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TWIN PEAKS – Angelo Badalamenti


Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

There’s a case to be made for the notion that television as we know it changed on April 8th, 1990. On that date, on the American network channel ABC, Twin Peaks premiered. The brainchild of surrealist writer-director David Lynch, and TV producer Mark Frost, Twin Peaks was ostensibly a murder-mystery show that followed an investigation led by FBI Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle McLachlan) into the death of Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee), a teenage beauty queen from a fictional town in Washington state. But of course, it was much more than that. It touched on elements of horror and science fiction, offbeat comedy, and satirized many of the tropes inherent on American soap operas. It had a sprawling cast of eccentric characters, whose interlocking lives drive the plot. It was also deeply, deeply weird: there are giants delivering cryptic messages, dwarves talking backwards, demons possessing people, doppelgängers, fever dreams and horrific nightmares, and copious amounts of coffee and cherry pie. By the end of the second season the plot had become so incomprehensible and maddeningly obtuse that it hemorrhaged viewers and was eventually cancelled; I admit that I found the show incredibly frustrating, and by the end of it I was convinced that Lynch was playing an elaborate prank on his own audience – he created a show that was so impenetrable, was so confusing, had such a bizarre visual style, and contained so much ‘intentional bad acting,’ because he wanted to see how long people would tolerate it by convincing themselves it was ‘art’.

The music for Twin Peaks was very important, and for it he turned to Italian-American composer Angelo Badalamenti. Badalamenti had been kicking around Hollywood for a few years before he was hired by director Lynch to act as Isabella Rossellini’s vocal coach on his film Blue Velvet in1986. Lynch and Badalamenti worked so well together that Badalamenti ended up writing the entire score for the film – his first of any significance. After a couple more years, during which Badalamenti wrote scores for mainstream fare such as A Nightmare on Elm Street 3 and National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, the two re-teamed for Twin Peaks, and Badalamenti was thrust into public consciousness via his iconic main title theme. However, as good as the music is in compositional terms, Twin Peaks is one of those scores where the album experience is very different from the in-context experience.

In order to meet the requirements that the show have a tone similar to that of mainstream American soap operas, Lynch wanted Badalamenti’s music to be very, very prominent. The result of this is that, for much of the time, the show feels massively over-scored, especially the romantic parts: the merest hints of emotion between the characters are met with enormous, sweeping statements of the show’s swelling love theme. Now, I like a good love theme as much as the next guy, and I’m certainly not averse to having my emotions manipulated by music, but the approach here is so ridiculously over-the-top that it borders on parody – which, I guess, was the point. The music itself is utterly lovely, but whether you actually appreciate it for what it’s trying to say will depend entirely on whether you buy into Lynch’s aesthetic of hyper-surrealism and absurdity, juxtaposed against the mundane-ness of suburban American life.

In a technical context, Badalamenti’s music is mostly electronic, based around synthesizers and keyboards, with special instrumental contributions from a small number of traditional woodwinds, a tenor saxophone, an electric guitar, and percussion. There are several recurring themes – the main theme, the love theme, a theme specific to the murder victim Laura Palmer, a theme specific to the femme fatale Audrey Horne, and a recurring stylistic idea that Badalamenti called ‘cool jazz’. This latter style can be heard mostly in the scenes dominated by the young men of Twin Peaks – Badalamenti was trying to capture their masculinity with cocktail-lounge electric pianos, pulsing bass, lightly brushed percussion, and finger-snapping.

The “Twin Peaks Theme” is, of course, the most famous piece of the score, and it won Badalamenti a Grammy for Best Pop Instrumental Performance in 1991, as well as an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Main Title Theme. It plays over the opening credits montage at the beginning of each episode – mist shrouded hills, trees and waterfalls, abstract footage of machinery from the local factories – and sets the mood perfectly. It’s a slow, introspective, dream-like theme mostly for synths enlivened by a prominent twangy electric guitar chord, and brushed cymbals. The actual construct of the piece is actually quite simple – basic scales, chords, and one lovely crescendo in the strings – but its sense of cold unease matches with the unsettling atmosphere Lynch intended to convey.

“Laura Palmer’s Theme” is actually two themes – the theme for Laura, and the Love theme – blended together to create a single piece. Laura’s Theme is the first part of the cue, and depicts the tragic life and awful death of the character whose murder is the catalyst for the entire show. Her theme is unsettlingly melancholic, a repeated series of dark and oppressive keyboard tones and piano chords that frame a recurring 6-note motif. At around the 1:04 mark the cue changes, the piano becomes more prominent, and the Love Theme starts to emerge with a richer, more fulsome sound. The beautifully rhapsodic but still vaguely gloomy melody that begins at 1:29 is the theme that feels ‘over-scored’ in context – it tends to accompany the relationship between Laura’s best friend Donna (Lara Flynn Boyle) and her boyfriend Bobby (Dana Ashbrook), and gives the whole thing an air of an epic, tragic romance that unfortunately feels much too big considering who and where they are. However, from a purely musical point of view, it’s one of the loveliest things Badalamenti has ever written.

“Audrey’s Dance” is for the character Audrey Horne, played by Sherilyn Fenn, who develops and unhealthily obsessive fixation on Agent Cooper. Audrey’s music is sultry, seductive, lightly dirty-sounding jazz, with an underlying tone of something not being quite right – slightly unhinged. It starts out with a nod to the elegant and elongated tones of a Henry Mancini, an Elmer Bernstein, or 1960s John Barry, but then slowly slithers into something much more devilish, with evocative blasts of saxophone and a serpentine clarinet leading the way. This ‘cool jazz’ style continues into all the subsequent mid-album cues, including “Freshly Squeezed,” and the uneasy-sounding “Night Life in Twin Peaks”. “The Bookhouse Boys” is distorted and echoey, as if the music is being heard through a drugged-out haze, and has a slightly frantic and unorganized finale underpinned with hints of Laura Palmer’s theme. “Dance of the Dream Man,” which underscores the improbable scene of a dwarf in a bright red business suit engaging in a 1940s style jazz dance, is the surreally cool apex of the score.

The final cue, “Love Theme from Twin Peaks,” is again a combination of both Laura Palmer’s theme and the Love Theme, orchestrated differently from the earlier track. It starts ominously, with a muted saxophone version of Laura’s theme, but then switches to a beautiful flute arrangement of the Love Theme accompanied by soft, bubbly synths. These orchestrations continue as the melody reverts back to Laura’s theme, with dark bass flutes carrying the idea off to the White Lodge, the Black Lodge, or wherever it was that Killer BOB emerged from in Lynch’s twisted vision.

In addition to the score, the Twin Peaks album also features three songs written by Badalamenti and Lynch, which are performed on screen by singer Julee Cruise, who had a regular recurring role as a lounge singer performing at the Road House bar and restaurant where many scenes take place. Badalamenti had been working with Cruise for several years, initially when she sung in a New York theater workshop Badalamenti had produced, and later when she provided Isabella Rossellini’s dubbed singing voice on Blue Velvet in 1986. The three Cruise songs on the soundtrack are “The Nightingale,” “Into the Night,” and “Falling,” and they all have an ambient, haunting, ethereal sound that fits in perfectly with the mood of the rest of the music. The songs are actually quite lovely if you have an ear for that sort of dreamy, other-worldly sound. “Falling,” which adds lyrics to the iconic main title theme, was also included on Cruise’s debut solo album ‘Floating into the Night,’ and was a Top 10 single in the UK charts.

It’s certainly true that Twin Peaks changed many things about mainstream television. It gave writers and directors the freedom to stray from conventional storytelling techniques, and adopt themes of abstraction and surrealism that had hitherto been confined to art-house cinemas and more experimental styles of filmmaking. Similarly, the music was a massive popular hit, finally kick-starting Angelo Badalamenti’s film music career at the comparatively late age of 57. I like a lot of what the music from Twin Peaks has to offer; despite me not quite ‘getting’ it in context, the main theme is rightly iconic, the love theme is genuinely gorgeous, and the jazz is certainly authentic, but I fear that that aspect of the score will be the biggest turn off for those who have never fully embraced the sensibility. As a television music milestone and a landmark in the history of the genre, Twin Peaks is certainly worth investigating. Just remember: the owls are not what they seem.

Buy the Twin Peaks soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Twin Peaks Theme (5:10)
  • Laura Palmer’s Theme (4:52)
  • Audrey’s Dance (5:17)
  • The Nightingale (written by Angelo Badalamenti and David Lynch, performed by Julee Cruise) (4:56)
  • Freshly Squeezed (3:48)
  • The Bookhouse Boys (3:29)
  • Into the Night (written by Angelo Badalamenti and David Lynch, performed by Julee Cruise) (4:44)
  • Night Life in Twin Peaks (3:27)
  • Dance of the Dream Man (3:41)
  • Love Theme from Twin Peaks (5:04)
  • Falling (written by Angelo Badalamenti and David Lynch, performed by Julee Cruise) (5:21)

Running Time: 49 minutes 47 seconds

Warner Brothers 7599-26316-2 (1990)

Music composed and arranged by Angelo Badalamenti. Featured musical soloists Angelo Badalamenti, Vinnie Bell, Eddie Daniels, Eddie Dixon, Kinnie Landrum, Albert Regni and Grady Tate. Recorded and mixed by Art Pohlemus. Album produced by Angelo Badalamenti and David Lynch.

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