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related to the works of David Lynch

The New York Times, Sunday, July 1, 1990
with many thanks to J.D. Lafrance

by John Rockwell

Even nonmusic lovers who watched David Lynch's "Twin Peaks" this past season must have recognized music's role in its eerie impact. Music is everywhere in this television soap opera, nattering ominously in otherwise seemingly banal scenes, investing them with dark purpose, bopping jazzily behind macho teenagers at play, rising to ecstatic (if properly soapy) climaxes where one might expect (James and Donna kissing) and where one might not (the discovery of Laura Palmer's corpse), setting up a creepy emotional counterpoint.

Those who follow credits crawling across the screen may have noted the name of Angelo Badalamenti as the composer. My own reaction was that Mr. Badalamenti had to be the latest in the long line of Italian composers of dark, brooding film background music stretching back to the early days of Ennio Morricone and Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns.

It turns out that he is a 52-year-old New Jerseyan who works in a small Manhattan studio, has scored 12 Hollywood films (including that ultimately un-Lynchian, nonauteurist statement, "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation"), has arranged for mostly middle-of-the-road pop singers and has composed innumerable ditties for commercials. He has two albums of his own on the obscure Renwood Records label titled, improbably, "Andy Badale" and "The Nashville Beer Garden Band."

He also has a burgeoning professional relationship with Mr. Lynch. His music illuminates not just that director's work but also the whole question of why a certain kind of understated, synthesizer-ridden idiom, akin to 1970's English art-rock, works so well for film.

Mr. Badalamenti was brought in to coach Isabella Rossellini for her singing in Mr. Lynch's 1986 film, "Blue Velvet." He stayed on to compose the music for that movie, for "Twin Peaks" and for Mr. Lynch's new film, "Wild at Heart." He also collaborated with Mr. Lynch (who contributed the words and ideas for the music) on "Floating Into the Night," a pop album for the singer Julee Cruise that came out last fall on Warner Brothers. And he created a grandiose evening-long performance piece called "Industrial Symphony No.1" with Mr. Lynch and Ms. Cruise for the 1989 New Wave Festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Bits of that performance, the music for which was basically from "Floating Into the Night," were recycled into a video for Ms. Cruise whose voice also appears periodically on the "Twin Peaks" soundtrack and who even plays a couple of small rolls in the series.

"Floating Into the Night" now comes stickered with the information that it contains the themes of both "Blue Velvet" and "Twin Peaks," and up to now "Twin Peaks" addicts who wanted a hit of the music (and who hadn't taped the episodes) had only to listen to the second track, "Falling," where it purls along under one of Ms. Cruise's wispy vocals.

Now that the television series has been renewed for the fall, however, Warner Brothers is swinging into action. The company has just released a "Twin Peaks" single consisting of an instrumental theme by Mr. Badalamenti and "Falling." Late this summer, a soundtrack album produced by Mr. Badalamenti and Mr. Lynch will appear, at the same time as a full-length video version of the "Industrial Symphony No.1."

With all due respect to Ms. Cruise, it's good to hear that there will be a soundtrack album, because it is Mr. Badalamenti's instrumentals that define the atmosphere more than her warbling of Mr. Lynch's blankly understated lyrics.

There is a classical feeling to this music, not surprising since Mr. Badalamenti is a graduate of two prestigious conservatories, the Eastman School of Music in Rochester and the Manhattan School of Music. Its dark flavoring might have something to do with a Badalamenti speciality, the French horn. But its real character is electronic.

In fact, Mr. Badalamenti used darkly twanging electric guitars (one cranked down a fifth below its normal tuning), along with woodwinds (including yet another dark-flavored instrument, the tenor saxophone), percussion and acoustic piano. But the most prominent color is the synthesizer, which lends the textures a gloss both traditional, in the synthesizer's mimicking of conventional instruments, and disturbingly off-center, in that the imitations and the frequent use of eerie slides and quarter-tones invest everything with an electronic glow, as if the music were radioactive.

The "Twin Peaks" soundtrack album will contain two or three Julee Cruise songs, and the remaining material will have been worked up, suite fashion, into something more coherently musical then the short, atmospheric daubs, or cues, used in the series.

But the repetition of a few short, compact motifs, varied subtly and fit together like pieces of a Chinese puzzle, is one of the score's strengths. This is a classic example of Minimalist film music, a few charged fragments revolving obsessively in the mind.

The actual musical materials are spare: a moody turn around a single note, rising and falling a step on either side. A slowly ascending love theme, which then trails off, brokenly. The finger-snapping cool jazz, which retains its baleful aura even in a style ordinarily meant to sound sexually enticing.

As with Mr. Morricone, Mr. Badalamenti plays with these few sonic totems, like a child carefully arranging and rearranging shells picked up at the beach. If you want to get grandiose about it, you could call such recycling a Minimalist equivalent to the way a composer like Beethoven combined and recombined short phrases in his symphonies, or the way Wagner juxtaposes his leitmotifs for both musical and dramatic purposes.

A closer parallel is the moody washes of English art-rock of the 70's. It might seem a long way from Mr. Badalamenti's synthesizer mutterings to the upbeat affirmations of rock-and-roll. But English art-rock represented a curious byway in the evolution of rock, closer to movie music and even classical music than to, say, Chuck Berry. As such it was scorned by many rock critics. But it was still popular, and it anticipated a modern-day electronic mood music that pleases lots of people, even in its debased new-age and soft pop-jazz forms.

One reason Mr. Badalamenti's music works so well and why people who scorned, say, Rick Wakeman like the score for "Twin Peaks" is that music of this sort combines so readily with images. Not all that compelling when stripped of pictures and the emotional associations of drama, it serves a larger, collaborative purpose very aptly indeed.

That may explain why Pink Floyd, the best 1970's English art-rockers, enjoyed such success with their arena stage shows. It was partly their brilliant stagecraft (giant floating pigs, an onstage plane crash, even the construction of an entire wall), but also because their music, so close in tone to Mr. Badalamenti's, served the spectacle by reinforcing its moods and staying out of its way.

Why do you think they call them soap operas, anyhow? Opera is a far more malleable term than ordinarily understood. It doesn't just mean stentorian onslaughts at the Met. It can mean any dramatic work in which music plays a vital role. That applies to "Twin Peaks" as much as to "Gotterdammerung," and it helps explain the allures not only of Mr. Badalamenti's music but of David Lynch's brooding filmic visions of America as well.

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© Mike Hartmann