Director David Lynch may be the American artist most responsible for stirring up the complex cauldron of human emotions that go into creative endeavors fit for public consumption. In Lynch´s worldview, nothing works strictly at face value.
On the musical front, Lynch´s partner in crime since his breakthrough film Blue Velvet has been the veteran songwriter and composer Angelo Badalamenti. Thanks to the Lynch liason, Badalamenti has been enjoying a second wind in his career. Lynch and Badalamenti have worked closely, not only on film and TV projects, but on the oddly haunting, dreamboat pop music of Julee Cruise´s currently popular Floating Into the Night. The collaborative loop is complete, as Cruise has sung on Lynch projects and Lynch has penned lyrics for her tunes written by Badalamenti. The trio also hit the stage of he Brooklyn Academy of Music during last November´s New Music America Festival for a reportedly bizarre multi-media concoction called Industrial Symphony No. 1 (slated for release on video by Warner Brothers).
Badalamenti´s passion for mastering musical traditions so that they can be rendered pliable perfectly complements Lynch´s outlook. Badalamenti is to Lynch what Bernard Hermann was to Hitchcock: the man with the sound to match the vision. When we spoke with the increasingly harried composer, he was in Cannes on semi-official business: as a testament to the health of his post-Blue Velvet output, the composer was represented by the score to Lynch´s latest film, Wild at Heart and the music to Paul Schrader´s latest film, The Comfort of Strangers (based on Harold Pinter´s book), as well as the score to Wait Until Spring Bandini.
In top of the cinematic crop, there is no escaping Twin Peaks, even in Cannes, where Badalamenti is talking from his hotel room. Or should we say, there´s no escaping Twin Peaks, especially in Cannes; this is TV of a cinematic sensibility. The David Lynch-Mark Frost television opus is much more than a standard murder melodrama, stuffed as it is with ironies, surreal turns, and a maze-like assortment of small town characters who have proceeded to worm their way into viewers´ daily lives.
Why all the fuss? For one thing, Twin Peaks lured in viewers normally offended by the inanities of the network tube menu, making it safe for malcontents to watch television again. But the creators didn´t quite expect this degree of hooplah. “I knew it was a unique television show when I first started reading the scripts and then in seeing what David did with the pilot,” recalls Badalamenti. “I said, ‘This is very unusual, and I don´t know if America´s going to be ready for this.’ On the other hand, it was so innovative that it was something you could really get into.”
In a sense, much of the infectiousness of the series has to do with the musical fabric. “I knew that Twin Peaks had to have a sound and its own musical identity. The show is so unique. It was really very natural to come up with the musical sound and the style of the writing. I just knew that it had to be somewhat traditional, but on the other hand, underneath the surface – as what goes on with some of these characters – I went along with that vein in the music so that it´s slightly twisted or off-center. But not off-center in a stereotyped way. It´s got it´s own sound. Through all seven episodes, I´ve stayed with that and developed it in that area.” (ABC has renewed the series for prime time in the fall.)
That Twin Peaks sound is a snaky, unruly beast. Badalameni grafts the mock sincerity of the soap opera music vocabulary (piano octave melodies, for instance) onto deceptively unusual musical sources – ominous synth pads, mustily suave swing grooves, and low range guitar riffs. And the trick, really, is in the grafting, generating a strange tension and a wry aura that both reflects and nudges along the onscreen dynamics.
Badalamenti is no stranger to the musical trade. An Eastman School graduate, he looked at musical life from many angles, working in music publishing, writing for television, commercials, mainstream pop records, and occasional films (among the better early work, Law and Disorder).
His career-remaking Lynch link all began with an innocent assignment. When Isabella Rossellini needed vocal coaching for her singing of the title tune to Blue Velvet, producer Fred Caruso called on Badalamenti´s expertise in working with singers. (“I love to work with singers because I love to sing myself,” he explains. “I don´t have the pipes but I have the phrasing.”) Lynch liked Badalamenti´s work with his heroine, and when an existing pop song he wanted for the film was priced by its publisher beyond budget constraints, Badalamenti was called on to write a new tune. He agreed, on the condition that Lynch himself write the lyrics.
Badalamenti remembers: “So I was in New York recording Isabella and she brought in a little piece of paper with six lines on it. It had a title, ‘Mysteries of Love.’ It had no rhymes, no form, no hooks, no verse, no chorus. I said, ‘You´re kidding. What am I going to do with this?’ I was sorry I said I´d do it. I called David and said, ‘What is this?’ That was the start of me dealing with David´s way of describing a mood. ‘Just make it very slow and very cosmic, very beautiful and angelic.’ He´d get into these kinds of descriptions, and out came ‘Mysteries of Love.’ ‘Mysteries of Love’ really started this whole thing.”
At the time, Julee Cruise wa a chorus member in a workshop of a musical Badalamenti was working on, and her lucid, vaporous voice made the grade with Lynch. After hearing “Mysteries of Love” in the finished film, Warner Brothers put stock in the new song team of Badalamenti, Lynch and Cruise. They began writing the tunes that would become Floating Into the Night.
“After writing the stuff, I´d be absolutely convinced that this was not Top 40 stuff. But I´ve been fooled. Julee Cruise is being played on Top 40 stations. Before I left Long Island, I was in the car listening to the hottest rock and roll station and Julee Cruise is number one against all this heavy rock stuff, singing ‘Falling,’ which turned out to be the main theme in Twin Peaks. And I think it´s just great.”
I mention that the Julee Cruise album sounds like something gauzy and distant, like music remembered and recreated from a dream. He laughs. “The thing is, it´s got that sound and yet there´s a uniqueness about it. You could be put in this hypnotic trance and then suddenly out of left field something else comes, like that Wagnerian orchestra in the middle of a song and then going right back again. Or the Count Basie figure coming out of this ´60s bop-shoo-wop stuff.
“The lyrics, which are wonderful, are really quite abstract. That´s another funny process. David and I would sit down together. We had to write 10 to 12 new songs for the album. I would always tell David, ‘I don´t need more than a title and two or three lines, and that´s enough to get me going so that we can create the mood.’ David would come in with a bunch of things and I would just read them and start pumping out something. We´d bounce back and forth.”
The drawing board for the musical creations is Angelo´s office in New York, where – in time honored tradition – the director and the composer sit down at a keyboard (sans cigars). “After reading the Twin Peaks script and seeing some footage, I said, ‘David, what do you have in mind?’ He would sit down near the piano and say, ‘Something dark and slow and something that would create a great mood. Let´s write the most beautiful kind of scene, where we can come out of it and start building this very slow, beautiful mood and get into this slow build, change color,’ from minor to major, ‘build to this anticipatory thing and reach a tremendous climax…’ This is how he´s describing it to me, ‘after you reach this climax, it´s still quiet and beautiful, but it is a climax. It´s got to tear your heart out. Then let it fall down and get right back in somehow to whatever you´re going to write for that opening darkness.’
“I said, ‘Well, David, you´re asking for a piece that´s in five parts and yet it´s one piece.’ He´d say, ‘just start playing.’ I´d sit at the piano and play. He´d say, ‘Yeah! That´s it! That´s the dark mood.’ Then I´d play another thing, and he´d say, ‘That´s beautiful, Angelo, don´t forget that.’ We keep a cassette going in my office. He jumps up and says, ‘That´s it, that´s it!’
“Before you know it, I´ve written a piece in five parts. David says, ‘That´s it. Angelo, you´ve captured Twin Peaks. That´s what Twin Peaks is.’ I said, ‘Well, let me work on it.’ He said, ‘No, don´t change a note.’ One thing about David is that when he says, ‘that´s it,’ that is it. If I try to change a chord or a note three weeks later without telling him and then play it for him, he´ll say, ‘That wasn´t what you played for me.’ He´s really in tune.”
In Badalamenti´s grand design for Twin Peaks, certain musical modules are played and replayed. One of the main themes, for instance, pops up in various guises. “It´s kind of disguised and altered in orchestration and in the selection of instruments playing the theme. It varies. It could be a synth sound or it could be a solo clarinet or it could be an alto flute. These are very delicately
selected. It´s not the kind of score where I used hundreds of musicians. I´m not afraid of using a single instrument playing for a minute and a half. For some reason, it works very well. I might use a snare drum with brushes.”
Some of the textural weaves that Badalamenti concocts are somewhat reminiscent of Ennio Morricone´s scores, with odd instruments – a twangy Fender, a lone wind instrument – and the insertion of an ironic wedge between romanticism and radicalism. “I´m really not into that world of film music,” says Badalamenti at the mention of the noted Italian composer. “What that really is is that ´60s Stratocaster guitar thing, but camouflaged. If it sounds like the Morricone world, well that´s great. They guy´s brilliant, a master.
“I always liked Bernard Herrmann. I always liked weaving themes and things that build very slowly. I guess it´s my personality, that I´ve always loved things that are bittersweet. Things can get very melodic, but it never gets sappy. It grabs you without going over the top. A lot of things I write work out that way.”
Angelo Badalamenti Twin Peaks Theme ( Instrumental) 1990