The weird and wonderful universe crafted in David Lynch’s cult series Twin Peaks is inextricably linked to its iconic soundtrack. Angelo Badalamenti composed the moody score in tandem with Lynch’s imagining of the world of Twin Peaks and as such, the visual cues and the music of the series appear to move seamlessly together as one cohesive storytelling device. For those unfamiliar with the series, there is little that can be said of the narrative without completely spoiling the bizarre unfurling of the winding story lines. But basically, the series follows FBI special agent Dale Cooper as he arrives in the secluded mountain town Twin Peaks to investigate the murder of homecoming queen Laura Palmer. Whilst the initial narrative operates as a classic whodunit detective mystery, the series incorporates many supernatural themes and camp melodrama; dream sequences involving backwards messages, giants and owls, over-the-top reactions, frightening otherworldly visions and just general oddity that is to be expected by those familiar with the rest of Lynch’s oeuvre. The viewer is left swirling around in a surreal world, unsure of what is really happening to the characters and unable to find their footing amongst the bizarre magical realism of the Twin Peaks universe.
All the while, this process of unsettling is accompanied by Badalamenti’s monumental score. Many characters and settings have their own theme or motif, and these themes often return in variations across the series as the narrative progresses and the characters change and develop. The tonality of the soundtrack itself is lush and strange, largely performed on FM synthesisers that were cutting edge at the time of the soundtrack’s creation. But before we delve into the specifics of the arrangements, it is important to understand just how intertwined the music of Twin Peaks was with the development of the characters and the narrative. In a huge way, Lynch realized his vision of the surreal fictional town of Twin Peaks and its strange residents through Badalamenti’s compositions. In an interview with NPR, Angelo Badalamenti describes his process of composing ‘Laura Palmer’s Theme’ one of the most recognizable pieces from the series, as he sat next to David Lynch and received feedback. Sitting at the very Fender Rhodes that was used to compose the majority of the Twin Peaks music (and we would highly recommend you watch this whole video for an amazingly charismatic retelling of the compositional process!), Badalamenti explains;
‘David would sit right here, to the right of me. And we would put a little cassette just over here on the keyboard. We’d just keep it on record, keep it playing. David would sit here and I’d say, “well what do you see David? Just talk to me”. And David would say, “Ok Angelo. We’re in a dark woods now. And there’s a soft wind blowing through some sycamore trees. And there’s a moon out and there’s some animal sounds in the background. And you can hear the hoot of an owl, you’re in the dark woods, just get me into that beautiful darkness with the soft wind”. And I started playing… And in David’s mind, you can just see that he was visualising the description that he envisioned…’
It was this extremely collaborative process that lead to the soundtrack, narrative and creative mise-en-scene of the series being so firmly cemented as interdependent cogs in the same surreal machine. Speaking to i-d Vice in 2017, the Music Supervisor of the series, Dean Hurley, explained that the collaboration between Badalamenti and Lynch was so iconic due to their ability to draw out extreme emotion in each other’s work. Hurley says ‘It’s Angelo’s musicality –how he works suspensions – it’s like no one else. The musical language and the way it operates, it’s there but it seems like he’s one of the people that really exploits a suspension to the point where it makes you really feel something intense. It’s that point where two chords are rubbing against each other until it resolves into another chord… that’s the sort of the romance and the violence that people respond to. You think of dissonance as a violent rubbing of tonalities and then you think of the harmony as the romantic coexisting of various notes’. He goes on, ‘The David and Angelo combination is that Angelo has a way of exploiting that stuff and then David exploits Angelo to do it even more. David is a very high contrast kind of guy, the emotions are technicolour, he doesn’t want it to be just sad or violent, he wants it to be heart-wrenching or absolutely unhinged. He deals in extremes to get his point across’.
But it’s truly the combination of Badalamenti’s classic composition techniques; the beautiful melodies, the strange suspensions, with the playing and the types of synthesisers used to perform the soundtrack that elevate it to such an iconic sound. The soundtrack was largely recorded at the Excalibur Sound Studio in New York, and much of the synthesis itself was played by Kinny Landrum, a remarkable keyboard and synth session player in his own right. Excalibur Sound was not a flash studio by any means, with Badalamenti describing it as ‘the darkest and dingiest place imaginable’. But, in classic Lynchian style, it was this dank darkness that the director and composer felt created a ‘beautiful mood’ to imagine the sonic world of Twin Peaks. For the recording, Badalamenti invited in ‘some of the best jazz-oriented musicians in town’ to perform his score. Landrum was a key member of this ensemble, driving many of the synths that encapsulate the dreamy sound of the score. Speaking about the recording process Landrum says, ‘We’d usually work from lead sheets, which had a melody and chords underneath, and we’d do what we thought was right for that particular piece of music… Angelo may have played but generally I played the stuff. The electric piano was done with a Yamaha DX-7. The strings were generally a combination of a Roland D-550 and a Prophet T8’. At the time, FM (frequency modulation) synthesis was a relatively new technology. This new technology, present in the Yamaha DX-7 responsible for many of the key sounds in the score, is what allowed these synths to create complex timbres that more closely emulated the sounds of acoustic instruments and allowed for lyrical and emotive playing. In addition to this, the Roland D-550 was extremely instrumental in creating some of the most quintessentially atmospheric pads of the soundtrack. The D-550 was very new at the time and worked to combine the sample transience (the attack part of a sound) with a synthesizer body. This allowed for weird combinations of tone, meaning a phrase could begin on a piano-like sound and end on a classic synth pad.
It was not only new synthesis technology that made the Twin Peaks arrangements so cutting edge and otherworldly but also the inclusion of the E-mu Emulator II sampler. Landrum used this to create perhaps the most iconic sound of the entire soundtrack, the twangy plucked “guitar” of the opening theme. Landrum speaks to this saying ‘When we were doing “Falling” [the main Twin Peaks theme], David says, “You got something that will sound 50s?” I thought about the obvious things, like triplets in the upper part of the piano, but it didn’t seem right to me. Although the song had low notes in it, it didn’t have a bass part per se. So I said, “I’ve got this twangy Duane Eddy sound on my Emulator II – what if I pitch that down in the bass register and play a bass part?” David said, “Let me hear it.” So I added a little amplitude modulation – what you’d call tremolo if it was on a guitar amp – and played “bom, bom-bom”, and David said, “That’s it, put it down.” I think it was one take.’
Of course, we would be absolutely remiss if we didn’t mention the voice of Julee Cruise and it’s unforgettable contribution to the overall mood of Twin Peaks. Cruise herself is featured as an on-screen performer throughout the series, often featuring at the late-night haunt of many Twin Peaks residents, The Roadhouse. Cruise’s voice is hauntingly angelic, it seems to float on top of Badalamenti’s arrangements. This otherworldly singing style was not initially natural to Cruise. A self-described “belter”, Cruise remembers the process of recording Twin Peaks as difficult and unnatural to her. She says ‘I went home with a demo tape every day and thought, “This is awful work I’m doing, I sound terrible. The music is so great, but I’m not living up to it.” So I decided I had no choice to be myself and show that intimate, quiet beauty that is inside.’ For Badalamenti and Lynch however, Cruise was perfect for the project. Badalamenti says ‘She did exactly what David and I were looking for, because she sounds like an angel’. The angelic voice of Cruise contrasted with the strange and unsettling synth sounds created by Landrum were an excellent echo of the narrative arc that placed the innocence and purity of Laura Palmer within the seedy underbelly of Twin Peaks itself.
When someone describes music as being “Lynchian” it is the Twin Peaks soundtrack that immediately springs to mind. The floating synth pads, the expressive melodies and Badalamenti’s chord progressions that seem to move so naturally in mysterious and unpredictable ways have been incredibly influential across many genres and contemporary artists. Artists such as DJ Shadow, Moby and Mount Eerie have sampled the soundtrack itself, and in 2016 the experimental electronic act Xiu Xiu released an album that was comprised entirely of covers of the score. The rich ambience of this monumental soundtrack continues to prevail as one of the most successful sonic collaborations between composer and director ever seen. As a viewer, we are drawn into the world of Twin Peaks through this hauntingly beautiful soundscape; never quite knowing what to expect next of Badalamenti’s score or Lynch’s surreal narrative arcs.