7 Dec 2017

no.8// Twin Peaks the Musical!

This is one of my ten short essays about Twin Peaks Season 3. Click this link to read my introduction to this series.

At the Roadhouse, every night is Twin Peaks night. The dream fades, the band rematerialises, the episode draws to a close, and Lynch turns the camera on us for the final few minutes. Our faces are still fixed on the stage, still glued to the screen with reverent patience, waiting for one more clue before the final credits roll. The fans at home convene with the fans in the crowd, sharing in this tribute, this séance, this 18-hour vigil, this wake for a beloved television series.

The Roadhouse is a portal to Twin Peaks. This is common knowledge. That’s why the hipsters gather there, night after night, to pay tribute. That’s why the artists make the pilgrimage, with their reverb pedals and their bewitched voices and their vintage pouts. They are summoned to the Roadhouse, just like the motley ensemble that Cooper summons decades before, for the revelation of Laura’s murderer. They gather and they wait for something to happen: for the Giant to appear, or Cooper, or Audrey.

In his Pitchfork article about the music of Twin Peaks 3, Daniel Dylan Wray attempts to articulate the role of the Roadhouse performances that end almost every episode:
The scenes, and the music within them, are used as a guide back toward something resembling reality, a reassuring embrace of the familiar following the rest of the show’s deeply disturbing and bizarre images. […] [O]nce you’re in the Roadhouse, you know you’re safe—relatively speaking, at least.
Wray recognises the Roadhouse’s liminality, as a gateway or antechamber between two worlds. He too suggests that the punters in the Roadhouse are somehow closer to ‘reality’ (closer to us) than the characters whose meandering ‘stories’ their appearance punctuates. But Wray’s gloss is ultimately unsatisfactory, begging more questions than it answers: How is music supposed to guide us back to reality? Beyond the superficial ‘familiarity’ that a music writer might feel when faced with ‘real-life’ musicians ‘playing themselves’, what is so ‘reassuring’, ‘safe’ or ‘real’ about musical performance? And why would a fictional text even want to ‘guide its viewers back to reality’ in the first place?

Addressing these questions means turning our attention to Lynch the musicologist. Over the past few decades, the director has set out a unique psychosocial theory of music, subtly but powerfully articulated through the presentation of cinematic worlds. Lynchian worlds are almost always more ‘open’ to musical and sonic possibility than other cinematic worlds. The membrane between the fictional realm and the soundtrack that ‘accompanies’ it is more permeable; with their precarity and fluidity, these worlds are somehow ‘closer’ to an autonomous sonic realm. As boundaries collapse and identities blur, Lynch allows musical worlds to materialise onscreen.

Lynchian worlds are musical worlds. Like Mulholland Drive, Lost Highway and Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks is a musical.

But what kind of musical is Twin Peaks? To sketch a crude typology, we might identity two general modes of musical (although most musicals combine these two modes). In the first mode, ‘music’ doesn’t exist as such; it appears within the world of the musical as something other than itself (e.g., intense emotion, inner truthfulness, self-conscious performativity, the unreal logic of a dream or drug trip, etc.). In the second mode, ‘music’ exists but it is represented as having a magical extra-sonic ‘surplus’ (of efficacy, persuasion, seduction, truthfulness, ‘rightness’, etc.). Musicals of this second type are also always musicological texts, or more precisely, they are musical ethnographies. The world that they present involves an ideal identification with a particular musical culture, representing as tangible the ‘powers’ that this culture ascribes to music. Thus, the world of a rock musical might realise the potency, subversiveness and liberatory qualities that rock fans believe their music to possess. (For more on all this, check out my essay, 'Logics of Musical Worlds'.)

Twin Peaks is a musical of the second type (where music appears in its world, it appears as music), and yet there are a couple of factors that complicate the picture. Firstly, the relative absence of narrativity in the series (and particularly in the Roadhouse scenes) obscures the particular function, power or necessity of this music. Secondly, as with most of Lynch’s ‘musicals’, there is a critical/deconstructive edge to his representation of musical magic. Unlike most musical heroes, Lynch’s protagonists aren’t musical ‘initiates’; they cannot ‘wield’ music as a tool to help them through their world. With the interesting exception of Fred in Lost Highway (and maybe Audrey in Twin Peaks, although this musicality distances her from Cooper and the audience), music is something used on and against the protagonists (and, by extension, the audience).

This makes Lynch’s musicals rather unusual, in that they are oriented around the listener rather than the producer (i.e., the position from which the vast majority of musical encounters are experienced in the ‘real world’). While many ‘musical ethnographies’ are essentially didactic—teaching the audience what music ‘is’, and thus how to listen to music—Lynch’s ‘ethnographies’ are more phenomenological in nature. Instead of showing us what music can do within a musical world, these texts consider what it means to encounter a musical world—how these ideologies of musical possibility intersect with ‘real’ phenomena—and what these encounters have to say about reality, fantasy, and the mutuality of these categories. Crucial to this project is, of course, the sheer instability of Lynchian worlds, whose logics are always incomplete and vulnerable to collapse. The resulting chaos of partial, mutually antagonistic worlds is an excellent reflection of the way in which music functions ‘in reality’.

While there is much to be written on the topic of Lynchian musicology, I will limit my present discussion to two dimensions of musical ‘power’ at work in Twin Peaks 3, and the ways in which these contribute to its critical musical ethnography.

In my previous essay, I wrote about Twin Peaks 3 in terms of televisual performance art, and its deployment of a language of gesture (physical, vocal, linguistic, musical, visual, narrative, etc.). Live musical performance can be viewed as the performance of an idealised discourse of gesture. As a practice, it combines a number of distinct gestural vocabularies to give a performance of direct and spontaneous expression, abstracted from purposive (speech) action and yet suggestive of a more perfect communication than could be achieved with language alone. From the perspective of the listener, musical comprehension is experienced as intuitive, as understood directly, affectively and bodily, without the need for a translator.

Nevertheless, the impression of a perfect and spontaneous expressivity/communication within live musical performance requires both the performer and the listener to forget the fact of ‘the song’ (i.e., the fact that this ‘communication’ is only possible within a preplanned, artificially structured and autonomous region of space-time). As initiates of a listening culture, we have learned how to extract meaning and value from genred music, but as a live musical audience, we have also learned to forget this education, just as we ignore the distance between the song world and the real world. Tuning into the songworld, we surrender ourselves to the fantasy and allow its logic to structure our real, material sensations of intensity and pleasure.

In this way, the musical performances onstage at the Roadhouse are precisely analogous to my characterisation (in the last essay) of Twin Peaks 3 as an ‘exhibition’ in which interpretative strategies are pre-determined: an exhibition governed by a totalitarian curator-mediator, who forces you to look for a certain kind of meaning in each sign, even as that meaning is ultimately withheld. The possibility of meaning is similarly withheld in music: our culture tends to understand ‘live musical performance’ as a kind of pure doing, while the experience of music itself is as a flow of pure affect within the listener. There remains a mystical gap between these two processes, even as the ritual of live music keeps them bound together.

The Roadhouse performances thus distill the dynamics that regulate the show as a whole. In the past (most notably in Mulholland Drive) Lynch’s musical scenes have demystified this gap, exposing the disconnect between mimed performance and acousmatic sound, and the fantasy that synchronisation enables. Similarly, by juxtaposing the perfectly smooth ‘communication’ of the live music with the elusive, frustratingly deferred ‘communication’ of the show as a whole, we are made conscious of the contingency of the logics that structure our fantasies. At the same time, we are also aware of the meaninglessness of these performances: not only their apparent arbitrariness with respect to the rest of the show, but also the unproblematic incoherence of gestural ‘language’ within the song world in which the value/significance of these gestures is realised. While Daniel Dylan Wray might consider this reassuring—our partial return to a world in which we don’t have to worry about things not making sense—it could also be perceived as troubling: evidence of the ease with which we too can be seduced by fantasies that, like pop songs, don't really make sense (i.e., the relation between their ‘sense’ and that of ‘reality’ is obscure).

This leads me to the second dimension of musical power that music represents in Twin Peaks 3. This is the power of music and sound to ‘suture’ fragmented, incoherent and illogical phenomena, in order to present the cogency of such a world as affective fact, rather than something to deduce. I have previously argued that the experience of music is predicated upon a process of ‘dramaturgical listening’: sounds are distributed within an imagined ‘world’, as elements within an assumed totality to which they all belong. (Any sounds that don’t ‘belong’ are experienced as background noise or interference.) Thus the requirements of logic and cogency that are intrinsic to any notion of ‘world’ are also intrinsic to music’s being. In the construction of a (fictional) musical world—as occurs with any live musical performance, not least the representation of live music onscreen—this logic and cogency is ‘realised’ within this world. Thus, music is analogous to any other imaginary structure or discourse whereby the chaotic Real is given order and elements are distributed according to a deducible logic. The only difference is that, with music, we don’t need to deduce a constitutive logic because we can already feel its efficacy. This is the key to music’s ‘magic’ qualities when it appears in a musical world.

This is also the reason that audiences can tolerate a high degree of narrative and visual inconsistency in music video. Since the space-time of these cinematic worlds correlates very precisely to that of a song world, any volatile or fragmentary elements are easily sutured to the totality imagined by the song. It is my suspicion that mainstream audiences’ comparatively high tolerance for Lynch’s aesthetic idiosyncrasies has a lot to do with the ‘musicality’ of his work, in conjunction with our familiarity with music video.

As a result of this quasi-‘reification’ of ideology through music, Lynch’s musicals can attempt to represent fantasy from an exterior position, and thus deconstruct the phenomenological category of ‘world’ in a manner that is not possible in ‘naturalistic’ cinema (since such an ‘exterior’ position is not possible in human experience). His protagonists frequently brush up against the edges of their worlds, sensing the terrifying void that lies just beyond. These characters may also encounter other self-contained worlds in the form of enclosed musical moments, whose interior perfection is total yet impenetrable. What Betty and Rita witness in Mulholland Drive’s Club Silencio is a conjuring of musical worlds as bubbles of pure fantasy. As these bubbles are burst (‘There is no orchestra!’), Betty and Rita weep not only for the lost perfection of these illusions (and for their own fragile bubble), but also for their inability to escape such all-consuming fantasies. When Rebekah del Rio comes onstage, singing a cappella, we imagine that she (unlike the trumpeter before her) is actually singing: a master of her own musical world. Yet this too is a recording, something that both transcends her and contains her, even as it demands her total commitment and leads to her exhaustion and collapse.

As I wrote a while back, the original Twin Peaks was a town slumbering under a musical enchantment. Over the past 25 years, the music has drained out of this world, collecting in a pool at the end of each episode. The show is no longer sutured by Badalamenti’s irresistible soundtrack and the ever-present, evanescent voice of Julee Cruise. (Listen carefully and all you can hear is a strange ringing tone, coming from somewhere in the Great Northern Hotel.) Even within the Roadhouse, there are interiors and exteriors. While Cruise’s ‘The World Spins’ would once have reduced the whole audience to tears, now the characters in the booths, absorbed in their own impenetrable worlds of intrigue, cast wary glances at the swaying crowd.

The Roadhouse performances not only taunt and entice us with the image of a perfect gestural language, independent of meaning. They also let us glimpse the kind of enclosed, internally consistent and untroubled fantasy worlds that the rest of the show denies us. Furthermore, unlike in Club Silencio, these bubbles never burst. Thus, Wray is correct when he identifies these moments as reassuring. This reassurance does not, however, stem from an awakening into reality, but rather from a return to pure fantasy: to fall asleep, and dream, and forget that you’re dreaming.