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.

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