The return of Twin Peaks and Angelo Badalamenti’s iconic score highlight the seismic shift in the television medium, and its music, over the last 25 years.
A few months ago, I braved a desolate winter evening in Hobart, joining the Dark Mofo flock to witness Xiu Xiu Plays the Music of Twin Peaks. Both levels of the grungy Odeon Theatre were littered with listeners, all poised to watch the band take its place on the stage.
A short video clip was projected on a screen above: it showed a ceiling fan in the home of Laura Palmer (Twin Peaks’ main character and mystery), spinning into infinity. At once, the image typified the never-ending routine of suburbia; the downward spiral that leads to the hellish Black Lodge; and the way that Twin Peaks has, after 25 years, come full circle and returned to our screens with the same energy it had in the beginning.
By itself, the fan is little more than a regular household object – but when combined with the music of Twin Peaks, it instantly places us into a familiar world; a world we’ve welcomed into our homes, yet journeyed beyond them to experience in this physical environment.
All of which begs the question: why would anyone come to see live music from a TV show almost three decades old?
Angelo Badalamenti’s score for Twin Peaks was one of the first truly iconic television soundtracks, offering an ethereal escape into David Lynch’s fictional world. Having materialised in the darkness through Xiu Xiu’s dangerously engrossing performance, the music now carries with it a sense of nostalgia for the people we used to be when we first tuned in – especially when it blasts into our psyche at a damaging dynamic. But the show’s return to our screens also marks a broader shift in our viewing habits – and, though 25 years old, the function of its score still guides the direction of music composed for television today.
Think about it: when was the last time you went to the movies, and the soundtrack set your spine tingling? When it forced you to latch onto every note? When you couldn’t get it out of your head for days? When your friends would recognise it when you whistled (and perhaps felt compelled to join in)?
Ask someone to hum you a film soundtrack, and the default responses will most likely come from modern classics Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings. But even these major cinema franchises have scores – addictive and high-impact as they are – whose foundations are based on formulae built by their renowned composers long ago. The Hollywood blockbuster sound – the cinematic sound. But what does cinematic composition mean?
John Williams’ film composition career began in the 1950s. To put this into perspective, the Juilliard School of Music-trained composer had, in his early days, worked with Bernard Herrmann – one of the strongest influences in cinematic scoring (having composed so many of Hitchcock’s films, including the infamous Psycho soundtrack). Today Williams’ Jaws theme is instantly recognisable, its two-note motif blatantly replicating the suspenseful opening of Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9, fourth movement. And thinking back to Williams’ music in Star Wars, the ‘Imperial March’ is a close match with Holst’s ‘Mars’ (The Planets). Howard Shore, by comparison, draws on Germanic classical influences in Lord of the Rings – the nationalistic horn calls in the Two Towers’ lighting of the beacons are unforgettably rousing. What all this music has in common, along with that of the James Horners and the Hans Zimmers and the Thomas Newmans of the composition world, is that their cinematic themes are intrusive, memorable, and draw on symphonic styles of the great composers.
These cinematic themes are intrusive, memorable, and draw on symphonic styles of the great composers.
Cinematic soundtracks peaked when Hollywood had its peak – decades-long as this peak may have been. But now? We’ve heard it all before. We’ve seen it all before. Just think of the brassy BRAMMs – often followed by steeply ascending strings – that appear in countless action and thriller film trailers (and are enough to make us roll our eyes – even Zimmer, who kickstarted the once-suspenseful effect, can’t handle it). We don’t need to go to the cinema to spend exorbitant amounts of money on a two-hour film and box of stale popcorn to witness another masterpiece interwoven with a less-impressive-than-before score. Cinema attendances (at least for major-studio blockbusters) are in decline, while on-demand viewing is experiencing a rapid rise. Concurrently, it’s being argued that we’re in a golden age of television. Quite simply, we’ve largely chosen to forgo the live cinema experience in exchange for microwaving some popcorn and bingeing on Netflix series in our PJs. And while this might not sound especially romantic, it highlights an essential change in the function of the score. Because if streaming takes over cinema, soundtracks are going to need to follow suit.
Listen to an old TV soundtrack – Happy Days; The Brady Bunch – and the theme will transport you back to an era when a show was slotted into the day’s schedule. The music heralded the kids’ arrival home from school, or the time to start putting dinner in the oven. The opening tunes to shows as varied as I Dream of Jeannie, Seinfeld, and The X-Files signify a traditional pattern of television scoring: each offering instantly recognisable jingles that lay an explicit foundation for a series’ atmosphere through a catchy intro sequence. But when the soft synths of Twin Peaks first seeped from the muffled speakers of ‘90s households, it revolutionised the way we listen to television.
The music of Twin Peaks created a new and surreal soundscape, because the show introduced a new and surreal space in our TV program. The music was intertwined with the narrative – encompassing a calming, progressively angelic melody that sinks into oblivion; an anticipation of perfection that never resolves because it can never be reached.
The series has returned to us at the right time, and Badalamenti along with it. As music for television now draws on influences from across time and nation to create its ideal world, it is the responsibility of the show’s composer to build a relationship with binge-watchers who spend hours upon hours inside these worlds. These days, when a composer writes for television, they cannot simply write a trusty theme song. They should follow the path laid by Angelo Badalamenti and write a score that fuels the narrative, its characters, and helps to design place.
These days, when a composer writes for television, they cannot simply write a trusty theme song.
Take recent Golden Globe-winning series Downton Abbey, for instance. Composer John Lunn creates a theme that appears fitting from the outset when laid against a visual montage of vintage British living – tea on the stove, servants’ bells, and window shutters. But why does it work? Because Lunn grasps the essence of the culture this series celebrates, and weaves the theme into the characters’ lives.
Opening with a tense bed of rhythmically driven strings, the piano enters – independent, cutting through the mesh with a simple-but-bold theme. It’s highly structured and while appearing strong, it also hints at warmth and romance. This feeling deepens as we gradually form a bond with the characters and understand their souls beyond cold exteriors (Lunn’s score referencing a recurring stereotype of the stiff-upper-lipped British, identifiable throughout popular culture). But even more, we can understand Lunn’s piano melody as the abbey itself – the strings representing the energy and tension that flurries under the surface, while adhering to a structure that enables the home (the piano) to stand proud.
Comparing the sophistication of Downton Abbey in spirit and music to contemporary American television series House of Cards may seem like a stretch, but the score functions in the same way. Here, composer Jeff Beal places viewers in the dark underworld of Washington, DC. Commanding, regal horns and military snare drum hint at patriotism, pride, and tradition – while the minor strings and contemporary, electric bass line that jumps between two notes (their interval a minor third, associated with darkness) break the order. The bass undercurrents add tension, and a sense that we are constantly on the verge of something. Visually, it’s offset by time-lapses of the political capital that alternate between glistening city lights, and grungy structures that appear only when we look a little closer. It’s the perfect marriage of order and chaos, but the level to which it disturbs only grows obvious when we watch the series loyally; when we build our relationship with the soon-to-be President of the United States, Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) – and realise over countless viewing hours just how dark this character (and the bass) is, below the surface.
Good television must be world-building in and of itself. But when it features a soundtrack that enters our own world and becomes part of our daily lives – music we share and actively help to create and perpetuate – that’s effective television.
Type ‘game of thrones theme remix’ into YouTube, and you’ll be prompted to watch fan-made remixes in the styles of house, trance, dubstep, power ballad, and just about any other genre you could conjure. Ramin Djawadi’s theme isn’t all that complex – in fact, by cinematic standards, it’s simplistic and understated. Perhaps more impressive than the melody itself is the way it appears throughout the episodes: subtle variations in instrumentation, speed, and extraction of handpicked notes are scattered over the narrative to help us identify moments crucial to the plot, or character revelations (such thematic appearances of the score can be compared to Wagner’s leitmotifs: melodies attached to specific elements of the production). It’s a highly versatile theme, and once it has its grip, it embeds itself into your mind. Such was the case for royalty – real royalty – when Queen Elizabeth II’s guards performed the theme outside Buckingham Palace. The filmclip has been watched more than 8 million times by Game of Throne fans across the world.
Similarly, more than 1 million fans tuned into this inventive arrangement of the theme, performed in an infamous New York jazz club (after which, the musicians bond with the audience over a chat about the series). You couldn’t buy this sort of fan-driven marketing.
Television series have become part of our contemporary lives, in which we balance our screen selves with our physical selves. That the Game of Thrones theme has surpassed these virtual and physical boundaries is a signifier of our dual identities. And it is equally relevant on the opposite side of the coin. Lynch’s decision for the new Twin Peaks to include contemporary bands playing their original hits – Nine Inch Nails, Au Revoir Simone – challenges our perception of where the fictional world ends and the ‘real’ world begins. The return of Twin Peaks and its soundtrack marks a turning point in television scoring – from cinematic to streamamatic.
On first listen, Netflix-era soundtracks may not provide instantly memorable musical themes. It’s only after we continue watching and listen again, and again, and again – associating the music with our characters, understanding the way a particular instrument attaches itself to the narrative – that the music emerges in our consciousness and starts to take hold. Television scores may not be epic or ambitious in the same way as those in Hollywood blockbuster releases, but they have a far stronger and more understated presence among the hundreds of hours we choose to dedicate to television in our inescapable binge-watching existences.