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How Twin Peaks' 'beautiful dark' music matches David Lynch's vision

Del Cowie

Twin Peaks is finally returning to television screens more than 25 years after it aired its last episode. The series, set in a northwestern American town and created by David Lynch and Mark Frost, is arguably just as well known for its musical content as its inimitably surrealist bent.

The influence of the show's dreamy pop soundscapes, created by composer Angelo Badalamenti, can be detected in contemporary artists like Lana Del Rey and Sky Ferreira. For Badalamenti specifically, the sound has forged collaborations with artists as divergent as Anthrax and Paul McCartney.

Ostensibly, the show centred on the mysterious death of Laura Palmer, the town's homecoming queen, whose body is found at the very beginning of the first episode of the show. The investigation into her death, led by Agent Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan), uncovers the secrets, intricacies and quirkiness that lie beneath the surface of the seemingly quiet and unassuming veneer of the town of Twin Peaks, delivered with the customary weirdness associated with Lynch. For the director, as in many of his other cinema and television projects, music played a heightened role in not only helping to determine the mood of a scene, but also as an active part in reflecting the themes explored in the show.

"The function of film and television music [is] not meant to be at the forefront," says Clare Nina Norelli, author of the recently published 33 ⅓ book Soundtrack from Twin Peaks, as well as an Australian composer and musician. "It’s got to function as wallpaper in the background and for whatever reason some television and film music can do that and still remain very memorable as something that can be listened to separate from the images. I think that’s why [the Twin Peaks] soundtrack in particular is popular, because a lot of people think of it it as they would any other popular album."

As Twin Peaks burgeoned in popularity after it debuted in April 1990, the soundtrack associated with it also garnered sizable success in its own right, while remaining inextricably linked to the offbeat series.

“I really think it is the connective tissue with the show,” says Norelli. “It really keeps everything unified and together because the narrative does go off into some odd places, especially in the second season after they reveal Laura’s killer. There’s a few episodes where I guess there are teething problems, where they are trying to find themselves again and music was just the constant in that show that kept it unified.”

Twin Peaks theme

The first piece of music audiences encountered on the show was the Twin Peaks theme, which was heard during the opening credit sequence overtop various scenery associated with small-town America. The placid nature of the opening sequence did not hint at the murder mystery at the centre of the show.

“There’s a strange timelessness to it,” says Norelli. “I feel like there’s an ambiguity in a sense in that it’s very much rooted in a sense of time and place of when the show came out. That bass that kicks the whole thing off, it’s got a sort of nostalgic undertone in the sense it’s got that Duane Eddy sound. And yet it’s coupled with these synthesizers. It’s all very ethereal and haunting.”

The theme was actually derived from another song that Badalamenti worked on with Lynch previous to the inception of Twin Peaks. The two first teamed up for Lynch’s 1986 film Blue Velvet, where Badalamenti enlisted one of his singing acquaintances, Julee Cruise, to sing the song “Mysteries of Love.”

Lynch and Badalamenti reteamed to produce Floating Into the Night, a 1989 album for Cruise that included the song “Falling.”

An instrumental version of “Falling” is what would be reworked into “The Theme from Twin Peaks.” Cruise’s original version of “Falling” was released as a single in the wake of Twin Peaks’ success, and charted in North America and Europe.

Laura Palmer's theme

But while the Twin Peaks theme was the first and possibly most recognizable piece of music associated with the show, it wasn’t the most important. “Laura Palmer’s Theme” was a piece of music that appeared frequently throughout the episodes, and was instructive on how recurring motifs were deployed across the entire series.

In her 33 ⅓ book, Norelli goes into deep detail using musical notation and cites several examples of pieces of music that are only heard when specific characters appear onscreen, essentially receiving their own theme music. For example, the jazzy “Audrey’s Dance” — which was also featured on the Twin Peaks soundtrack — is attributed to the character of Audrey Horne (Sherilyn Fenn), who begins to inexplicably dance in the middle of a scene after uttering the phrase, “God, I love this music. Isn’t it too dreamy?”

The use of “Laura Palmer’s Theme,” however, is applied to several different characters. The track itself typifies the ambiguity of the show: its beginning is heavily ominous, before brightening and reverting back to that ominous mood — something Norelli terms the "Dark Introduction." It was a piece of music that Badalamenti and Lynch worked together closely on — literally, as Lynch sat unusually close to the composer while Badalamenti played the piano, and Lynch passed him notes on exactly what the director wanted to hear.

“That was the first thing [Badalamenti and Lynch] did together in terms of the initial scenes. The show was still in David Lynch’s mind [when they started],” says Norelli.

"I always call ['Laura Palmer’s Theme'] the crux of Twin Peaks because it’s got darkness and the light," she continues. "These two sections of music are playing against each other in the same way. In Twin Peaks you’ve got a lot of people that are very good, but you’ve got this dark undercurrent. It’s like a musical embodiment of the show itself.”

“Laura Palmer’s Theme” also translated into the pop charts. In his 2016 memoir Porcelain, popular electronic artist Moby details how he remixed one of his songs by sampling “Laura Palmer’s Theme” after watching the show. "Twin Peaks was my religion," he wrote. Moby named it the "Woodtick Mix" to reference the fact MacLachlan's Agent Cooper was chasing a woodtick when he got shot on the show. The song turned out to be Moby’s 1991 breakthrough single “Go,” and the musician and Lynch are now friends, having collaborated together on several projects.

Badalamenti and Lynch did collaborate together on projects aside from Twin Peaks, but their work on the series is the clear standout project of their partnership. The Twin Peaks theme won a Grammy Award for best pop instrumental performance in 1991, and Badalamenti has returned to work on the new 2017 series. Given the time and place defying space the show occupies, it's logical that Badalamenti and Lynch would resume their creative collaboration.

“It’s like the town itself,” says Norelli, of the music. “The town itself in the show seems to be rooted in another time or place where we’re led to believe it's contemporary. So you’re not sure when it exists, so it’s sort of strange.”

Twin Peaks returns to television via Showtime on Sunday, May 21, at 9 p.m./8 p.m. CT.

Follow Del Cowie on Twitter: @vibesandstuff

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