Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Sacred Traditions, Gender, and the Choir that Ate Hot Chili Peppers

By Jacob Sagrans

On December 13, 2017, Danish entertainer Claus Pilgaard (stage name: Chili Klaus) released a YouTube video he made with the Herning Boys Choir, the main church choir in Herning, Denmark. Pilgaard explains that he grew up singing in the choir and is now returning “to add a little extra passion to the music.” He and the choir then begin singing the Christmas carol “O Come, All Ye Faithful” in a rather reserved manner. At the end of the first verse, the mood changes: the conductor holds up a chili pepper, the cue for the singers to take out their own peppers and ingest them. The description for the video alleges that they are ghost peppers, one of the world’s spiciest.<1> As the choir continues to sing, the boys increasingly feel the effect of the peppers: their faces go red, their eyes water, and they cough, pant, grimace, shift weight, and shake in discomfort. By the end of the performance, many are no longer able to sing, although some of the older boys manage to sing loudly and look unfazed. After finishing the carol, the singers frantically run off to get ice cream, milk, and bread in hopes of neutralizing the spice.

In the month after it was released, the video scored nearly 1.4 million views on Pilgaard’s YouTube channel. Classic FM also shared it with 2.5 million Facebook viewers. Popular newspapers, magazines, and websites ran stories on the video, including the Independent, People, and BuzzFeed. The video’s novelty and humor appealed to viewers. I also believe the video resonated by upholding sacred choral traditions, particularly the tradition of all-male sacred singing. In addition to seeing and hearing boys in a church, accompanied by an organ, we witness male bonding and competition through the challenge of singing after eating hot peppers. The stereotypical notion of a “real man” or “real boy” is one who is tough and can withstand pain, and the members of the Herning Boys Choir fit the mold by standing in place and singing (or attempting to sing) until the end of the carol. The choir, then, is not only exclusively male, but the singers behave as expected of boys and men (in other words, they “perform” masculinity in a traditional/stereotypical way). The overwhelming maleness of the choir can assure us that, at least in Herning, the long tradition of all-male sacred singing is continuing, despite greater participation of women and girls in church choirs and religious life as well as increasingly secular societies.

The ways in which the Pilgaard/Herning video evokes issues of gender and religious tradition become more apparent when it is considered in relation to similar depictions of other all-male church choirs. For example, in 2014, The Choir of King’s College, Cambridge released a prank April Fools’ Day YouTube video entitled “King’s College Choir Announces Major Change.” The college chaplain explains the “major change”: due to complex new regulations, the choir can no longer employ underage boy trebles. But thankfully, a chemistry professor came up with an ingenious solution to keep the choir all male—and no, not the surgery that produced the castrati that sang high parts in church choirs and opera in the 17th and 18th centuries. A quartet of undergraduate choral scholars demonstrate the “solution” by singing a verse from Allegri’s Miserere. Before the countertenor’s high C (a challenging note for even child singers and women), he breathes helium from a large yellow balloon, allowing him to reach the note, albeit with a comically squeaky sound. Over 3 million people have viewed this video, making it the choir’s most popular on YouTube. Like the Pilgaard/Herning video, the King’s College video is original and comical. It also draws attention to the all-male nature of the choir, although here the issues of gender and tradition are more explicit. The choir’s exclusion of female singers in an increasingly egalitarian age may be problematic, but the popularity of this video suggests that viewers/listeners value the tradition of all-male sacred singing and want it to continue.<2> Several other depictions of the King’s College Choir also reinforce the sense that the choir’s all-male composition means it embodies longstanding sacred choral traditions and that these traditions “should” be preserved.<3>

The Pilgaard/Herning video and the King’s College video are humorous and creative. They also bring our attention to the choirs’ male personnel and assure us that the tradition of sacred male choral singing is still going strong. It would be worth considering in more depth how all-male sacred choirs project their gender identity to foster a sense of tradition. One could look at other popular portrayals of sacred choirs of men and boys, such as the annual Christmas Eve Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols service sung by the King’s College Choir and broadcast on radio and TV around the world. To what extent are all-male sacred choirs trying to reference concerns about gender and tradition (while also trying to be innovative)? How important are gender and tradition in attracting listeners to these choirs? How do sacred choirs with female singers negotiate concerns that they are breaking with tradition? More research is warranted, but based on what I have found so far, I believe that issues of gender and tradition greatly inform the modern performance and reception of sacred choral music.
<1>Pilgaard later admitted that some of the peppers were milder, specifically the ones given to the youngest boys.
<2>One could also read the King’s College video as saying it would be futile to exclude female singers “at any cost” and maybe someday girls and women will sing in the choir.
<3>See the discussion in my doctoral dissertation, pages 87–96.

Jacob Sagrans studies sacred choral music and traditions, the early music revival, and music and medievalism. In 2017 he received a PhD in musicology from McGill University’s Schulich School of Music, where he wrote his dissertation on “Early Music and the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge, 1958 to 2015.” Jacob has taught music history and music appreciation at McGill, Tufts University, and Brown University. An active chorister, Jacob sings in Coro Allegro, Boston’s acclaimed LGBTQ+ and allied classical chorus. See more here.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Putting it Together: The Anatomy of a Solo YouTube Cover

By William O’Hara

(Source: screen grab from
Flanked by two wrought iron lamps, a young woman sits in the center of the frame. To her right, a large glass holding two fingers of red wine sits among a nest of electronics: a small keyboard, a squat black “harmonizer” box, and a glowing, gridlike MIDI controller. The room is richly textured: with an expansive table of reclaimed wood and the exposed stonework of the wall hovering just out of focus, the woman's surroundings are far removed from the run of the mill "American Room" that often characterized early viral videos: beige, generic, poorly lit, and shot from the upward angle of an open laptop. This is YouTube 2.0, and the production values have risen exponentially.

Yet, as the film rolls, there is a palpable sense of being “before the beginning.” The woman looks askance at a second camera, which bobs as if its tripod is still being adjusted. She speaks into the microphone: “Yup, yup, is this thing on?” The harmonizer splits her voice into cacophony. “Yeah!” she sings triumphantly in response to her own question; given a pitch to grab onto, the black box's voices coalesce into a chord, supporting her cry with a deep bass tone and a piquant minor third.

The young woman is Kawehi (kuh-VEH-hee), a Lawrence, Kansas-based musician. Kawehi’s solo performances layer together loop upon loop, combining her voice with an array of  synthesizers, drum machines, and guitars. While she writes original songs, tours nationally, and has released several records, much of her initial exposure came from a series of well-choreographed videos of recognizable cover songs. Her cover of Nirvana’s “Heart-Shaped Box” went viral in the spring of 2014, garnering extensive online coverage and more than 3 million views between Vimeo and YouTube.

Kawehi’s videos often start by showcasing her process: she builds the song piece-by-piece before it properly begins. The economy of pitches and rhythms used--Kawehi crafts her accompaniment out of only three notes--and the versatility with which those elements can be layered and re-contextualized by altering a single note, reveal the degree to which Kawehi has analyzed the song, paring it down to a skeleton and re-animating it one layer at a time. As shown in the video below, she artfully records the pieces of “Heart-Shaped Box” in reverse, assembling it “in plain sight” (or sound?), but in a manner that obscures what the final product will sound like until it is complete. Beginning with her voice (filtered through the harmonizer), she records the upper voices of the two-chord post-chorus interlude. Next, she fills in its bass notes with the keyboard, and then records the vocal percussion loop that will underpin the entire song. Cutting off her initial loops with a few keystrokes, Kawehi next records backing vocals for the verse (an acapella chant, made eerie by the vocoder’s minor third) and the chorus (the energetic “YEAH!” first heard at the beginning of the video). After recording another synthesized bass line, she performs the song’s famous guitar riff. Finally, with another off-camera keystroke, she silences the thicket of loops she has constructed; Kawehi sings unadorned, and the song as we know it begins.

Kawehi’s cover of “Heart Shaped Box” brings together at least two distinct brands of solo performance: the well-established practice of live looping, and the younger, distinctly YouTube-era trend of “full band” covers executed by single musicians.[1] The former tradition can be traced from fourteenth-century England (which saw performers playing pipes and drums simultaneously, one in each hand), through the more familiar “one (wo)man bands from the late-nineteenth century to the present.[2] With the advent of delay pedals, samplers, and other tools, contemporary carriers of this tradition include pop stars such as Ed Sheeran, the intricate improvisations of Reggie Watts, the layered collages of Zoë Keating, and the multimedia performances of artists Laurie Anderson, and Pamela Z. In fact, Susan McClary’s description of Anderson might well apply to Kawehi:

[H]er compositions rely upon precisely those tools of electronic mediation that most performance artists seek to displace. … most modes of mechanical and electronic reproduction strive to render themselves invisible and inaudible, to invite the spectator to believe that what is seen or heard is real. By contrast, in Laurie Anderson’s performances, one actually gets to watch her produce the sounds we hear. But her presence is always already multiply mediated: we hear her voice only as it is filtered through Vocoders, as it passes through reiterative loops, as it is layered upon itself by means of sequencers. … The closer we get to the source, the more distant becomes the imagined ideal of unmediated presence and authenticity.[3]

Kawehi’s videos also open up onto a separate tradition that has developed on YouTube over the past decade: solo musicians using multitrack recording and visual effects to “clone” themselves into entire ensembles. Searching YouTube for “solo cover” or “solo full band” turns up hundreds of videos. Many of them use Brady Bunch-like tiling, echoing visually the parallel construction of a multitrack recording. They vary widely in the genre (heavy metal and video game soundtracks are particularly popular), and complexity, from guitar/bass/drum combos recorded in bedrooms and basements, to entire acapella choirs and virtual armies of synthesizers and guitars, as in the example below.

As scholars like Kiri Miller and Phillip Auslander have emphasized, musical performances are always a matter of both authenticity AND artifice, particularly when they are being presented digitally.[4] Kawehi presents a kind of cinema verite, letting us see behind the scenes by frequently leaving a few trailing seconds at the beginnings and ends of videos. She sometimes broadcasts live “vlogs” (video blogs) to her fans, such as a 2016 pre-tour video in which she describes all of her equipment, and responds to fan chats in real-time. At the same time, her performances themselves are carefully staged, framed, and lit: polished productions far beyond the casual, bedroom-and-basement fare so common to YouTube.

Pop arrangements are supposed to unspool slowly, over three or four minutes. The introduction showcases the chord progression, and perhaps a hook. The first verse is spartan; harmonies enter at the chorus, if not later. Backup singers, countermelodies, and horns join in. A guitar solo might signal a song’s moment of maximum excitement, while an extended fade-out (often featuring every instrument laying around in the studio that day) seems to imply that the jam could go on forever, if not for the limitations of time and tape.

Kawehi playfully inverts this rising action. Every riff she records is a piece of
Chekov’s Gun, disassembled on the table for cleaning; the entire introduction is a structure of promise that lays bare the anatomy of the song: a musical analysis performed as entertainment. The iconic guitar riff, for example (the first recognizable fragment of the song that we hear), foreshadows the climactic moment of the chorus, when she will sing along with it in unison: a moment made all the more intense because we heard its piecemeal construction earlier in the video. Kawehi manipulates these musical pieces with the nonchalance of an expert, her economical fingers dancing across the neon grid of the MIDI controller. Not a cycle is wasted as she hums and beatboxes, blending mechanical synth pads with the pitch-bent simulacrum of an electric guitar. With her economical use of pitch material and deft manipulation of Ableton, Kawehi acts as much a DJ or a conductor as she does a singer.

Cover songs are ripe for this sort of treatment, and rather than striving for fidelity -- as the complex “full band” covers found elsewhere on YouTube do -- we see in minimalist covers like Kawehi’s, the transformative potential of arrangement. The pleasure of a cover song lies in juxtaposing familiar melodies or well-known lyrics with unfamiliar textures, timbres, or tempos. The frisson of recognition collides vertiginously with an unfamiliar affect, or the unexpected intimacy of an acoustic vocal: a phenomenon also exploited to great effect in movie trailers and comedy acts. In his book Listen: A History of Our Ears (2008), philosopher Peter Szendy evocatively calls this kind of double listening plastic, or even elastic.[5] Indeed it is: in Kawehi’s cover, we can often hear both Nirvana’s original, and her deconstruction of it. The song is stretched, squeezed, and molded into something new. As Kawehi teaches us how to re-listen to a familiar song, the original is left forever changed and enriched.
[1]For more on live looping and other techniques of electronic performance, see Mark Butler, Playing With Something That Runs: Technology, Improvisation, and Composition in DJ and Laptop Performance (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2014).
[2]For more information, see The Continuum Encyclopedia of Popular Music of the World, Volume 2: Performance and Production (London and New York: Continuum, 2003), 48-49.
[3]Susan McClary, Feminine Endings: Music, Gender, and Sexuality (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991), 137.
[4]See Kiri Miller, Playing Along: Digital Games, YouTube, and Virtual Performance (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2012); and Phillip Auslander, Liveness: Performance in a Mediatized Culture (London: Routledge, 2008).
[5]See Peter Szendy, Listen: A History of Our Ears, trans. Charlotte Mandell (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008), 35-39.


William O’Hara is Assistant Professor of Music at Gettysburg College, and taught previously at Tufts University. He received his PhD from Harvard in 2017, and from 2013 to 2016 was an editorial assistant for JAMS.

Monday, December 25, 2017

‘Tis the Season to be Melancholy: Sia’s Everyday Christmas

Justin aDams Burton

Critics haven’t really loved Sia’s album of Christmas originals, Everyday is Christmas. For that matter, neither have listeners, as Everyday’s metacritic score is lagging significantly behind her other albums. Katherine St. Asaph at Pitchfork describes the listening experience as being “like opening a gift where someone’s forgotten to remove the tags.” Rachel Aroesti of The Guardian finds Sia’s vocals “mewling, monotonous,” while at Huffington Post, Sara Boboltz wonders why there wasn’t a copyeditor somewhere who could have spotted the grammatical error in the title (it should be Every Day is Christmas). All of these reviews foreground the speed with which Sia and collaborator Greg Kurstin pumped out Everyday; the singer told Zane Lowe that the album was a two-week project. For these reviewers, it’s not just that the music is disappointing, it’s also that the process was half-baked. They’re disappointed with the album, and they can’t even fall back on the idea that it’s the thought that counts, as Sia admits—brags?—that it was a slapdash job. Though all of these critiques are couched in terms of aesthetics or process, I argue here that the response to Everyday is Christmas is conditioned more by what Christmas does and doesn’t allow us to hear than by the album’s aesthetics.

There’s one more recurring theme in these critical reviews, and the positive ones, too. In each case, Everyday is received as an earnest expression of seasonal joy. And why wouldn’t it be? “Christmas” is, among other things, a tightly-structured system that affords a very narrow range of acceptable emotional output. Joy, wonder, joyous wonder—these all pass Christmas emotional muster. While we pay lip service to the idea that the holidays can be a trying time for people, holiday depression is typically considered deviant, a pathology that needs to be overcome. A recent Huffington Post article offers a few answers to “Why We Get Depressed at the Holidays,” and those answers all ultimately lay the blame on the person who is depressed. You have “unrealistic expectations,” you’re “trying to do too much,” you’re “comparing your insides to someone else’s outsides,” or you’re “slacking on self care.” Yup, you know why you feel shitty during the holidays? Because you’re a lazy good-for-nothing who isn’t taking care of yourself well enough, misering away your self-care energy like some Scrooge. And it’s ruining Christmas for the rest of us.

Our broad social acknowledgement of holiday depression boils down to the idea that Christmas is for happiness, and if you don’t feel happy, well, you’re doing it wrong. In a post on Cyborgology, Jenny Davis describes Facebook’s public analysis of the emotional pitfalls of social media in similar terms, and I think a parallel reading of Facebook alongside Christmas can be a useful way to hear what’s going on in Sia’s album. Davis is unimpressed with Facebook’s conclusion that one’s emotional response to social media platforms is the result of how you use it: “‘It’s how you use it’ is wholly unsatisfying, philosophically misguided, and a total corporate cop-out that places disproportionate responsibility on individual users while ignoring the politics and power of design.” Davis describes these “politics and power of design” as technological affordances, what a user is or isn’t able to do as a result of the way the social platform is designed. An example that Davis offers involves Facebook’s algorithmic bias toward popular content, which pushes users to engage posts and profiles that are already receiving attention and discourages interaction with posts and profiles that don’t already have attention—it’s like a regressive tax for your social media world. Christmas isn’t a technology in the way Facebook is, but it is a multimedia institution that structures the US social world for a solid six weeks each year. And part of Christmas’s structure involves compulsory happiness, that overarching sense that the only emotions afforded us during the season are the joyful ones.

Davis has theorized Facebook’s own methods for enforcing compulsory happiness, and this is where Facebook-as-system and Christmas-as-system diverge: there’s no centralized power center, no Santa CEO who determines Christmas algorithms and rolls out updates that directly shape our interactions with the holiday. Rather, it’s a much looser social negotiation that we all (regardless of whether and how we celebrate Christmas) participate in to some degree. One part of that participation is the listening praxis that surrounds Christmas music: when and where we listen, and how we create meaning through the act of listening. The reviews of Everyday that I opened with demonstrate some of what happens when our listening praxis is conditioned by Christmas’s compulsory happiness. The usual range of possibility that we’d expect—and probably laud—from Sia is cordoned off so that her Christmas album only registers within that narrow band of seasonal joy that compulsory happiness affords. In this context, Sia’s hastily produced offering strikes music critics and listeners alike as something of a failure.

Listening outside Christmas constraints, however, I hear Everyday is Christmas as an album that is about the failure to meet Christmas’s emotional affordances. The failure is a feature, not a bug; it’s the kind of performance one must undertake during the holidays to appear and sound acceptable. To listen in this context is to shift what we can hear. If the vocals are “mewling, monotonous,” it’s because they’re trying to convince us that everything’s totally fine. They add a compensatory “seasonal twinkle,” as Rolling Stone Australia’s Annabel Ross describes it, that provides just enough cover for what is otherwise a more emotionally turbulent collection of songs. I think it’s this tension between the surface-level joy cranked to sometimes ridiculous levels—“Puppies are foreveeeeerrrrrrr!!”—and other visual and aural signifiers which let slip the lie of joy that makes Everyday tricky for listeners and critics. It sounds like a Christmas album full of holiday cheer, fueling our shopping sprees when it blasts through department store speakers, but there’s something just a bit off about it.

Sia released a video trilogy for “Candy Cane Lane,” “Ho Ho Ho,” and “Underneath the Mistletoe” that pulls this tension nearly to its breaking point. A holiday jaunt, a yuletide drinking song, and a Christmas love ballad, respectively, the three tunes hit all of the Christmas emotional affordance marks, and the claymation visuals featuring a smiling little girl with green and red hair tap into a nostalgic aesthetic indebted to seasonal television fixtures like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. The narrative begins whimsically enough, with a girl and her mother decorating their house—presumably on Candy Cane Lane—but things quickly veer into something far darker and more traumatic. The girl spots a snowman stuffing himself uninvited into chimney holes, then follows him into the woods. They play together in the snowman’s house, a tableau that features the snowman turning himself into a shark’s fin and circling the girl as she repeatedly forces smiles to the sounds of Sia’s unhinged drinking song. Finally, the girl makes her way home, and the departure takes on a “Baby It’s Cold Outside” vibe as the snowman encourages her to stay. The return’s soundtrack is “Underneath the Mistletoe,” a grown-person love song that carries none of the innocence of “Candy Cane Lane.” The girl finally emerges from the woods to hug her worried mother, even as the snowman appears the next morning to continue his pursuit.

The visuals do what the album as a whole does: all the surface markers of Christmas joy—snow, candy canes, snowmen, magical houses tucked away in the woods, smiling children—are right there so that a casual viewing or passive listening allows Everyday to register within Christmas’s emotional affordances. Once we listen past the edges of what Christmas affords, though, we can hear a melancholia permeating the album, whether it’s in lyrics like “Santa is Coming for Us” or the vocal performance of “Everyday is Christmas”’s chorus, a slurred repetition of “Everyday is Christmas with you by my side” that sounds more like lament than celebration.

Even that grammatical error in the title makes a little more sense. If one’s everyday existence lacks joy, then Christmas doesn’t afford the ability to feel any differently; instead, it papers over melancholia with shiny bows and the enforcement of compulsory happiness. In this context, Every Day is Christmas would be nothing short of a horror story. The grammar of Everyday is Christmas—in the title and in the album’s sonic aesthetic—captures the mundanity of the everyday, the reality that Christmas is just another time of year to fake a smile and sing about joy at the top of your lungs and vocal range so as not to ruin it for everyone else. Everyday is Christmas is a failure to hold the façade, a rumination on the fact that Christmas is just more of the everyday.

Justin aDams Burton specializes in popular music, race, and gender and is the author of Posthuman Rap (Oxford University Press, 2017).

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Krzysztof Penderecki’s Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima and the Trinity Atomic Bomb Test in Twin Peaks: The Return

By Reba Wissner

When Part 8 of Twin Peaks: The Return aired on Showtime in June 2017, fans and critics alike referred to it as revolutionary. The centerpiece of the episode was an extended scene of the Trinity atomic bomb test in White Sands, New Mexico, accompanied by the entirety of Krzysztof Penderecki’s Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima (1960). While some viewers were not sure how to interpret Lynch’s use of the atomic bomb detonation, others read it as a creation narrative for the demonic BOB (Frank Silva), the spirit who takes over the bodies of various townspeople in order to commit murders in the town Twin Peaks throughout the series. Notably, in this scene, he emanates inside of a black orb from the mouth of a creature known as The Experiment.  This is the first and only time in the series’ three seasons that we see the creation of the town’s personification of evil. Lynch has used Penderecki’s music in the past in some of his films, but here, the use of Threnody musically mirrors, both in sound and topic, the subject of the atomic bomb.

BOB’s Birth in the Orb

The Trinity test occurred on July 16, 1945 and was a part of a larger series of atomic bomb tests that formed the culmination of the Manhattan Project. It is unclear exactly why the test was called Trinity, but it is speculated that the name came from an allusion to John Donne’s Holy Sonnets, to which Oppenheimer was introduced shortly before working on the test [1]. As the first successful detonation of an atomic bomb, the Trinity test opened the floodgates for future atomic bombs that subsequently allowed for the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The atomic bomb has been a symbol for both death and birth, so it is fitting that it is used in the context of the chaos that allowed for BOB’s birth but also as the catalyst for the various murders that he causes in Twin Peaks through the possession of a human host.

The atomic bomb has a dichotomous role in popular culture. On the one hand, it represents the power of man to create. On the other, it represents man’s power to destroy. Upon seeing the Trinity bomb detonate, Dr. Robert J. Oppenheimer’s first words were a quote from the Bhagavad Gita: “I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” Oppenheimer, therefore, assumes the role of a deity that with one thing, the Bomb, he has the power to simultaneously create and destroy. There have been various discourses surrounding the pregnancy, birth, and death symbolism of the atomic bomb. As Evelyn Fox Keller notes, from its inception, the atomic bomb and its testing have been riddled with metaphors for pregnancy and birth with writers of the day using those terms not only in the context of the bomb’s genesis but also how the bomb created events and established mainstays of popular atomic culture [2]. Often, the bomb was credited with the “birth of a new world” [3]. For example, President Truman was notified of the Trinity test’s success with the announcement that “It’s a boy.” According to this account, if the test were a failure, they would have announced “It’s a girl.” [4]

The atomic bomb, and more specifically the Trinity test, plays a crucial role not only as a plot device in The Return but also as an explanation for the personification of evil that inhabits Twin Peaks and leads to Laura Palmer’s murder. The Trinity test scene in The Return, according to David Lynch’s sound supervisor Dean Hurley, is an extreme scene about the collapsing of time [5]. David Lynch remarked in an interview with Pitchfork after The Return ended that the atomic bomb was, in fact, a portal: “One thing or another can open up portals.” [6] In an interview after The Return ended, Lynch was asked whether he always had Threnody in mind to use for the atomic bomb scene. He continued, “I was going to experiment with Angelo [Badalamenti, the series’ composer] but that thing was, in my mind, made to order. I did chop it up a lot so that I could get different sections for the visuals, but it was just meant to be.” [7]

As is well known, Penderecki did not originally give Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima that title. The work was originally titled 8’37” as an homage to John Cage’s 4’33.” The work, composed for 52 strings, is comprised of extended techniques, microtones, and various other Expressionist effects. After the premiere, Penderecki felt that the work would be suited to having an association tied to it and realized that the atomic bombing of Hiroshima would be the perfect solution. He stated, “I was struck by the emotional charge of the work... I searched for associations and, in the end, I decided to dedicate it to the Hiroshima victims.” Four years after the completion of the work, he remarked, “Let the Threnody express my firm belief that the sacrifice of Hiroshima will never be forgotten and lost.” [8]. Given Penderecki’s fascination with historical events associated with trauma, his choice to use Hiroshima is unsurprising [9] Penderecki’s Threnody channels the destruction and chaos caused by the detonation of the atomic bomb at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, especially given the composition’s pre-existing association with the disaster.

What is especially interesting is the way the Trinity Bomb is used here both visually and sonically. The scene opens with a black and white screen with an overlay informing the viewer of the location and the date, followed by the countdown to zero. We then see the detonation and the white flash of light simultaneous with the first notes of Threnody. Given the extreme sound power of an atomic detonation, described by one eyewitness to the Trinity test as having “the quality of distant thunder, but was louder,” it is almost surreal that we cannot hear it explode but only see it while we can hear the countdown; its power is still drowned out by the sound of Penderecki’s non-diegetic score [10]. Randolph Foy has written that the piece’s sense of drama comes from its opposition between “sustained clusters and points of sound” and indeed, these musical oppositions are reflected through vantage point that occurs simultaneously [11]. The camera pans to the INSIDE of the Bomb (a CGI rendering and not the actual footage from the 1946 test), of both the mushroom top and the stem, shifting from its black and white exterior to its colorful interior. These colors reflect first-hand accounts of the Trinity test, with observers remarking on the purples, reds, yellows, and blues that were visible as the Bomb exploded [12]. This unique vantage point is illustrated by the varying timbres of Threnody, from playing between the bridge and the tailpiece and striking the soundboard with the nut of the bow, for example, which are constantly changing throughout the work. By being cognizant of the musical language and techniques in operation at each moment, paired with the visuals, the piece can offer listeners both an exterior as well as an interior listening. With each section of music and timbral change, the image onscreen changes, varying from extreme close-ups to the top of the mushroom cloud to the pulsing and flying of the fallout dust and the rapidly changing colors, thus visually highlighting the piece’s structure.

Like the Bomb’s visual impact, the musical score has a dramatic visual impact. Unlike conventional scores, the music is written using graphic notation consisting of symbols such as squiggles and large blacked out blocks that represent tone clusters. The use of microtones also gives the work a sense of eeriness and otherworldliness, especially combined with the extended techniques and rapid timbral changes. Further, Threnody plays from beginning to end, an unusual directorial choice for a piece as long as this, but given the power represented in this extended scene, it is warranted and serves to amplify the tension present in the visuals.

In this context, BOB’s birth came out of the chaos generated by the Bomb detonation, despite its carefully planned execution. We see that out of the mushroom cloud a figure emerges, one that is dubbed both The Experiment. In the midst of the detonation, which appears to have generated The Experiment, we have a period of silence before we once again see the inside of the mushroom cloud and hear the remainder of Threnody. The Experiment spits out what looks like a series of eggs, one of which bears the face of BOB. This sequence illustrates that the Bomb birthed The Experiment, which then births, among other bizarre creatures (like the frog moth that will hatch later in Part 8), BOB.

This, of course, is not Threnody’s first appearance in film or television, nor is it the first time that David Lynch has used Penderecki’s music prior to Twin Peaks. In this scene, however, he directly channels the association of the music with the visuals in order to make a statement and tell the story of one of Twin Peaks’ most iconic characters. Lynch’s use of Threnody has evocations beyond the association with the atomic bomb that Penderecki intended; that is, the birth of atomic bomb as the birth of evil that haunts the town of Twin Peaks. The title of the piece evokes mourning for the dead so perhaps, in this case, Lynch uses the atomic bomb as a metaphor for the birth of the town’s evil and with the use of Penderecki’s underscore for the scene, Lynch is amplifying the association between scientific chaos and humanity’s creation of evil.

[1] Stephen Hilgartner, Richard C. Bell, and Rory O’Connor, Nukespeak: Nuclear Language, Visions, and Mindset (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1982), 30.
[2] Evelyn Fox Keller, Reflections on Gender and Science (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985), 189.
[3] Peggy Rosenthal, “The Nuclear Mushroom Cloud as Cultural Image,” American Literary History 3, no. 1 (1991), 66.
[4] Carroll Pursell, Technology in Postwar America: A History (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007), 60.
[5] Synchblog, “Q&A with David Lynch’s Music Collaborator Dean Hurley – Part 2: Being Open Creatively and Knowing When to Walk Away,” July 24, 2017, accessed July 30, 2017,
[6] Daniel Dylan Wray, “David Lynch on Bowie and the Music that Inspired the New ‘Twin Peaks,’” Pitchfork, September 19, 2017, accessed September 19, 2017,
[7] Darren Franich and Jeff Jensen, “Talking to David Lynch about Twin Peaks: The Return,” Entertainment Weekly, September 15, 2017, accessed September 17, 2017,
[8] Susan Chaffins Kovalenko, “The Twentieth-Century Requiem: An Emerging Concept (Ph.D. diss., Washington University in St. Louis, 1971), 4.
[9] Adrian Thomas, “Krzysztof Penderecki,” Grove Music Online, November 26, 2003, accessed December 5, 2017,
[10] Robert Serber, Eyewitness Account—Trinity Test, July 16, 1945, U.S. National Archives, Record Group 227, OSRD-S1 Committee, Box 82, Folder 6, “Trinity.”
[11] Randolph Foy, “Textural Transformations: The Instrumental Music of Krzysztof Penderecki, 1960-1973” (D.M.A. diss., Peabody Institute of the John Hopkins University, 1994), 64.
[12] Ferenc Morton Szasz, The Day the Sun Rose Twice: The Story of the Trinity Site Nuclear Explosion, July 16, 1945 (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1984), 86-91.

Reba Wissner is on the music history faculty of Montclair State University. She is currently at work on her third monograph, Music and the Atomic Bomb in American Film and Television, 1950-1969. She is also co-editing a volume on the music and sound design in Twin Peaks with Dr. Katherine Reed, also of this series. See more here

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Optigan Allusions: Sonic Dislocation in The Return

By Frank Lehman

As an ardent fan of Lynch's oeuvre, I have trained myself to relax my critical faculties when watching his films. I prefer to simply surrender to the fantasy, to let the work act on me according to the oneiric terms the creator himself endorses. But music-theoretical habits die hard, and midway through Part 8, my ears perked up when something surprising began piping over the soundtrack: pantriadic chromaticism, the use of simple triads in unconventional progressions and routines, outside the bounds of natural, ‘rational’ tonal syntax.

Pantriadic harmony can seem phantasmagoric, as though steered by its own arcane will, rather than by human hands. Richard Cohn (2012, x) notes its affiliation with “altered and heightened” realities. It is a style tailor-suited for uncanny affects, its basis in familiar sonorities lending it that critical element of familiarity necessary for something to feel truly unsettling.  This harmonic idiom is extremely rare in the Twin Peaks soundworld, and in most forms of commercial and popular music more general. However, it is positively rife in original film and television music, where it often connotes the fantastic, the dreamlike, and the sublime.

What was doubly ear-catching to me was the fact that, rather than being incorporated into non-diegetic underscore as is typical for cinematic pantriadicism, this music was issuing from an on-screen source...

We find ourselves in an ornately appointed parlour, one room within an immense tower situated somewhere in an endless mauve sea. Music can be heard coming from a vintage phonograph player, its exact melodic contours garbled and clouded in mechanical noise. An elegantly dressed woman--"Senorita Dido," according to the end credits--sits motionlessly on a couch, listening intently to the partially-occluded jazz vamp. A large bell-like structure begins sounding an ominous knell, which seems to draw forth the Fireman (identified, with quintessential Lynchian obscurity, as “???????” in the credits). After some slow inspection, he somehow shuts off the mysterious device. The phonograph continues playing. Throughout, no dialogue is uttered, and the scene lasts three and a half minutes.

Senorita Dido's phonograph appears to be some hybrid of industrial ambient music and slinky 1930s instrumental jazz. The record cycles repeated through a glacially paced chordal succession with basically no functional or teleological foundation.[2] The diagram below charts the tonal progress of this cue, if progress is the right word. The music cycles through four "passes" of comparable progressions, beginning with fifth-based transpositions of the initial vamping module, but eventually migrating to more chromatic realms, through functionally unassimilable moves like that between B-flat minor and G-minor. The progression covers a great deal of ground, but never goes anywhere, kind of like the harmonic equivalent to a barber-shop pole illusion.[1]

Harmonic Reduction of Senorita Dido’s Phonograph

The primary effect of the music here is dislocation. The cue has enough trappings of familiar jazz to evoke standard generic associations concerning time-period, sexuality, cosmopolitanism, nostalgia, and so forth. But its aimless, looping pantriadic structure works to contradict—or at least confuse—the clean cinematic connotations of jazz, rendering cryptic what is normally semiotically clear, surreal what is often filmically coded as "realistic." The uncanny implication being, of course, that Senorita Dido has been listening to these nine chords repeat for basically all eternity; the purposeless repetition goes beyond mere minimalistic semantic saturation, verging on the horror of eternal recurrence.

Lynch is an accomplished sound-designer and a talented musician in his own right, but the carefully orchestrated jazz of this cue did not strike me as bearing his specific creative fingerprint. In fact, the pantriadic strains that haunt Dido's parlour are the result of a long chain of musical "repurposings." The cue as it is identified in the episode's credits, "Slow 30s Room," was imported from an album co-composed by Lynch and his frequent collaborator, Dean Hurley: "The Air is on Fire." When taken as a stand-alone listen, "Fire" consists of a continuous industrial ambient soundscape, of which this mutated jazz is only a small part, a tiny concession to triadic harmony near the end of its otherwise thoroughly atonal runtime.

That album, in turn, was assembled from the music Lynch and Hurley composed for an exhibition of the director's visual art in 2007 at the Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain in Paris. Just as in Twin Peaks, the music's purpose was ambient and textural, intended to fill an oddly-appointed physical space, to be explored at a languid pace, with equally unusual sound.

The question remains—since neither Lynch nor Hurley is a jazz-band arranger, where did this music come from originally? The answer lies in a now obscure technology: the Optigan, a fascinating hybrid juke-box/musical instrument created by the Mattel Corporation during a short window in the early 1970s. The Optigan was a marketed as a miniature dance-band for your living-room, its various functionalities evident in this commercial starring TV-dad Carl Betz.

The instrument required proprietary optical soundtrack discs, on which a variety of prerecorded instrument sounds, loops, and vamps could be played back at the press of a key. In addition to a standard organ keyboard, the Optigan included a set of 21 buttons for chord-loops--divided into 7 major, minor, and diminished triads respectively. A given Optigan disc was oriented around a specific musical style or mood, with pre-recorded samples ranging across genres from the "Country Sunshine" to "Latin Fever" to "Bluegrass Banjo"—nothing cutting-edge, stylistically, but music with a certain square, bourgeois charm nevertheless.

The Optigan

The Optigan never seems to have been more than a mid-century domestic novelty.[3] Though the sound-quality was far from crisp, and the electronics were prone to technological malfunctions, it was ahead of its time in numerous respects, predating comparable looping and sampling functions of home-synthesizers by a decade. The kitschy obsolescence of this instrument must have tickled Lynch in just the right way. One could imagine one buzzing away in the background of Dean Stockwell's suburban drug den in Blue Velvet, the instrument of choice of a twisted pater-familias, left chugging so that “there’s always music in the air.”

The particular disc Lynch and Hurley turned to for Dido's parlor is called "Big Band Beat." A quick listen to the various sounds of that proto-sample library (usefully demonstrated here on YouTube) reveals that the nine distinct chords of "Slow 30s Room" correspond to nine right-hand instrumental vamps from the Optigan. These chords are ordered seemingly ad-libitum, and with thick layers of electronic distortion and filtration applied long (long!) after the fact.[4]

Despite his reputation for inscrutability, Lynch is not a purveyor of the 'weird' for its own sake. Rather, his primary modus is to peel away the membrane of the "normal," so as to reveal the strangeness that lurked underneath all along, squirming and hungry. The number of layers being peeled away in this cue is remarkable, and characteristic of the depth of Lynch's work. By the time the big-band Optigan loop makes it to Twin Peaks: The Return, it is a sample-of-a-sample-of-a-sample, each stage further degrading the original meaning (and recording fidelity!) of the loungy jazz that served as its source. Between the meandering chromaticism, the cryptic generic allusions, and the basis in a material object only dimly remembered by most listeners, this strange Optigan ambiance is a perfect embodiment of the Lynchian aesthetic.

[1] Some of the material in this analysis is adapted from my forthcoming book, Hollywood Harmony (OUP, 2018).
[2] Note similar aesthetics of inexplicable looping at play in Sarah Palmer’s living room in Episode 13.
[3] And, if for any reason you’d like to reconstruct Lynch’s creative process with your own fingers, a virtual Optigan has just been released this week for iOS. The app even comes with the “Big Band Beat” proto-sample-library for free.
[4] For the curious, here's what "Big Band Beat" could sound like when performed as intended, to support a more traditionally structured piece of jazzy music, here played by Mattel's leading proponent of the instrument, Johnny Largo.


Frank Lehman is an Assistant Professor of Music Theory at Tufts University. His work on chromaticism in film music will appear in a forthcoming monograph with Oxford University Press. Website HERE

Thursday, December 14, 2017

“Just You and I”: Performance, Nostalgia, and Narrative Space in The Return

By Katherine M. Reed

Part 13 of David Lynch and Mark Frost’s Twin Peaks: The Return approached its close, as had become expected, with a performance at the Roadhouse. As the opening guitar riff began, though, a collective groan rose among Twin Peaks fans. Creator David Lynch, in his perversity, had brought back one of the most mocked musical moments of the original series: James Hurley’s heartfelt throwback, “Just You.”

This musical performance was just one of many gigs at the Twin Peaks hotspot in The Return. Most episodes were marked by a final performance on the stage of the Roadhouse; most of these came from bands who exist in our own world, not just the fictitious narrative of the show. These Roadhouse scenes received a fair amount of fan attention<1>: did these vignettes have secret meanings? Just what was going on at the Twin Peaks Roadhouse?

Though this string of musical performances is diverse and resists easy interpretation, we can see each of them as serving an important narrative purpose. Here, with “Just You,” Lynch and Frost open up the world of Twin Peaks, questioning our nostalgic view of the town and the show, and bringing it much closer to our own world. Lynch is tapping into a favorite trope throughout his oeuvre: the performance of a familiar song by characters within the diegesis.<2> Typically providing us with an onscreen surrogate through whom to understand the performance, Lynch plays with our connections to the selected pre-existing music while giving us a lens through which to make sense of the scene and to enter more deeply into the narrative world of the work.<3> As Kathryn Kalinak has noted of the original Twin Peaks, the series’ music “gains its power by activating powerful conventions embodied in these models [film and television] and then both transgressing and reconstructing them.”<4> The Return plays with the expectations set by the original series, drawing on twofold nostalgia (for the song and the era it represents, and for the show itself) to complicate our experience.

Of course, The Return can be watched and enjoyed without previous knowledge of the show’s original run. I would argue, though, that Lynch and Frost seem to have conceived of this revival as existing in dialogue with their earlier work. In visual allusions, character interactions, and reused footage, The Return makes itself very difficult to watch without reference to the 1990-91 episodes. Twin Peaks has long been concerned with the passage of time (“I’ll see you again in 25 years”<5>), and this focus continues through Mark Frost’s summation of the show’s history to this point in The Final Dossier.<6> Given this, I approach this scene from the position of a repeat viewer of the show, drawing connections among episodes, though I acknowledge that this is not the sole possible spectator position.

The original “Just You” is sung in the second season of Twin Peaks by James, Donna Hayward (Lara Flynn Boyle), and Maddie Ferguson (Sheryl Lee). Singing in the Hayward living room, the three perform for no audience but each other. The song is presented as a simple (if melodramatic) expression of teenage love, and its musical expression is built to match. “Just You” begins with a simple guitar riff that will serve as the counter-melody for James’ repetitive vocal line in the first verse. At the end of the verse, a bass line and spare drum set accompaniment enter, though neither instrument is present in the scene. The girls also join with echoing vocal interjections that flesh out a bit of sparse harmony. The sound of the song is unnatural, with vocal echoes on James’ line and phantom instruments. It intentionally sounds like a transmission from the past in its doo-wop style.<7> In line with the song’s lyrical content, the scene shows the growing feelings Donna has for James, brought to the fore by James’ love song. As Michel Chion notes, James and Donna are both characters whose legibility as types allows them to “enable identification” for the audience and draw us deeper into their drama.<8> Lynch’s careful use of reaction shots<9> (see chart below) accomplishes much the same.

In The Return, the song operates differently, both evoking and challenging its original presentation, though the sound itself remains exactly the same. We witness “Just You” through the eyes of an underdeveloped character, Renee (Jessica Szohr), whose backstory is unknown. Given the lack of information about the character, we are unable to identify with her engagement in the performance. Rather, we can see her reaction as a reflection of Donna’s, and the performance as an echo of the original. The end result is that, rather than being drawn deeper into the insular diegesis of the show, we are forced to confront these performances as existing in our own world. At the Roadhouse, we as audience members are witnessing performances of songs we may know, by their original performers, in a space which seems to transgress the boundaries of Twin Peaks’ narrative as we have come to know it. Lynch embraces the idea of the Roadhouse as a liminal space, but here it is a space between the reality of The Return and our own reality.

“Just You” illustrates this liminality perfectly. First, the sound of the song: The Return uses the same recording from Season Two, as many online commenters immediately noticed. Indeed, James Marshall himself was surprised at Lynch’s reuse of the recording without any editing. Just as Mark Mazullo has described in the original iteration, this recording again makes its remove from live performance felt very clearly. In this new performance, there’s yet another remove: the presence of our memory of the original, and this performance’s very direct doubling of it.

That doubling is not only musical, but also visual. Accompanying James on stage are two young brunette singers, dressed in cardigans and strikingly reminiscent of Donna and Maddie. More than that, though, Lynch frames this sequence to subvert our expectations, built from our repeated experience of the original.

As the chart below shows, Lynch shoots the opening of the performance similarly: showing James performing, and his love interest responding. It’s in the second verse, though, that The Return forces us to confront the falseness of our nostalgic reading. Lynch gives a wide shot of the entire stage, revealing the Maddie and Donna dopplegängers. We’re confronted with an image of James, aged more than 25 years since the original, as we hear his voice from the 1990 recording and see the reflection of his former youthfulness in the female singers. It’s here that Lynch inserts wide shots of the audience, dark and anonymous, further shattering the illusion that we could somehow witness the return of the childlike, intimate original performance. In conjunction with Renee’s incongruously intense crying, we are unable to enter the scene by identifying with her and are instead left to grapple with the distance from which we, and The Return, regard the memory of Twin Peaks.

It’s fitting that this performance comes in this particular episode. Though The Return was deeply concerned with nostalgia and the passage of time, Episode 13 in particular reminds us, in each storyline, of the disruption caused to our memory of Twin Peaks by the passage of time. A stultified Agent Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) shows a glimmer of recognition at the smell of coffee and the sight of cherry pie – but that glimmer is soon snuffed. Big Ed Hurley (Everett McGill) and Norma (Peggy Lipton) appear to have finally found a way to be together when we see them at the Double R Diner—but it quickly becomes apparent that they’re still just friends. Even the Double R’s legendary cherry pie isn’t safe from the ravages of time, as Norma’s new business partner tells her it’s simply not profitable anymore. Throughout The Return, Lynch and Frost shatter our nostalgic view of the original Twin Peaks, but it is in this Roadhouse performance that the passage of time, in Twin Peaks as in the real world, is most clearly communicated, and our nostalgia for the Twin Peaks of our memory is questioned.
<1>For more on the Twin Peaks online fan community, see Henry Jenkins, “’Do You Enjoy Making the Rest of Us Feel Stupid?’:, the Trickster Author, and Viewer Mastery,” in Fans, Gamers, and Bloggers: Exploring Participatory Culture (New York: New York University Press, 2006), 115-133.
<2>Gene Willet has discussed Lynch’s use of popular music as a catalyst for the shift into Lacanian fantasy. See, for example, Gene Willet, “Popular Music as Fantasy in David Lynch,” in Popular Music and the New Auteur: Visionary Filmmakers After MTV, ed. Arved Ashby (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 87-108.
<3>For more on this practice in Lynch’s films, see Katherine Reed, “’We Cannot Content Ourselves with Remaining Spectators’: Musical Performance, Audience Interaction, and Nostalgia in the Films of David Lynch,” Music and the Moving Image 9, no. 1 (Spring 2016): 3-22.
<4>Kathryn Kalinak, “’Disturbing the Guests With This Racket’: Music and Twin Peaks,” in Full of Secrets: Critical Approaches to Twin Peaks, ed. David Lavery (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1995), 83.
<5>Link to clip from season 2 finale:
<6>See, for example, Mark Frost, Twin Peaks: The Final Dossier (New York: Flatiron Books, 2017), “Interoffice Memorandum, September 7, 2017.”
<7>James Marshall notes that the song was essentially composed on set as a collaboration between Angelo Badalamenti, David Lynch, and himself. See Pieter Dom, “How David Lynch, Angelo Badalamenti, and James Marshall Wrote James Hurley’s ‘Just You,’” Welcome to Twin Peaks, August 13, 2017. Accessed October 21, 2017.
<8>Michel Chion, David Lynch, translated by Robert Julian (London: BFI Publishing, 2006), 101.
<9>For more on Lynch’s manipulation of reaction shots, see Chion, David Lynch, 177-179.
Katherine Reed is an assistant professor of musicology at California State University, Fullerton. Her research interests include musical semiotics, the use of pre-existing music in film, and British popular music, particularly David Bowie’s works of the 1970s. Reed’s work has appeared in Music and the Moving Image, The Avid Listener, and the Society for American Music’s Digital Lectures series. Her current book project, Hooked to the Silver Screen: David Bowie and the Moving Image, is supported by a research fellowship at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame library and archive.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

There’s Always Music in the Air: Sound Design in Twin Peaks: The Return

By Brooke McCorkle

David Lynch has always walked the fine line between painter and cinema director, and I believe we can attribute another title to his name: sound artist. Lynch, who has recorded two studio albums of his own, regularly participates in development and placement of sound in his films. For example, in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (FWWM) he personally calibrated sound levels when mixing the music. As explained in a New York Times interview, Lynch’s involvement with sound design continued with the unexpected and welcome extension of the Twin Peaks story in 2017’s The Return. Throughout the season’s eighteen episodes, ostensibly diegetic sounds are hyper-rendered; that is, they are not faithful reproductions of realistic sound.  Instead, sounds are manipulated (rendered) to evoke the desired feelings, emotions, and affects of the given situation. Hyper-rendering itself is not an uncommon technique; it is a staple of horror films and avant-garde cinema. Twin Peaks: The Return fuses these genres in terms of sound as much as narrative, a combination Lynch rehearsed in previous works ranging from Eraserhead (1977) to Mulholland Drive (2001).

Yet the sound design in The Return stands apart from the previous two seasons of Twin Peaks. Most notably, the specificity of the sound rendering marks effects as playing a significant aural role relevant to the narrative. That is, these sounds are hyper-rendered not just for an ephemeral “jump scare” moment, but rather are in service of the story and/or the overarching aesthetic of the Twin Peaks world. Lynch paints his apocalyptic portrait as much in sound (and in music, as Reba will discuss) as he does in visuals and in dialogue (a kind of sound object as well, especially when treated by Lynch). The hyper-rendering endows sound with an element of viscerality; it feels real, tangible, plastic. Sounds such as the buzz of electricity, the repetition of a bit of dialogue on television, the rumble of an atomic bomb all, despite being just vibrations in the air, certainly have tangible effects on the human bodies of auditor-spectators. The viscerality of these hyper-rendered sounds thus reinforce the corporeality of the audience as well as the characters. The people of Twin Peaks feel more real to us because the sounds feel more real. And perhaps none are more real than Laura, the tortured sweetheart, the dark woman, the damned daughter. The unnatural sounds of a distorted diegesis as exemplified in the many Black Lodge scenes are the very incarnation of the wrongness of Laura’s life and death. Hints of this slip into the real world of Twin Peaks in the form of everyday sounds like near-omnipresent electric humming. If we don’t listen, these seem fine, common, normal. But attending to them reveals a twisting of the real world into something surreal.

Lynch and his team’s creative use of mixing works to musicalize sound effects, allowing them to enter the “fantastical gap” as outlined by Robynn Stilwell.<1>  The blurring between the real and the fantastic is a Lynchian aesthetic prominent in many of his works, including The Return. In other words, sound punctures the boundary between the “real” sound of the diegetic world and the “fantastic” sound of the non-diegetic realm. For the remainder of this essay, I want to focus on one specific sound effect that illustrates this porosity: Electricity.

Why electricity? It is an effect that fascinates Lynch, as evidenced by his response to a fan at a Cambridge, MA screening of Inland Empire. Electricity is a striking effect in FWWM, and works in a sense to bring the film’s aesthetic into the televisual episodes of The Return. It is an effect that permeates the overall soundscape regardless of the location—the Great Northern Hotel, small-town trailer parks, Las Vegas, suburban homes, diners, bars, morgues, and middle-of-nowhere roads. The aural effect is ever-present, yet rarely is the source of it completely revealed. Almost anything can produce the sound of electric buzzes, whether it is a low humming or whiny whirr; thus, the sound is suggested but  unlocatable. That is, there are many possible sources, but in the many instances where the effect is present not one definitive source can be singled out. By hyper-rendering the sound of electricity, Lynch compels auditor-spectators to question the electrical sources. We may search for the sound source, but our hunt is as hopeless as Ben and Beverly’s similar pursuit for the source of a mysterious sound in the Great Northern hotel.

Occasionally, however, electricity does seem to be emitted by specific sources. Pole number 6 is an example of this. It appears in FWWM as well as in Episode 6, after a little boy’s death in a hit and run. The pole also appears in the final episode, in front of the house of Carrie (Laura Palmer’s alternate-reality twin) in Odessa, Texas. And while there are numerous theories about the relationship between these appearances of pole number 6, there are no definitive answers to its location nor to why its sound is so prominent, so loud in the mix. Electricity in a sense is transitory, as it is rooted in energy. It can travel distances, even planes of existence in Lynch’s world. This quality links it to the evil of the dark lodge, Bob, and Judy. Like electricity, the evil is transitory, or to put it better, transmigratory. Bob is a metempsychotic spirit, as is (I suspect) Judy.

But good can also be linked to electricity and mobility as much as evil. In Episodes 15-16, Agent Cooper finally returns thanks to a jolt of electricity brought on by his (alter-ego/former-future tulpa) Dougie Jones sticking a fork into an electrical socket. In this scene, maybe we can better understand the sound of electricity as a characteristic of this invisible ether, an amoral tool for spirits beyond the tangible world. Indeed, electricity is something a bit magical. We observe its effects in lights, appliances, and such, but we never see the thing itself. To touch it is to invite pain and even death. Perhaps by emphasizing the hyper-rendered sound effect of electricity, Lynch is asking us listeners to consider how invisible forces act upon us humans in the reality of our existence.

In Episode 14, Lynch’s character Gordon Cole recalls his dream with Monica Belluci, “We are like the dreamer who dreams, and then lives inside the dream...But who is the dreamer?” The sound design is what puts us as auditor-spectators inside the dream of the Twin Peaks world; if we listen, we can hear sound as both real and fantastic, and we become both the dreamer and the resident of dreams. Sound is the vehicle for slippage between reality and dreams in Twin Peaks. And the hyper-rendering of effects like electricity, with the affect of anxiety, lingers long after we leave our screens for the mundane. As Lynch proves, an uneasy dream slipping into reality is still better than no dream at all.

<1>Robynn Stilwell, “The Fantastical Gap Between Diegetic and Nondiegetic,” in Beyond the Soundtrack: Representing Music in Cinema, edited by Daniel Goldmark, Lawrence Kramer, and Richard Leppert (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007), 184–202.

Brooke McCorkle is an opera and film music scholar. She is currently a Visiting Assistant Professor of Musicology at SUNY-Geneseo. Her published and forthcoming works address topics as varied as Star Trek Concerts, Wagner reception in Japan, and ecological critiques in monster cinema. Please see here for more information.