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

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