Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The voice of love

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Industrial Symphony No. 1

Note: I can’t wait to write about the return of Twin Peaks, which already feels like the television event of my lifetime, but I won’t be able to get to it until tomorrow. In the meantime, I’m reposting my piece on the show’s indelible score, which originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on August 10, 2016.

At some point, everyone owns a copy of The Album. The title or the artist differs from one person to another, but its impact on the listener is the same: it simply alerts you to the fact that it can be worth devoting every last corner of your inner life to music, rather than treating it as a source of background noise or diversion. It’s the first album that leaves a mark on your soul. Usually, it makes an appearance as you’re entering your teens, which means that there’s as much random chance involved as in any of the other cultural influences that dig in their claws at that age. You don’t have a lot of control over what it will be. Maybe it begins with a song on the radio, or a piece of art that catches your eye at a record store, or a stab of familiarity that comes from a passing moment of exposure. (In your early teens, you’re likely to love something just because you recognize it.) Whatever it is, unlike every other album you’ve ever heard, it doesn’t let you go. It gets into your dreams. You draw pictures of the cover and pick out a few notes from it on every piano you pass. And it shapes you in ways that you can’t fully articulate. The particular album that fills that role is different for everyone, or so it seems, although logic suggests that it’s probably the same for a lot of teenagers at any given time. In fact, I think that you can draw a clear line between those for whom the Album immersed them deeply in the culture of their era and those who wound up estranged from it. I’d be a different person—and maybe a happier one—if mine had been something like Nevermind. But it wasn’t. It was the soundtrack from Twin Peaks, followed by Julee Cruise’s Floating Into the Night.

If I had been born a few years earlier, this might not have been an issue, but I happened to get seriously into Twin Peaks, or at least its score, shortly after the series itself had ceased to be a cultural phenomenon. The finale had aired two full years beforehand, and it had been followed soon thereafter, with what seems today like startling speed, by Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. After that, it mostly disappeared. There wasn’t even a chance for me to belatedly get into the show itself. I’d watched some of it back when it initially ran, including the pilot and the horrifying episode in which the identity of Laura’s killer is finally revealed. The European cut of the premiere was later released on video, but aside from that, I had to get by with a few grainy episodes that my parents had recorded on VHS. It wasn’t until many years later that the first box set became available, allowing me to fully experience a show that I ultimately ended up loving, even if it was far more uneven—and often routine—than its reputation had led me to believe. But that didn’t really matter. Twin Peaks was just a television show, admittedly an exceptional one, but the score by Angelo Badalamenti was something else: a vision of a world that was complete in itself. I’d have trouble conveying exactly what it represents, except that it takes place in the liminal area where a gorgeous nightmare shades imperceptibly into the everyday. In Blue Velvet, which I still think is David Lynch’s greatest achievement, Jeffrey expresses it as simply as possible: “It’s a strange world.” But you can hear it more clearly in “Laura Palmer’s Theme,” which Badalamenti composed in response to Lynch’s instructions:

Start it off foreboding, like you’re in a dark wood, and then segue into something beautiful to reflect the trouble of a beautiful teenage girl. Then, once you’ve got that, go back and do something that’s sad and go back into that sad, foreboding darkness.

And it wasn’t until years later that they realized that the song had the visual structure of a pair of mountain peaks, arranged side by side. It’s a strange world indeed.

Soundtrack from Twin Peaks

If all forms of art, as the critic Water Pater famously observed, aspire to the condition of music, then it isn’t an exaggeration to say that Twin Peaks aspired to the sublimity of its own soundtrack. Badalamenti’s score did everything that the series itself often struggled to accomplish, and there were times when I felt that the music was the primary work, with the show as a kind of visual adjunct. I still feel that way, on some level, about Fire Walk With Me: the movie played an important role in my life, but I don’t have a lot of interest in rewatching it, while I know every note of its soundtrack by heart. And even if I grant that a score is never really complete in itself, the music of Twin Peaks pointed toward an even more intriguing artifact. It included three tracks—“The Nightingale,” “Into the Night,” and “Falling”—sung by Julee Cruise, with music by Badalamenti and lyrics by Lynch, who had earlier written her haunting song “Mysteries of Love” for Blue Velvet. I loved them all, and I can still remember the moment when a close reading of the liner notes clued me into the fact that there was an entire album by Cruise, Floating Into the Night, that I could actually own. (In fact, there were two. As it happened, my brainstorm occurred only a few months after the release of The Voice of Love, a less coherent sophomore album that I wouldn’t have missed for the world.) Listening to it for the first time, I felt like the narrator of Borges’s “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” who once saw a fragment of an undiscovered country, and now found himself confronted with all of it at once. The next few years of my life were hugely eventful, as they are for every teenager. I read, did, and thought about a lot of things, some of which are paying off only now. But whatever else I was doing, I was probably listening to Floating Into the Night.

Last year, when I heard that the Twin Peaks soundtrack was coming out in a deluxe vinyl release, it filled me with mixed feelings. (Of course, I bought a copy, and so should you.) The plain fact is that toward the end of my teens, I put Badalamenti and Cruise away, and I haven’t listened to them much since. Which isn’t to say that I didn’t give them a lifetime’s worth of listening in the meantime. I became obsessed with Industrial Symphony No. 1: The Dream of the Brokenhearted, the curious performance piece, directed by Lynch, in which Cruise floats on wires high above the stage at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, not far from the neighborhood where I ended up spending most of my twenties. Much later, I saw Cruise perform, somewhat awkwardly, in person. I tracked down her collaborations and guest appearances—including the excellent “If I Survive” with Hybrid—and even bought her third album, The Art of Being a Girl, which I liked a lot. Somehow I never got around to buying the next one, though, and long before I graduated from college, Cruise and Badalamenti had all but disappeared from my personal rotation. And I regret this. I still feel that Floating Into the Night is a perfect album, although it wasn’t until years later, when I heard Cruise’s real, hilariously brassy voice in her interviews, that I realized the extent to which I’d fallen in love with an ironic simulation. There are moments when I believe, with complete seriousness, that I’d be a better person today if I’d kept listening to this music: half of my life has been spent trying to live up to the values of my early adolescence, and I might have had an easier job of integrating all of my past selves if they shared a common soundtrack. Whenever I play it now, it feels like a part of me that has been locked away, ageless and untouched, in the Black Lodge. But life has a way of coming full circle. As Laura says to Cooper: “I’ll see you again in twenty-five years. Meanwhile…” And it feels sometimes as if she were talking to me.

Quote of the Day

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If you know that you’ve got to be somewhere in half an hour, there’s no way you can achieve [a work of art]. So the art life means a freedom to have time for the good things to happen. There’s not always a lot of time for other things.

David Lynch, Catching the Big Fish

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May 22, 2017 at 7:30 am

“It is so, it is so!”

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No man should dream of solving a great problem unless he is so thoroughly saturated with his subject that everything else sinks into comparative insignificance. During a hurried meeting with [Julius von] Mayer in Heidelberg once, [Philipp von] Jolly remarked, with a rather dubious implication, that if Mayer’s theory were correct water could be warmed by shaking. Mayer went away without a word of reply.

Several weeks later, and now unrecognised by Jolly, he rushed into the latter’s presence exclaiming: “Es ist so! Es ist so!” (It is so, it is so!). It was only after considerable explanation that Jolly found out what Mayer wanted to say.

Ernst Mach, “On the Part Played by Accident in Invention and Discovery”

Listing to starboard

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It would be nice to claim that the clinky xylophone-like accompaniment of “Little Things” is meant to reflect the brittle hollowness of Joanne and her fellow sophisticates, but in fact it’s the result of where I wrote it: on the Queen Mary during my one transatlantic boat trip. I was en route to deliver the first few songs to Hal Prince, who was shooting a movie in Bavaria, and since ocean liners, like the plays and musicals I had grown up with, were on the way out, I decided to travel in the old glamorous fashion. The purser arranged for me to have a small salon room, complete with piano, so that I could work while I traveled, assuaging my guilt over such luxurious time-wasting. But the ship kept listing to starboard and I unwittingly kept sliding toward it on the piano bench, resulting in a preponderance of treble plinks. Thus is insightful art produced.

Stephen Sondheim, Finishing the Hat

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May 20, 2017 at 7:30 am

My ten great books #10: Foucault’s Pendulum

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Foucault's Pendulum

When a novel has been a part of your life for over twenty years, your feelings for it tend to trace the same ups and downs as those of any other friendship. An initial burst of passionate enthusiasm is followed by a long period of comfortable familiarity; you gradually start to take it for granted; and you even find your emotions beginning to cool. Faced with the same unchanging text for so long, you begin to see its flaws as well as its virtues, and if its shortcomings seem similar to your own, you can even start to resent it a little, or to question what you ever saw in it. Few books have inspired as great a range of responses in me as Foucault’s Pendulum, which in many ways is the novel that had the greatest influence on the kind of fiction I’ve attempted for most of my career. I read it at what feels in retrospect like an absurdly young age: I was thirteen, more comfortable around books than around people, and I was drawn to Umberto Eco as an exemplar of the temperament that I hoped would come from a life spent in the company of ideas. “It is a tale of books, not of everyday worries,” Eco says in the prologue to The Name of the Rose, and every line he writes is suffused with a love of history, language, art, and philosophy. Foucault’s Pendulum takes the same tendency to an even higher level: it’s a novel that often seems to be about nothing but books, with characters who exist primarily as a vehicle for long, witty conservations, crammed with esoteric lore, and a bare sliver of a thriller plot to hold it all together. For a young man who wanted to know something about everything, it was enormously attractive, and it set me off on an intellectual foxhunt that has lasted for over two decades.

Much later, as I began to write fiction of my own, I began to see how dangerous an influence this was, and I found myself agreeing with Tom Wolfe, who famously called Eco “a very good example of a writer who leads dozens of young writers into a literary cul-de-sac.” After I’d gotten my early Eco pastiches out my system, I put the book away for a long time—although not after having read it to tatters—and I started to wonder how my writing life would have been different if I’d been sucked in by the example of, say, John Fowles or John Updike. It’s only within the last few years, after I finally wrote and published my own homage to this book’s peculiar magic, that I’ve finally felt free to enjoy and appreciate it on its own terms, as an odd, inimitable byway in the history of literature that just happened to play a central role in my own life. (If I’d encountered it a few years later, I wonder if I’d even be able to finish it—I’ve never been able to get through any of Eco’s later novels.) In its final measure, Foucault’s Pendulum is one of the best of all literary entertainments, a spirited tour of some of the oddest corners of the Western mind. It’s the most genial and welcoming of encyclopedic novels, as ironic as Gravity’s Rainbow when it comes to the limits of interpretation, but too charmed by texts and libraries for its lessons to hold any sting. In the course of his research, Eco reportedly read something like a thousand works of occult literature, winnowing out and saving the best parts, and the result is a book that vibrates with the joys of the musty and obscure. And it ultimately changed me for the better. I no longer want to be Umberto Eco. But I’m very glad that Eco did.

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May 19, 2017 at 9:00 am

Quote of the Day

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May 19, 2017 at 7:30 am

My ten great books #9: It

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Stephen King's It

We read fiction for a lot of reasons, but its most fundamental attraction has to be the chance to experience lives other than our own. At their best, novels can create men and women who seem as real as ourselves or our own friends, and places that feel as familiar as the landscape of the towns where we grew up. A lot of books have done this for me, but the one that still haunts my dreams the most is Stephen King’s It, perhaps because it seems like such an unlikely candidate for one of America’s greatest popular novels. Yes, it’s about an evil clown who stalks the children of a small town in Maine, but that description doesn’t do justice to the richness of this book, in which King, one of our shrewdest storytellers, distills everything he knows about youth, imagination, and the melancholy process by which we all leave our childhood selves behind. King has always been the most intensely personal of bestselling novelists, and at his finest, he uses horror to get at issues revolving around death, loss, and survival that stand out more clearly when they’re cast into a fantastic form. This doesn’t deny King’s roots in the great pulp tradition that values scares for their own sake, but like many of the authors on my list, the qualities that drew me to his work on my first encounter aren’t necessarily the ones that have kept me there. As a horror novel, It no longer scares me much, any more than The Shining does on my twentieth viewing, but its characters and tone—delivered in King’s inimitable voice, often copied but never equalled—have drawn me back again and again.

The result is one of the few works of fiction that make me feel as if I’d be objectively poorer if I’d never read it, especially now that I’ve reached the age of its adult protagonists, and I’ve begun the process of forgetting my own childhood that King warned me would happen one day. I first read It when I was eleven or twelve, or just a little too young, which, as I’ve mentioned before, is the perfect time to discover King. Even now, I can’t look at the cover without remembering the library in my hometown where I borrowed it for the first time, and reading it over again, I’m even more impressed. It is a densely structured novel that moves back and forth between multiple time periods, with room for excursions into remote corners of the history of Derry, Maine, but it’s also one of the great natural reads of all time: I can open it to any page and get sucked in all over again. King is an intuitively strong teller of tales and also a fine craftsman, and the novel is crammed with sequences—my favorite is Ben Hanscom’s encounter with the clown by the frozen river—that read like master classes in the use of atmosphere, detail, and suspense. There’s also a relaxed, genial curiosity that permeates even the most frightening scenes: King is as intrigued by this town as we are, and he spends many pages exploring its neighborhoods, landmarks, and secrets, until we feel that we could find our own way around it without a map. Derry is a haunted place, and King works mightily to remind us of this, but he also loves it. That tension between nostalgia and terror is never resolved, and It is like a dream that oscillates unbearably between a nightmare and a place where you’re still the child you always meant to be.

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May 18, 2017 at 9:00 am

Posted in Books

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