situation. And the yodeling and banjo helped to tell you that. It's a crazy ride we're going on in this film, and the music is playing Nicholas Cage. It's used right over the intro to the movie before the credits, and introduces him. It plays him as a latter-day cowboy who wants to live free on the prairie, so to speak, in his own fashion, and no matter what situation he's in it reminds you that he's got this cartoon cowboy aspect.
Written and directed by the Coen Brothers
"The composer Carter Burwell has concocted a wonderful theme that yodels on the sound track like a woebegone dogie; its scooting banjos evoke a Wild West of sweet-souled outlaws who yearn to be good but just can't seem to stay out of trouble." - Steven Schiff, Vanity Fair, April, 1987.
"Carter Burwell delivers a score that, while not the best he would write for the Coens—that would wait for one more film—remains his most wildly inventive, a giddy mishmash of banjo, organ, whistling, and yodeling that plays like the mutant offspring of Marvin Hamlisch and Ennio Morricone." - Christopher Orr, The Atlantic, Sept. 9, 2014.
"...Hi himself gets a moment of noble self-reflection, when he writes a farewell note to Ed and wonders what went wrong - whether his genes got screwed up, or his upbringing was deficient. He’s like Huck Finn sorting through the debris in his head, and here, with the help of Carter Burwell’s yearning strings, the movie leaves the realm of Airplane! and climbs above the clouds." - David Edelstein, The Village Voice, March 17, 1987.
"... Burwell has an intuitive feel for connecting noises in a way that is listenable. In this respect, his music is somewhat impressionistic. No matter how unusual the combinations of sounds are, the cues make sense as a whole, and portray a picture larger than the sum of its parts. This album is a testament to this remarkable skill. And if you are in the mood for experimental and audacious music, this is the album to try." - Helen San, Cinemusic.net, 1987
"Burwell’s interest in experimental vocal music was clearly influential in determining the sound of Raising Arizona, which is a wholly peculiar combination of synths, banjo, guitar, Jew’s harp, ukulele, percussion, yodeling, and whistling. Clearly Burwell was trying to enhance the absurdity of the project, as well as to subtly reinforce the film’s Western setting, but the constant weirdness of the entire score will drive some listeners bonkers before the first couple of cues are over... As an introduction to the very, very early work of Carter Burwell, Raising Arizona is a fascinating curio, but the unabashed weirdness of the entire thing may result in fans of his more serious scores wondering what the hell they are listening to." - Jonathan Broxton, Movie Music UK, March 30, 2017.