Suffering from a case of middle age, I recently decided to learn the piano as an adult. The lesson I played on Monday was the theme from “Twin Peaks” — well, the idiot-proof, one-hand version that my iPad teaching app prepared for me, built around that low, hypnotic pattern. Bum bommm. Bum BOMMM.
Later that day, in the sort of coincidence that seems to happen only in dreams and in small, spirit-afflicted logging towns in Washington, came news that the song’s composer, Angelo Badalamenti, had died at age 85.
Badalamenti was a classically trained composer with a long résumé, including the scores for David Lynch’s “Blue Velvet” and “Mulholland Drive.” But his memory is secured by those mesmeric notes, which opened the red curtains on Lynch and Mark Frost’s eerie mystery, and which stand above and apart from most music written for television like an ancient evergreen in an old-growth forest.
In a recent list of the 100 greatest TV themes ever, Rolling Stone ranked “Twin Peaks” at 35. It would be unfair to use Badalamenti’s passing to dunk on that choice. (Counterpoint: Come on.) But whether or not it is the best theme of all time, it may be the most otherworldly, the most unlike anything that came before it.
TV themes before 1990, when “Twin Peaks” premiered, tended to be come-ons or introductions. They whipped up a sense of excitement and adventure, like the theme from “Mission Impossible.” Or they outlined characters and told a story, like Waylon Jennings’s “Good Ol’ Boys” from “The Dukes of Hazzard.”
Badalamenti’s theme is not a synopsis. It is not a fanfare. It is a passageway, a portal. It is slow, spare and meditative, even by the relatively languid TV pacing of three decades ago. It tells you to reset your pulse, abandon your expectations and step for an hour into a dark wood where the owls are not what they seem.
That opening motif seems to be plucked on the strings of an instrument that no human ever played, because in a way it is. According to Badalamenti, it began as a sample on a synthesizer, pitched lower and doubled with another guitar sound. “There’s no synth that has that sound, and it’s much too low to be an electric guitar, and it’s not a bass,” Badalamenti told Vulture in 2016. “We kept that quiet because we didn’t want anyone else to use it.”
The resulting sound is simultaneously twangy and chthonic. It seems to vibrate from the earth, from your bones, from inside a tree trunk. It is, like the series, both filled with ghostly dread and saturated with romantic emotion.
The theme couples that figure with a wash of dreamy synthesizers. Their interplay sets up contrasts that Lynch and Frost built into their supernatural murder mystery. It’s spooky but also naïve. It’s retro, with echoes of a rockabilly riff, and space-age. (The synthesizers, the critic John Rockwell wrote in The Times in 1990, “invest everything with an electronic glow, as if the music were radioactive.”)
The music for “Twin Peaks” had to make realistic and surrealistic sense. It needed to work in a cherry-pie all-American diner and in the anteroom of the underworld. Badalamenti met the challenge in his playful and minimal score for the rest of the series, from the wistful “Laura Palmer’s Theme” to the seductive “Audrey’s Dance” to the jazzy, twitchy “Dance of the Dream Man.”
The score played with Americana and pop history, but despite coming out at the dawn of the age of TV irony — “Seinfeld” had premiered a year before — it never winked. Like “Twin Peaks” itself, it meant what it said, even if you could spend your life grasping after that meaning.
When Lynch and Frost brought “Twin Peaks” back for a revival in 2017, it was in many ways a different series with a different sound: even more gorgeously and truculently experimental, with an audio palette that leaned heavily on Lynch’s eerie, mechanical sound textures.
But as the opening sequence began, there it was again: Bum bommm. Bum BOMMM. TV series are rituals, and those opening notes feel quasi religious, like an “om,” the one true bass line thrumming under eternity.
Those notes live somewhere deep in my brain; I could feel that as I clumsily plunked them out on my piano. This is the power of a great theme: However disorienting things might get, on the screen or in life, you can always return to that musical mantra. Angelo Badalamenti is gone now. But his song remains, pulling me ever deeper into the woods.