Soundtrack Without Storyline Revisiting the music from Twin Peaks

Composer Angelo Badalamenti before spitting out "one of the finest espressos in the world" (Mulholland Drive)

David Lynch and Mark Frost's Twin Peaks aired its last episode of season 2 in 1991, over a quarter-century ago. With the series finally making its return for season 3 on Sunday, May 21, we are celebrating all week with a string of Twin Peaks-related features. More from this series

“Floating / Floating / Floating with you.”

Music is a glorious feeling, a feeling beyond good and evil, beyond the narrative of dichotomy, beyond what the director wishes us to see.

It’s hard to see music, because it doesn’t exist in the traditional sense. It is “immaterial” and therefore incorruptible. Film decays. It is in its nature to decay. Hence cinematic fixations on death, torture, suffering, alienation, disease. The zombie’s dripping face is a reflection of its medium. Wow, BOB, Wow.

A film that deals with the supernatural still stinks like a corpse, a stage set corpse, like Laura Palmer in plastic. A song that deals with the supernatural is a song about the nature of music, with its inherent supernatural span-new shine. It may be forgotten, but it won’t decompose. It’s out there, and it comes from out of thin air.

Some might say that music serves image. David Lynch himself has been oft quoted as referring to soundtrack as “firewood.” This approach gives a bit more power to image than it has or deserves. Music, I’m talking soundtrack music, transcends its purpose. “Theme from A Summer Place”: I can hum the melody, but I don’t recall the plot. Do you? The music endures because, again, it does not “exist.” Film is graffiti on the walls of movie theaters and television sets, removed simply by a pressure washer.

That doesn’t stop film from trying to get soundtrack to smoke in the bathroom and ruin its pretty little voice. Doing it with that bad-boy snap of the fingers. The rev of the bike. Smoke and leather and hair. To ruin its glorious little feeling. But music nonetheless fosters images, and it can support a diversity of visions.

Visions are potent and pure in Twin Peaks. I am not told that down is up and up is down. I am given it straight, albeit in fragments. Twin Peaks generates its own strange feeling while respectfully playing off of the past, building on genres. The gang’s all here — mystery, jazz, Americana. The effect, cultivated through collaboration, is long-lasting. Angelo Badalamenti, Mark Frost, and David Lynch sit at the head, while musical luminaries and prime actors play strong supporting roles in this small-town Saturday night saga.

From “Zen, or the Skill to Catch a Killer”

The small town is a perforated realm, like Narnia, with just enough flesh to give the myth some bone. Unlike Narnia, it is largely secular, despite references to Tibetan method and Blackfoot mysticism. The spiritual current of the show is more human than inhuman, floating in dreams, giving off fever and heat — spiritualism grounded by fringes of human behavior, but still within its boundaries.

Still, who needs any of it when there’s Music from Twin Peaks? The soundtrack is the keystone of the mythology. It’s more than a high-selling, Grammy-winning, chart-topping souvenir; it’s more than a “greeting from Twin Peaks.” Through repetition, musical déjà vu, and slow tempo, the album carries the listener into the current of dreams. No glycerin; these tears are real. I can’t imagine the show without the music, but I can imagine the music without the show. In the same way the show transcends television, the soundtrack transcends the show.

I heard Music from Twin Peaks a decade before I’d seen an episode. Suspended like the chords, dancing in dreams, backside, this could be anywhere, although the insert provides a few clues: the empty room with the red curtain and the zig-zag tiles; the road facing Mount Si and the Twin Peaks welcome sign; the guess-who Dick Tracy cast of batty characters, including the shrink with the outrageous 3D glasses. The Man from Another Place dances and leads with lantern. Since the sounds have got me floating and drifting, and since I’ve got to live somewhere no matter what, I might as well live here in this town. I hear they serve good coffee.

“Midnight with the stars and you / Midnight and a rendezvous”

In Badalamenti’s dreams, the idea of jazz is alive and well, like a fat and happy house pet. Wieldy, easy to pet. The domestication of genre does not stifle the wild life. If you build a home in a bunker, that won’t stop the bombs. Musical luminaries at the source echo through the digital caves of reverb. If you can get to them, they are playing nice sounds down there in the pits.

In meditation, Badalamenti holds down one note at a time, providing a view from inside the harmonium. This is “Night Life in Twin Peaks.” The melodies take their time. Keep it simple. Play it slower. The more minimal the music is, the more it will carry the mood. Minimal like Satie, but not like furniture, not like that couch on the sitcom set; there’s no aesthetic of boredom. I wouldn’t mind seeing “furniture music” used as firewood, but spare the Music from Twin Peaks CD. This is wood for the mantel, the joists, the bridge across the lake. Bones for the buildings. The compositions are inter-dimensional evocations that fan color and mood.

Through the tunnels, through the trials and tremolos of Vinnie Bell. Sample snap. Sample twang. I’m snapping my fingers into infinity and spelunking in the smog. Digital caves of reverb stress the timelessness of this place. Al Regli’s saxophone is drenched. Everything with a reed is drenched. Drenched in 1990. The ghost of jazz buried in the cave, along with 1989.

At least the drummer gets to loosen up. Grady Tate comes out sounding the realest and most present of the bunch. By “The Bookhouse Boys,” Tate is pretty free, playing in threes, superimposed on top of the rest of the arrangement (we don’t have to wonder if there’s a bass drum anymore). By “The Bookhouse Boys,” it’s appropriate that things are breaking up the way they are: Music from Twin Peaks is melatonin, a pathway to dreams. Through the gates —

“Into the night / Shadows fall / Shadows fall so blue.”

First, the themes, breathing exercises, set the mood and pace. Then, the sideways shuffle of “Audrey’s Dance” acts as the entry point to the dream world, then deeper and deeper and deeper and deeper… If I were asleep, I’d be home by now. “Dance of the Dream Man” is the last stop on the night shift before we’re back in plastic with the final theme. Throughout this drowsy journey, Julee Cruise, the whispering Shirley Bassey of Twin Peaks, guides us through the stations, with two interludes, “The Nightingale” and “Into the Night,” and an epilogue, “Falling.”

Now it’s dark. This uttered by Julee Cruise, the chanteuse of dreams and not the man wearing the mask. No auteur horror in sight, just plenty of space for dark splendor. Could be anywhere. Could be dancing with The Man from Another Place, the kissing cousin to the Sandman. For some reason, Cruise puts us more at ease than Frank Booth does. Maybe it’s the melody. A wind before a storm must be one of the more refreshing threats that nature makes. The lamp flickering, moving further away. A dramatic sky under a blue and black blanket of digital reverb. Supernatural and generic. Supernatural by nature, generic by design.

Mystery is the common ground between the series and the score. In the series: death and horror and drama and mystery. The soundtrack: mystery. Music from Twin Peaks is the essence of mystery simply put. It is the distillation of mystery, suspended in a dream-state and detached from the narrative of dichotomy. Death and drama are inessential to the common ground, proving that you can have mystery without murder and soundtrack without storyline.

David Lynch and Mark Frost's Twin Peaks aired its last episode of season 2 in 1991, over a quarter-century ago. With the series finally making its return for season 3 on Sunday, May 21, we are celebrating all week with a string of Twin Peaks-related features. More from this series

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