Eraserhead Original Soundtrack, David Lynch & Alan Splet

Film soundtracks are often deemed unworthy of serious musical attention. This can be attributed, at least in part, to the belief that sound is subordinate to image in film; within the Hollywood tradition it has been the prevailing view that music should merely enhance the emotional and narrative content of the image without playing any significant role in the construction of a film’s meaning. In contrast to this pervasive ideology, American director David Lynch has consistently afforded an unusually prominent role to the soundtrack, beginning with his enigmatic debut feature film Eraserhead (1977). Working alongside the film’s sound designer Alan Splet, Lynch sculpted an ominous sound-world of industrial noise using the techniques of musique concrète, a form of electro-acoustic composition pioneered by Pierre Schaeffer.

Throughout the soundtrack, Lynch and Splet blur the boundaries between music and noise, the physical and the abstract. On occasion, a haunting glimpse of a jazz-inflected organ, obscured in a cloud of reverb, rises from the claustrophobic fog of noise, hovering for an instant before becoming subsumed again within the surrounding soundscape. The juxtaposition of the fragility, as well as the emotional naïvety, of the organs with the suffocating industrial sound-world serves to deepen the soundtrack’s mystique; in this setting, the fleeting moments of beauty are instilled with a darkly sinister edge. With Eraserhead‘s soundtrack, Lynch and Splet have constructed a foreboding, nihilistic sound-world haunted by vague, half-remembered snippets of music, hinting at a simplicity and innocence that will remain perpetually out of reach.

As such, the Eraserhead soundtrack shivers with a distinct sense of the uncanny: this music is at once alien whilst simultaneously nostalgic, imbued with an elegant melancholy. This effect is only augmented when the soundtrack is heard within the context of the film. The sounds are situated in an ambiguous, liminal space; it is never made clear whether the music is emanating from within the film-world or from some external source. The actors’ voices are intertwined with the soundtrack, punctuating the formless layers of noise with mysteriously musical, fragmentary utterances. Swelling organs disperse into the violent hiss of a radiator and pure, glassy tones appear to radiate directly from the seductive figure of the film’s femme fatale. The elusive positioning of the soundtrack in relation to the images conjures an atmosphere of the surreal, skirting the fantastical boundaries between reality and fantasy.

Therein lies the problematic nature of considering a film score purely as a piece of music. Abstracted from its position in an intricate audio-visual relationship, a soundtrack’s raison d’être is somewhat undermined. As such, the soundtrack to Eraserhead proves that music in film can be as challenging, ambiguous and strikingly creative as any other form of composition whilst simultaneously emphasising the importance of the dialogue between sound and image: perhaps the only way to fully appreciate this remarkable piece of music is in conjunction with Lynch’s equally unsettling, often shocking, images. Yet, this fact does little to diminish Lynch and Splet’s achievements with this score: Eraserhead‘s soundtrack is at once texturally vibrant, disquieting and intensely immersive.

Below is a recording of Eraserhead accompanied by a brief listening guide.

Eraserhead‘s soundtrack moves through a variety of aural environments, whilst remaining remarkably uniform in its brooding atmosphere. Following a claustrophobic opening, the soundtrack unfolds at 4:07 into a more spacious passage scattered with organs playing beneath the grainy surface and the distant sound of a siren. At 6:42, a brief passage of dialogue from the film is included, anchoring the ephemeral soundscape with musical voices. Having twisted through further labyrinthine passages of noise, music and dialogue, the baby’s cry is first heard at 14:12, a sound that will come to torment the film’s characters; in this section the baby’s voice is juxtaposed against a playful organ. Further points to notice throughout the soundtrack include; the blaring organ which melts into the low rumble of a radiator at 20:11-21:23, the strikingly beautiful passage of luminous tones accompanying the seductive, lilting dialogue at 23:05-24:27, and the quivering vulnerability of the song (sung by a woman living behind a radiator) at 24:44-26:14.

The Eraserhead soundtrack was restored and released on CD by Absurda in 2009. A vinyl issue was released earlier this year by Sacred Bones, including some previously unheard material.

Toro Takemitsu’s musique concrète soundtrack for Masaki Kobayashi’s 1964 film Kwaidan also blurs the boundaries between sound that is internal and external to the world of the film, creating a similarly unsettling sound-world. The orchestral film scores of Bernard Herrmann also reach beyond traditional notions of the soundtrack, assimilating a range of styles from late-Romanticism to serialism; his famous scores for Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) and Vertigo (1958) are particularly recommended.

Artwork: Untitled (from the Black Series), Frank Stella

by Thomas May