Charting the Vast Musical Universe of Twin Peaks

Chromatics at the Roadhouse on Twin Peaks. Photo: Showtime

Douglas firs, roaring waterfalls, piping hot coffee, and offbeat characters helped to establish Twin Peaks as a physical place in the American television viewer’s consciousness when the series first aired in 1990. Yet it was the radical musical landscape within the series, created by showrunner David Lynch and composer Angelo Badalamenti, that helped the show transcend from mere fascination into a resonant cultural icon. The heavily reverbed guitars and waiting-room jazz became characters themselves, equally unsettling and gloomy to the ear, and transformed the eponymous Washington logging town from a soundstage into a full-on universe.

When Showtime announced that it was reviving Lynch’s classic series as the 18-part mini-series Twin Peaks: The Return, the expectation was that the show’s most memorable musical signifiers, like the dark love letter to its deceased heroine “Laura Palmer’s Theme,” as well as Julee Cruise’s lonesome melodies onstage at the Roadhouse, may very well be brought back with the revival. But Lynch subverted the formula, bringing in a host of contemporary groups including Au Revoir Simone, Chromatics, Sharon Van Etten, Rebekah Del Rio (flanked by Moby playing guitar), and even Nine Inch Nails to the Roadhouse stage. Maybe it isn’t just a lonely biker bar?

Alex Zhang Hungtai, of Dirty Beaches and Last Lizard, had a prominent role on the Roadhouse stage, along with Dean Hurley (who is Lynch’s music supervisor) and Riley Lynch, the director’s son. Earlier in the season of Twin Peaks: The Return, the three played in a fictitious band called Trouble. Hungtai — who wails on a saxophone in a terrific scene while some drama unfolds elsewhere in the bar — says that he accepted the role because of Hurley, a friend, but also notes that the distinct way that jazz was used in the original Twin Peaks was an undeniable influence on him. “I think that was what inspired me the most: the power to manipulate what already exists and give it new life and recontextualize it, and you can empower what was not in power before,” Hungtai says. “You know, what was previously seen as not cool, you can make it cool and all these other things. Put value in things that have been devalued.”

Part of Lynch’s evolution as a filmmaker and music fan means that he’s recontextualizing jazz and electronic music in the new iteration of Twin Peaks, too, although the way that he worked with composer Angelo Badalamenti was largely the same. “When there was a script, that’s when David first started wanting to work with Angelo,” Hurley says. “And like they’d always done: work on music before they shot anything proper.” The two sussed out a contemporary way of doing that, by setting up a connection between Lynch’s Los Angeles studio and Badalamenti’s studio in New Jersey, coupled with a simultaneous Skype feed. “Whatever Angelo played in his studio would come through our mains as if he was here, so that was really really cool,” Hurley says. “They work together in a really fast and productive way. So it was just starting to build a library: You have all these new themes and ideas about where the story’s going to go and David would have a hot sheet of these one-word descriptors, these building blocks he was wanting to get, and throwing out all these descriptions to Angelo and walking him through things to try to get that material.”

Many of the series’ old characters are back this time around, including Hawk and the Log Lady. But part of what makes Twin Peaks: The Return feel so unprecedented is that the specific musical signifiers that Lynch and Badalamenti had made for Twin Peaks’ first two seasons — particularly the saccharine jazz, daytime soap-opera interludes, and thick plumes of reverbed guitars — are used much more sparingly this time around. Lynch, Badalamenti, and Hurley instead worked on scoring and sound-design elements that made the new series an astoundingly original and even shocking watch in our oversaturated TV market, thanks to flourishes like omnipresent atmospheric rumbling, hip-hop instrumentals, Roadhouse performances, and a lamp that keeps humming, unsettlingly and increasingly loud, at the Great Northern.

Perhaps most notably, Twin Peaks: The Return represents a huge shift away from the chock-full-of-music approach Lynch has historically displayed in his work. “The original Twin Peaks is very much like that, and some of the episodes are complete wall-to-wall music,” Hurley says. “And I think that becomes the saccharine, quick way to establish tone.” That’s also why the series managed to stay intact even after Lynch departed shortly into season two of Twin Peaks, though the quality of the plot itself suffered — something Hurley suspects may have been a consideration while crafting the sonic landscape of Twin Peaks: The Return. “I think that in retrospect — I don’t want to speak for him — but my impression of it is that affected the way he went into this. And he was, definitely, from the get-go, reaching and asking for much more soundscape-y kind of abstract, atmospheric things.”

These ominous soundscapes marry low-frequency rumbling and subwoofer-heavy tonalities, punctuating the many far-flung locales we’ve seen in Twin Peaks: The Return so far, from casinos to mysterious glass boxes in New York City. It’s almost a sister soundscape to the dark, dense blacktops of Lost Highway. As author Dennis Lim put it in his book about Lynch, The Man From Another Place, that particular soundtrack featured “enveloping darkness [that] gives way to flaring, overexposed white-outs. Dead air alternates with the belligerent soundtrack assault of metal-industrial bands like Nine Inch Nails and Rammstein … the dreamlike sense that everything is happening at a remove dovetails with the fixation on mediation.” Twin Peaks: The Return isn’t so different, given its subliminal effects on the senses and the extremities of the atmospheric score. “The scenes that are most successful that use very little music, and I still think [Lynch] thinks of that stuff … as music,” Hurley says. “So I think to him it’s like, ‘Oh yeah, that scene is scored with music,’ and other people are like, ‘I couldn’t believe the austere lack of music there.’”

Even when these kinds of ominous rumbling sounds are less discernible to the ear than the pastiche love themes of the original Twin Peaks series, the jury’s out on whether the effect of these tonalities is meditative in a way (Lynch is vocal about his love of Transcendental Meditation, after all), or if it’s almost even synesthetic. Research has shown that low-frequency noise, at moderate levels, “might adversely affect visual functions, concentration, continuous and selective attention.” Seeing how we’re still reeling from the wild, wondrous images of the series’ ten episodes so far, it’s not a stretch to think how these low frequencies might be toying with our senses in every way, too.

Not that that’s necessarily a consideration of Lynch’s, though. “I don’t think the goal for him is ‘let’s get at a point where people are hearing colors’ or whatever,” Hurley says. “But I think his approach is always super visceral. Sometimes when he’ll ask me to prepare something like, ‘I want a really mean industrial loop that’s so powerful.’ I’ll get it to a point and I’ll say, ‘Okay this is pretty fucking powerful.’ And he’ll come in and yell at me until it gets even beyond what was already punishing.” He says that one of Lynch’s most powerful effects is exaggeration. Specifically, “when you’re trying to get at a feeling so desperately, you just squeeze things and push things beyond what other people have sat with and thought, ‘Oh, is this a little too much?’” Hurley says.

But when Twin Peaks: The Return isn’t oscillating between “otherworldly exalting” (as the show’s subtitles note) and the likes of the Platters’ lickety-split hit “My Prayer,” silence does take center stage. Some of it seems to be logistical, given that Laura Palmer isn’t around too much, and James and Donna aren’t running around hiding lockets in the woods. So besides the opening credits, Twin Peaks: The Return features few of the classic musical signifiers where one might expect them to be, though Coop/Dougie has his own sort of theme this go-around, in the form of Johnny Jewel’s sparse, jazzy number “Windswept,” and “Laura Palmer’s Theme” does make an appearance when Deputy Andy Brennan goes to meet someone at the fateful intersection of Sparkwood and 21. A side plot with the hit man Ike the Spike is introduced every time with an instrumental hip-hop beat that Lynch found on YouTube one day.

The fact that many scenes in Twin Peaks: The Return are devoid of music at all is something that surprised Hurley, who’s been working with Lynch for 12 years. “Even myself early on, I was like, ‘Surely we should put music in the scene.’ And you know, being told, ‘No, leave it out,’” Hurley says of Twin Peaks: The Return. “I will say, first of all, I read the script before it was shot and even when you’re reading the script page, it was pretty obvious that the majority of that original finger-popping jazz quirk was not the tone of this thing.”

What is the tone, then? The place where it is happening again, Twin Peaks, may be the same. But this time around, in 2017, Dr. Jacoby is spouting conspiracy theories online, Sheriff (Frank) Truman has a sleek Mac setup at his desk, and pie’s considerably more expensive these days at the RR Diner. Twin Peaks may exist in its own universe, but it’s very much a part of ours, too. The world we live in today is a pretty terrifying one, so of course the new season of Twin Peaks’ music inspires a much more grave tone. Given that this series is intent on showing the sheer interconnectivity and universality of Laura Palmer’s murder, and the ripple effect it’s still been having on a community nearly three decades after it happened, it makes sense for the musical choices to reflect that in a more abstract way, too.

Of course, the choice to consciously leave out music also makes the few needle-droppers in Twin Peaks: The Return all the more impactful. As if the images in episode eight weren’t mind-boggling enough, Lynch liberally uses Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki’s skin-crawling 1960 string orchestra piece “Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima” throughout (also heard in Children of Men, no less) that may or may not be sound-tracking our nightmares now. And a scene that seems perfectly ordinary — a long take of a bartender sweeping up after a late night at the Roadhouse, with Booker T. & the MG’s classic “Green Onions” whirring on the jukebox — oozes with a kind of dread that song doesn’t typically evoke.

Less music in Twin Peaks: The Return also means that the show “becomes this emphasis on performance and spectacle,” as Hurley puts it, and makes already-stellar performances from the likes of Laura Dern, as Diane, pop even more. “It’s very tough to do when you can get a scene to stand without modern traditional cue, score, orchestral cue, score that’s kind of meandering and weaving throughout the thing to tickle your senses and say, ‘Oh, this feels right even though I’m not into the character,’” he says.“When things are less stark like that, the scene either works or it doesn’t, and it places way more attention on editorial rhythm and actor performance and actor nuance and the pacing of the actual performance, rather than, like, a sonic ice-cream cone of tone.” We’re over halfway through Twin Peaks: The Return, but it’s clear that the landscape, musical and otherwise, is still unfurling with new definitions, terrors, and new tones. Especially as the many mysteries of Twin Peaks unfold, giants emerge and Coop is slowly, hopefully coming to his senses.

Charting the Vast Musical Universe of Twin Peaks