David Lynch: Music, meditation and monstrosity

Olivia Fletcher 29 October 2015

It is not enough to refer to an experience of David Lynch’s cinema without the over-used synecdoche, the big screen; big speakers are also crucial. From his first feature ‘Eraserhead’ which aired in 1977, to the release of his debut studio album ‘Crazy Clown Time’ – just four years ago – Lynch’s artistic output has consistently concerned itself with auditory sensory experience. This might seem like a verbose way of saying: “Music is important in Lynch’s films”, but it’s not quite as simple as that. Not only has music been a crucial element in his films – most notably, his famous use of Roy Orbison’s rockabilly classic ‘In Dreams’ in ‘Blue Velvet’ –  but so has sound in general, and Lynch is often quoted as having said, “People call me a director, but I really think of myself as a sound man.” The sound has indeed been managed by the man in many of his works, and along with his perennial co-contributor Angelo Badalamenti (who he has worked with on six of his films as well as the cult television series Twin Peaks), Lynch has played a very direct role in the sound of his films, even composing music himself. Yet this still only scratches the surface of what sound becomes under Lynch’s creative hand; to transcend this understanding we must turn to ‘Transcendental Meditation’. 

Don’t worry, no one is going to make you have a go. This is, however, exactly what Lynch has been doing since 1973 – self-professedly never having missed a day in the forty-two years since then – and for me it has had a greater impact on his use of sound than anything else. Developed in India in the mid-1950s and then popularised and spread around the world by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, this form of meditation involves the repetition of a specific mantra for a twenty minute period twice a day, recited with "gentle effortlessness" and while sitting in a relaxed position with eyes closed (no need for yoga positions here… who’s ever felt relaxed in one of those anyway?!). The aim is a unified and open attentional stance, and although there are no scientifically founded health benefits as of yet, it is commonly thought to allow effortless relaxation with spontaneous imagery and emotion. 

Photo Credit: Sam Howzit via Flickr

For anyone who has ever seen a David Lynch film, the idea of relaxation is probably an alien concept; it is, after all, hard to reconcile quietude with what one reviewer described as ‘a beguiling combination of the cosmic and the mundane, the surreal and an abnormally normal-seeming normal’ (‘Interview Magazine’). If this seems meaningless , you’re probably not far off the mark. This is not to say that Lynch’s only intention is to not have one. Far from it, Jonathan Shear writes in The Experience of Meditation that mantras used in the TM technique are devoid of meaning associated with any language, and are used for their mental sound value alone. It is this idea of ‘the sound itself’ that has had a profound impact on Lynch’s production of the visual image, whether conscious or not.

This idiomatic use of sound, often using registers that makes the listener both hear and feel the limits of their sonic perception, originated in ‘Eraserhead’ (1977), where Lynch worked with sound designer Alan Splet to create the film’s distinctive audio that essentially presages the dark ambient music genre. Characterised by constant industrial sounds providing low-level ambience, and organic noise (created in one instance by inserting a microphone inside a plastic bottle, floating it in a bathtub, and recording the sound of air blown through it), the sound of this film is alienating and unnerving, but it is also made an element in its own right, rather than just a tool used to augment the visual image on screen. Lynch’s fourth feature ‘Blue Velvet’ (1986) continued this trend, with Badalamenti describing his own work on the film’s unsettling audio as “something in the middle that kind of rubs wrong, and is maybe even mildly dissonant”.

Photo Credit: Sam Howzit via Flickr 

To a style of film that is frequently presenting two sides and showing the interest of what is underneath, this use of music in a median position is key in featuring music as a theme in itself. Not only this, but just as sound focuses attention in the mantra meditation, so too does it augment the audiences senses in Lynchian cinema, allotting a central position to the ear, and in some places making his abstract imagery more concrete. Lynch even carried this over into ‘Twin Peaks’ the ‘90s, going further by using the thematic material to offset attention to particular characters and focus it on others. Whether its ‘Cool Jazz’, comprised of lightly brushed percussion and pulsing bass to enhance the masculinity of on screen finger-snappers, or airy reverb-laden vocals and synthesised piano music is used to conjure the city of Twin Peaks itself (Badalamenti and Lynch reportedly composed the show’s main theme in just twenty minutes). Top this all off with Rebekah Del Rio’s eery lip-syncing to an acapella version of her own song ‘Llorando’ in ‘Mulholland Drive’ (2001), during which she faints as the song still plays, and music becomes as much about focussing attention as it does about the visual image it focuses on. Lynch’s ‘Man from Another Place’ comments,  "Where we come from”- and where Lynch’s productions take us to -“there is always music in the air."

Further Reading: 

'In Heaven' – Eraserhead 

'Rockin' Back Inside My Heart' – Julee Cruise

'I'm Waiting Here' – David Lynch ft. Lykke Li