On my last trip to New York, some friends took me to a favorite new-wave Chinese place of theirs. When I asked where to find the bathroom, they said to go downstairs. The staircase deposited me into one of the most surreal bathroom approaches I’ve ever experienced: a long, narrow, fully mirrored hallway with a hauntingly familiar composition piped in from speakers installed along its length. Not until I resurfaced and asked what the deal was could I identify the music: the “Love Theme” from David Lynch’s early-1990s television series Twin Peaks.
Many TV themes have lodged themselves into our collective memory, mostly through sheer repetition, but few have retained as much evocative power as the one Lynch’s composer, Angelo Badalamenti, recorded for his short-lived postmodern detective show.
It had that power from the moment Badalamenti put his fingers to the keyboard, a story told in the clip above. “What do you see, David?” he remembers asking the director as he sits down before the very same Fender Rhodes on which he composed Twin Peaks‘ major themes all those years ago. “Just talk to me.”
“We’re in a dark woods,” Badalamenti recalls Lynch first saying. “There’s a soft wind blowing through sycamore trees. There’s a moon out, some animal sounds in the background. You can hear the hoot of an owl. Just get me into that beautiful darkness.” Badalamenti plays as he played then, which drew an immediate response from Lynch: “Angelo, that’s great. I love that. That’s a good mood. But can you play it slower?” With the feedback loop between the scene in Lynch’s mind and the mood of Badalamenti’s music engaged, Lynch added a detail: “From behind a tree, in the back of the woods, is this very lonely girl. Her name is Laura Palmer.”
Badalamenti lightens his improvisation in a way that makes it somehow eerier. “That’s it!” The composer and the director play off one another’s ideas, almost like two long-collaborating musicians in a jam session. “She’s walking toward the camera, she’s coming closer… just keep building it! Just keep building it!” Eventually, they’ve created an entire rising and falling dramatic arc in this single piece of music (arguably more dramatic than the one created by the series itself, which Lynch left after two seasons). “David got up, gave me a big hug, and said, ‘Angelo, that’s Twin Peaks‘” — and to this day, a part of the culture.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.