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Composer Spotlight: Angelo Badalamenti


Angelo Badalamenti is one of the most original musical voices in film. The Italian-American composer and longtime David Lynch collaborator bends the rules of composition to create his signature scores, moving from the dark, moody tones of Mulholland Drive to the percussive playfulness of Secretary, playing chords against each other in an unorthodox fashion or sitting down with directors to compose music for films before they are shot. Simply put, he is a rare visionary for whom music flows purely and naturally.

For many, Badalamenti’s sound is best identified with haunting, eerie synthscapes that get under your skin, reminiscent of ambient Brian Eno, Harold Budd or early Tangerine Dream. His work has graced television programs, classical venues and even the Summer Olympics in Barcelona. The director himself traces his music’s dreaminess to the song “Mysteries of Love,” which Julee Cruise sang for Blue Velvet in 1986. “That song actually started a thing and a feel,” recalls Badalamenti. “I used that as a springboard and went from there.”

Another core element: Badalamenti’s older brother is into bebop and plays the trumpet in much the same vein as Miles Davis, so these influences seeped into Badalamenti’s mind at a young age, later manifesting themselves in scores for films such as Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. “Jazz was a part of my life, but composers for film really have to do everything,” stresses Badalamenti. “I did Christmas Vacation. There’s no jazz in that. People who associate me with just dark, bittersweet, tragically beautiful [should] listen to A Very Long Engagement. It’s a very beautiful, romantic score, yet it still has the ‘Angelo Badalamenti’ thing, whatever that is. I can’t help myself. It has to be that.”

The Brooklyn-bred Badalamenti studied at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y., and then the Manhattan School of Music, where he received master’s degrees in composition, French horn and piano. He taught junior high school for five years and worked as an arranger/songwriter for performers such as Shirley Bassey, Mel Tillis, Nancy Wilson, Patti Austin, Melba Moore, Roberta Flack and Nina Simone. He began scoring films under the name Andy Badale in 1973 with Gordon’s War.

Badalamenti’s big break came in 1986 when he was hired by Lynch as Isabella Rossellini’s vocal coach on Blue Velvet. He ultimately scored the film and made a cameo as piano player Andy Badale in the jazz bar The Slow Club. Blue Velvet opened doors for Badalamenti, and he has since scored all of Lynch’s film and television works. Twin Peaks proved to be a breakthrough: The soundtrack won him a BPI Album Award, BFI Award and a Grammy Award, while the soundtrack album went Gold in 15 countries.

His later movies have also been heaped with accolades, with Mulholland Drive receiving Golden Globe, BAFTA and AFI nominations, and The Straight Story also nabbing a Golden Globe nomination. He won a BAFTA Award and a Film Critics Online Society Award for work on Paul Schrader’s The Comfort of Strangers, while his soundtracks for two Jean-Pierre Jeunet movies, A Very Long Engagement and The City of Lost Children, were each nominated for a Cesar Award (French Oscar) for Best Original Score. He has also won eight ASCAP Awards.

While Badalamenti’s career has moved in many directions, at the heart of his work lies one driving motivation: a passion for improvisation. He does not like to just sit and watch a film and score to picture; instead, he likes to speak with directors about what their stories and characters mean to them. He often sits down with directors before they shoot their movies.

“It started with David Lynch, composing before movies are shot,” reveals Badalamenti. “He would simply talk to me about his next project verbally and describe what he was thinking about and the characters. We would be next to the keyboard, and I would just start creating and we would record it. And — boom — he would start seeing pictures. We would do hours of it. He would wind up using [a lot] just from that original meeting.”

The concept started when the two were working on Twin Peaks. “He was describing Laura Palmer, this lonely girl coming out of a dark wood, and an owl in the background,” illustrates Badalamenti. “We started playing with that ominous thing that everyone associates with Twin Peaks, and David was like, ‘That’s it, that’s it! Just keep it going.’

“You just translate words into music,” the composer continues. “That was the first example of it, and then it took awhile working with other directors to do that. But in the past four or five years, I’ve almost been doing that exclusively. Of course, you do a lot of work afterward on your own, as well, and there’s always changes, but it’s a terrific way to work. It just makes it very exciting and fun for both director and composer.”

When director Walter Salles asked Badalamenti to score the psychological thriller Dark Water, the duo met beforehand to discuss music. “He said what he really wanted on Dark Water was [for] the music to help him transmit the idea of thought and solitude and loneliness and not be overly menacing,” the composer says. “Water is actually a character of the film, and it’s like that space between natural and supernatural. These were the kinds of things he was telling me. Then I would add eerie sounds mixed in and develop them as the piece progresses into a sense of angst.

“He talked very consistently and quietly to me for 25 minutes,” he continues, “and in those 25 minutes, he went through the different characters. As he was talking, I kept playing and he was getting into it. I recorded just 25 minutes, and we were able to pull the three main themes that wound up in the movie [and] found that those three themes could interconnect and weave from one into another. It was kind of like magic.”

Even when a director is in post-production, Badalamenti’s scoring process involves verbal interplay. When Jane Campion asked him to score Holy Smoke, he went to her editing facility in Sydney, Australia, and made sure they had a synth there. “They thought I was nuts,” Badalamenti remarks. “She would just put up scenes, look at the whole thing and then describe to me about what she was looking for. I sat down, and in literally two-and-a-half days, I wrote just about the whole score right there. You get those good vibes from a person that’s lived with a project so long, and then you know right away if you’re on the same page or not. I’ve found that just sitting next to a person and just talking like that, it just seems to come.”

While he has traveled to different parts of the world to work with various directors, Badalamenti now has his own studio in New Jersey. Last year, he bought the house next door to be used exclusively as a studio and guest house for directors, writers and collaborators. He also maintains a small basement setup that includes Digital Performer, a keyboard and video gear.

In the studio house, Badalamenti has a Mac G5 and a G4, and a Windows XP rackmount Pentium 4. He has two 23-inch monitors (a Cinema Display and a Sony LCD) and OWC Mercury Elite FireWire hard drives.

He works on two Panasonic Ramsa digital consoles with a Digidesign 001 Pro Tools system, and a MOTU 2408mk3 digital interface and two MIDI interfaces, as well as such software as GigaStudio Version 1, the latest Digital Performer, Pro Tools LE 5.2 Mac, Finale Final Cut 2 and Toast with Jam CD-authoring suite. He also uses a Lexicon PCM-80 and has FX and Hafler power amps. His speakers include Mackie HR-824s, and Yamaha NS-10s and NS-101s. Synths and samplers are a mixture of Roland (5080, V-Synth, S760) and Spectrasonics (Stylus, Atmosphere Soft Sync, Trilogy Soft Sync), along with a Korg Triton 88-key, Kurzweil K2600R, Access Virus C, Studio Logic SL-880 and SL-161 controllers, RMX Soft Sync and a MOTU MachFive soft sampler.

Despite the wealth of gear at his disposal, Badalamenti does not come off as a gearhead. Indeed, he is very old-school in his approach to making music — just do it. He likes velocity-sensitive keyboards that allow him to make crescendos and decrescendos. He disdains click tracks, preferring to compose from scratch. He likes both organic and synth strings and tends to combine them in mixing.

“I love sounds that are very, very smooth in strings,” he remarks. “It’s been the style of my writing from way back [that] I love things to be so beautifully connected, and the synth strings do that even better sometimes than just organic strings. But, of course, nothing replaces the nuances and sound of the acoustic strings, so I like the combination.”

With Dark Water and some Lynch soundtracks, Badalamenti’s music can be used for its melodic qualities or within sound design itself. The composer often gives Lynch something they call “firewood,” where he might record with an orchestra, and once the official score has been recorded, Lynch will ask Badalamenti to give him additional musical fodder, like when the duo recorded a full string section in Prague.

“He would say, ‘You’ve done all the music that I’ve asked you to record,’” recalls Badalamenti. “‘Now let’s take out an hour with the string section, especially the viola, the celli and the basses, and give me firewood. Or write me some slow, dissonant 10-minute pieces.’ And I’d write a 10-minute piece for low strings done very, very slowly — like a metronome marking of a quarter-note equals 48. David would stay in the studio and take what I did and do it half-speed. He would experiment with the engineer and play it backward and sideways. Then he would take one track with one mix and another with one another mix and superimpose these things. All of a sudden, you’ve got some very unusual sound design going right from there. Then comes the final mixing and you’re in the dubbing stage and you can still fool with a lot of processing. David’s the best at that. He really is.”

While his success lies in movies, Badalamenti’s musical works extend outside of film and Twin Peaks. He has scored themes for TV shows such as Profiler, The Last Don mini-series and Inside the Actors Studio. He composed and conducted the opening Torch Theme (“The Flaming Arrow”) and the 25th anniversary theme for the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona. Badalamenti co-produced and co-wrote with Lynch the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s theatrical production of Industrial Symphony No. 1, which received the American Music Video Entertainment Award. He has recently written string quartets that have been performed and would like to write a clarinet concerto for his son, “who’s a top-notch clarinetist,” he says. “I’d like to do an album with my jazz trumpet player brother.”

Beyond movies, television and concert halls, Badalamenti’s work extends into the pop world. He has recorded a full album with Cruise called Into the Night; done a remix with Orbital from his soundtrack to The Beach; co-written the song “Black Lodge,” on which he played keyboards, for Anthrax on their Sound of White Noise album; contributed some incidental music for Michael Jackson’s “Black or White” video; and worked with numerous other artists, including Marianne Faithfull, David Bowie, Pet Shop Boys, James frontman Tim Booth and The Cranberries frontwoman Dolores O’Riordan, with whom he has recently been collaborating via the Internet.

An experience working with Paul McCartney back in the early 1990s at Abbey Road Studios was certainly unforgettable. The former Beatle asked Badalamenti to arrange and conduct a near-full orchestra for one song. “As I’m on the conductor’s stand and working with the orchestra,” Badalamenti recalls, “Paul says, ‘Angelo, that sounds great. Let me tell you this story. The Queen’s Office asked me to do 40 minutes of music to celebrate the Queen’s birthday at Buckingham Palace. I was thrilled. On the night of her birthday, I’m about to go onstage to perform, and the Queen walks by and says, ‘Oh, Mr. McCartney, it is lovely to see you.’ ‘Your Highness, I’m so excited and thrilled and happy to be able to perform for you tonight to help celebrate your birthday.’ And she says, ‘Oh, Mr. McCartney, I’m so sorry, I can’t stay. You have to understand, it’s five minutes to eight. I must go upstairs and watch Twin Peaks.’ Paul turned me around and gave me a punch in my arm. ‘You son of a… Because of your show, I couldn’t perform for the Queen!’”

The composer, who considers himself to be a “dark romantic,” certainly has had many opportunities to spread his wings into different musical areas. When asked if there are certain types of endeavors he would like to tackle that he has yet to, Badalamenti’s response is simple: “I’d love to be able to do projects that allow me to expand and that just make me write the most beautiful music that I’m capable of doing.”

Bryan Reesman is a freelance writer based in the New York metro area.