The Sound of David Lynch
Sound is very important to David Lynch. The surrealist icon has stated that sound is even “50 percent” of his films. Throughout his career he has utilised sound design, classical and popular music to disrupt, inspire and enhance the experience of his movies.
Lynch film career kicked off with his pioneering arthouse feature Eraserhead. Despite the film being a strongly visual experience, sound is the most important feature of the film. Silence is replaced with overbearing hisses and hums, noises are a higher pitch, a higher volume and lack melody or variation, they even increase with emotion and panic. These confuse and frighten the viewer, transporting you into the protagonist’s very experience of the nightmare. All of these sounds were created by the director alongside sound designer Alan Splet, who Lynch had worked with previously on short film The Grandmother. Lynch recalls one DIY sound experiment where they filled a bath tub with water and submerged a five gallon glass bottle. They “dropped a little microphone inside the bottle and moved it about the bathtub,” scraping or hitting it along the sides. The microphone would pick up “some kind of combination of everything that was coming in that little top of the bottle. It had very surreal beauty.”
“I didn’t know anything about film when I first started, I was a painter, but I felt that sound was just as important as the picture.”
Along with his own experimental use of noise, the choice of pop songs in David Lynch films is arguably as iconic as those used in Quentin Tarantino movies. Ignoring the Toto soundtrack for Dune, Lynch’s films have use songs in his own unique style. One of his most distinctive moments was the famous scene of Dean Stockwell’s cover of Roy Orbison’s ‘In Dreams’. The song, its performance and the other characters reactions act as the perfect bridge between the idyllic suburban world of Blue Velvet and the nightmare within it. It was during Blue Velvet where he met composer Angelo Badalamenti, with whom he has collaborated with on nearly every project since. After meeting him, Lynch remarked “I never got deep into working with a composer and having that experience of being able to fall into the world of music, and Angelo invited me into that world, and encouraged it, and many great experiences have come out of that.” Since then his use of music became even more intriguing. Many of the most memorable scenes in Mullholland Drive are in fact the musical ones. The bubble-gum 50s pop audition of ‘I’ve Told Every Little Star’, the emotional, Spanish, fake performance of Orbison’s ‘Crying’ or Badalamenti’s atmospheric score throughout, all show a growing use of musical ideas and style. Most importantly, these songs aren’t just picked for how good they are its how well they work, with the director emphasising that “the music has to marry with the picture to enhance it. You can’t just lob something in and think it’s going to work, even if it’s one of your all-time favourite songs.” Despite this, Lost Highway’s soundtrack is so cohesive and immersive it marries to itself and can stand alone as an experience. When combined with the visuals and story however, moments like Rammstein’s self-titled track in the hotel are moments of true audio-visual genius.
Twin Peaks, the TV show inspired by the sound of wind through tall trees, utilises a whole host of sonic and musical techniques. Its contrast of dark esoteric worlds, small town innocence and the oddness that overlaps them is exemplified perfectly through its memorable characters and the sounds that encompass them. From ‘Just You’, the polarizing musical interlude from James Hurley, which was so bizarre you are forced to question the programme for more than its mystery, to the adored opening theme, music is key to its world. Lynch uses an array of techniques to his advantage, including things as simple as volume. In Fire Walk With Me, instead of the faux-realistic way you can properly hear people in nightclub-esque scenarios, the Pink Room scene sees Lynch use of the booming, terrifying music to disguise the scenes dialogue, an effect so realistic it comes across as strange to the viewer, enhancing the confusion, and annoyance, at the same time.
With its return in 2017, music was brought to the forefront like never before. Here, Lynch truly utilised The Roadhouse, the live venue where a meta choice of live tracks reflect the storyline (Nine Inch Nails’ ‘Shes Gone Away’, Eddie Vedder’s ‘Out Of Sand’ etc.), where the fourth wall is broken as a song is announced as ‘Audrey’s Dance’ (the same name as on the original soundtrack) and when James plays ‘Just You’ to an audience that somehow enjoy it. But outside of the performances, Lynch triumphs with his use of sound design. When Sarah Palmer is in a bar (just before her face comes off), you can hear the noise of pool balls in the background, but there’s something oddly distorted about the sound. Without distracting from the scene, you know there’s something sinister present. This distortion creeps in with how the electric hums of The Arm and the gramophone noises in scenes with The Giant seep into “our” world. These aren’t just an aesthetic addition, but thoughtful cues. Even the mysterious hum of Josie’s spirit in The Great Northern can be recognised as a Tibetan singing bowl, linking back to the Cooper’s interest in Tibet from the original series. Its details like this that make the show is his greatest sonic achievement, with live performances, ambient noise and an iconic soundtrack working together to build this immersive world.
With Lynch stating that he’s unsure if he’ll make a film again, it seems his priorities still lie, alongside his meditation foundation, with music. In Inland Empire, his full length movie, much of the soundtrack was created by him and like his films, his 2011 album Crazy Clown Time and its follow up The Big Dream create strange interconnected worlds. But if Bobby Vinton’s ‘Blue Velvet’, which he detested at first, can inspire a whole movie, maybe it’ll just take the right song.