Perspective: The Staggering Beauty within the Music of Twin Peaks
Jamie Stewart is a writer and musician who, among his many projects, is perhaps best known for his work with the experimental band Xiu Xiu. The band are performing the music from the Twin Peaks soundtrack on tour. Here, Stewart discusses the genius of the soundtrack and the way in which it affects viewers emotionally.
If you know and have lived the music of Twin Peaks, I think there will be nothing new here, as it will have already scorched, fingered, brutalised and colonised your little heart into a grim, delighted and understanding servant. If not, perhaps, onward…
This year, through a friendship with sound artist Lawrence English, a fortuitous turn of events and good luck, my band Xiu Xiu had been asked by Master Curator Jose DaSilva to perform the music of Twin Peaks at the GOMA Museum in Brisbane. As deep fans since our childhoods, all three of us knew how stunning the main works were. But it was not until we learned to play them and were faced with the challenge of trying to arrange them that their even deeper greatness emerged from behind the trees.
But even without playing them, it is apparent right away that Angelo Badalamenti and David Lynch are operating on another level. They graced the regular old network TV stratosphere with confidence in us all as a listeners. They knew we were able to be moved by music that is ambiguous, dramatic, melodramatic and unbearably fraught. It is their belief in us, I think, that is so much a part of what rouses our own devotion to them.
The opening theme (also reworked to varying degrees as Love Theme Farewell, Falling, Laura’s Palmer’s Theme and other variations) holds in it the fateful spring reverb, tremolo-laced baritone guitar riff – root / 4th / root / 2nd. How they wrapped so much longing, so much 1950s post-war trauma, so much romance, so much fear and so much mystery into such a simple refrain is the definition of genius in music.
All of the pieces operate in this way. We had no idea how simple they were. It stupefied us that the songs were generally just two or three repeating chords with very basic inversions. But they are placed and juxtaposed with each other in such as way as to be unlike anything else. There is almost nothing happening technically in that phrase or most of the others, but you feel it so deeply.
The lyrics are almost not there at all. They reprise lines or offer up only one non-linear central image, yet cause your heart to bloom in a sorrow and a plangent anxiety that would otherwise take 700 pages of your grandmother’s fading colonial-era teenage diary. “Falling, Falling, Falling, Falling, Are we Falling in Love?” That is it. The chords, melodies and lyrics with the slightest, gossamer gestures are magnificently effective from an emotional standpoint.
In its technical simplicity, the music also does something very complex. Unlike nearly all television and most film music, it never tells you to feel one overriding emotion in overblown or blandly direct ways. It does not really tell you anything, but rather it challenges you to feel many things all at once. It allows you to be you and never coddles or insultingly guides you to a single destination. But at the same time, it remains relevant to the penetration, confusion and bizarreness of what is happening in the story.
Finally the timbres they chose, the synth strings, the twanging chorus pedal guitars, analog noise generation, lounge jazz rhythm sections and quasi-classical piano WITH the unique singing voices of Julee Cruise and Jimmy Scott. MAMMA MIA!
The creativity behind these choices is staggering. None of this should fit together but essentially, they created a genre. You could write your own records now with this sound and say you were a Twin Peaks band in the same way you could say you are a post-punk or synth-pop band. It would be a valid artistic direction and with certain ebbs in tide now and then but still, a timeless one.
TV soundtracks never and movie soundtracks very, very rarely succeed beyond bolstering the plain or filling in the gaps of a beginning, middle and an end. To have written one that became in its own right as powerful, touching and terrorising as one of the most powerful, touching and terrorising series of all time is such an accomplishment. Angelo and David, thank you for changing us, thank you trusting our own imaginations and thank you for teaching us what art can be.
The UK dates of the “Xiu Xiu plays the music of Twin Peaks” tour begin at The Lantern, Bristol, 3 October