Sound in David Lynch’s films
In the world of cinema there are numerous aspects that add to the images on screen that readily help the viewers to connect with the flowing narrative. Factors such as light, sound, props, colour palette, etc. contribute altogether to breathe life into a film. Sound is a very crucial aspect that bears the potential to completely change the dynamics of a narrative. As we know that the mise-en-scène of a film tells us a lot about the characters on screen and also how they react to their immediate surroundings, it has been realized that even Sound can exhibit similar properties and likewise make the listener engage with the narrative on a subconscious level. It has been observed that a film may contain both diegetic and non-diegetic soundscapes that give structure to the narrative. If diegetic sounds emerge from the story world, non-diegetic sounds exist outside the story world yet may contribute in massive proportions to compliment a scene. David Lynch is an auteur who likes to experiment with sound in all of his films. In the following stanzas, we will not only discuss how sound becomes a crucial aspect in his films but how he uses sound to take control of the story as well.
David Lynch is well renowned for his artistic splendor throughout the globe. His films are not only dreamy, surreal or at times very unsettling, but the sounds that he uses are hands down credible and moving. Lynch was an absolute lover of music from a very early period of his life. In fact, Dean Hurley (his supervising sound editor and long time employee) said that if he never became a filmmaker he would have gone to make radio plays instead. Lynch’s influence on modern film viewing experience is absolutely commendable. Through his films we learn how sound plays a vital role, whether bespoke or repurposed songs. His films brought a radical change in the way we watched films and gradually taught us how to hear a sound in general. In his debut feature “Eraserhead” (1977) he had worked with the famous sound designer Alan Splet working on the sound design for over a year. Within this time, Lynch experimented with tons of foley techniques while producing sounds which can be considered dark, unnerving and sinister. Some of his iconic background scores include the sounds of a static hiss, eerie clangs, etc.
In his iconic film “Mulholland Drive” (2001) the viewer is introduced to a myriad of soundtracks that sets an example of Lynch’s expertise in experimenting with sound. For instance in the scene where Betty gets mad over Rita for suggesting that they should break up, an array of sounds is heard by the viewer which makes the viewer feel instantaneously with the mood of the scene. Sounds like low-end atmospheric vibrations, crescendos and reversed noises immediately fill up the scene. Another interesting fact about his aural technique is usage of hierarchical sounds. For example, Lynch uses some sounds which are sudden and abrupt in nature. Sounds of punches, car crashes, things breaking are so crisp and well mixed that it they perplex the viewer, almost as if waking them up from a state of dream. Apart from this, another striking feature that can be noticed in “Mulholland Drive” is how Lynch carefully treats dialogues. In the film Lynch treats regular, straightforward dialogues louder and clearer, whereas dialogues with a tinge of mystery are hushed and barely audible. This is specifically noticed in a particular scene where “Betty” identifies herself as “Diane Selwyn” over a phone conversation. Her voice is obfuscated and unclear which clearly tells us that this had been purposefully done by Lynch to create an aura of suspicion, to perhaps add subtlety which results in a collision between dream and reality. Moreover Lynch is also known for his experimentations with soundtracks. Being an avid music lover, Lynch is more inclined towards mixing different tracks together, sometimes even overlapping them. This in turn creates a different aural experience altogether and further makes the viewer engage with the film even better. For example in the diner scene of “Mulholland Drive” Lynch fills in deep, alarming rumbles purely created with the help of low sounding brass combined with the sound of descending high strings. This compilation is thereafter layered over a series of “clicks” and echoes. The end product is a magnificent myriad of sounds which builds up a sense of tension and hints at something terrible that is about to happen. A possible influence over Lynch’s style of mixing sounds from various sources could be Krzysztof Penderecki, a Polish music composer, whose outstanding works moved him greatly. Later on Lynch introduces one of Penderecki’s compositions known as “Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima” in “Twin Peaks: The Return”.
Apart from the brilliant establishment of multiple soundtracks all layered one over the other, a striking feature of Lynch’s films is his use of silence. David Lynch, being an absolute connoisseur of music, knows it best that even silence can have its own impact over the viewers, if used in correct sequences. Silence, when juxtaposed with an array of wild sound tracks like the sound of whipping winds and other shrill tones, creates a sense of chaos and resolution. For example, a prolonged silence follows right after Rita unlocks the blue arcane box and disappears. In the viewer’s mind, several questions arise about Rita’s whereabouts or what happened to her? As the camera slowly starts to pan across the apartment, we see the room from the inside and it’s almost like an entirely different world starts to unfurl right in front of our eyes. This is one of the only two silent sequences that we find in “Mulholland Drive”. Right before Diane commits suicide we move through a sequence of high pitched sounds piercing our ears. The scene where we see Diane and the old couple screaming simultaneously is aesthetically unnerving as a crescendo grabs our attention and moves us emotionally. The scene cuts to a frame in her bedroom where we see billowing smoke rising into thin air. All sounds are cut off by this time and this is the second time we are introduced to complete silence in the entire film.
David Lynch often draws inspiration from individual songs which he thereafter uses to construct particular scenes of a film. Sometimes these songs even act as the central theme of an entire movie. The director would often come across these songs during chance encounters like for example when he is inside a cab, in a hotel room or perhaps when he is simply enjoying listening to the radio. While listening to the songs he would often imagine certain sequences while the songs would guide his vision. For example this one time he heard Bobby Vinton’s song “Blue Velvet” (1963) and it helped him imagine the set of his actual film “Blue Velvet” (1986). Other instances such as this are for example his film “The Elephant Man” (1980) and “Lost Highway” (1997). A song called “Adagio for strings” by the famous American composer Samuel Barber is reportedly said to have influenced Lynch to construct the ending of “The Elephant Man”. Similarly the song used in the opening scene of “Lost Highway”, called “I’m Deranged”, has been composed and sung by the famous David Bowie in 1995 from the album “Outside”. David Lynch uses songs from various artists to fabricate entire scenes to his own heart’s content. This is primarily because he believes that cinema is an art where sound and picture flow together in time. In all probability, Lynch’s films exceptionally showcase how music can be used to heighten and dampen the emotional dynamics of a scene. The way Lynch uses melodic soundtracks in his films to exert “lightness” and at the same time uses discordant melodies to exert “creepiness” is remarkable.
David’s profound interest in music and his passionate urge to create new dynamics with the help of varied soundtracks is inspirational for modern filmmakers who want to experiment with sound. He collaborated with famous composers like Angelo Badalamenti and Dean Hurley to create exceptional scores which have become iconic in the realm of cinema. According to Hurley, Lynch always wants to collide elements and is hopeful about the end result. The result of this practice when layered with the surreal imagery creates the unsettling impact that Lynch’s films are so renowned for. What we can conclude from his artistic endeavour is that David Lynch certainly knows how to command the use of high pitched shrieks and silence to establish drama. His repertoire of pitch and tone becomes very effective in the flow of narrative, without the needful exchange of dialogues. Lynch taught the entire world that experimentation is the key to create such absurdities in cinema and hence taught us that cinema has its own rhythm and pace which can be also cultivated according to one’s necessities. The dreamy, absurd portraits become more unnerving and emotionally enthralling when multiple discordant and melodious tracks fill the air.
Debopam Deb Roy, a post graduate with a degree in Film Studies from Jadavpur University, French language (DELF A2) from Alliance Française du Bengale working as a Content Writer at Human Lab Corporation with an interest in writing and watching films.