David Lynch’s night music


By Harry Newman

David Lynch can’t say what inspired him to start improvising seven years ago. The best he can offer is that he had a keyboard in his house and one day started experimenting. That day led to another day and then another, until he suggested to his friend, Marek Zebrowski, an internationally-renowned concert pianist and composer, that they start improvising together in 2004. It marked the beginning of a two-year collaboration, one that can be heard in Lynch’s new film, “Inland Empire,” and which culminated in “Polish Night Music,” a performance of original, improvised music that had its premiere this past Sunday at the Polish Consulate. It was the first time Lynch has ever performed music in public.

“I’m not a musician. For me, music isn’t an intellectual thing,” he said while waiting to do a sound check before the performance. “It has to do with intuition, accidents. I couldn’t say I’m going to sit down and find [a specific] emotion. But sometimes through accidents you hit on something which is beautiful.”

Both men see each piece as an experiment. There are no head arrangements as in jazz, and nothing is scored. They usually begin with a word or a phrase or a mood or an image and let things unwind from there — Lynch on a Korg synthesizer and Zebrowski playing a Steinway grand piano. Lynch always gets things started, following his instincts and setting the tone of each piece with a chord or pattern of sound that he sustains for a few seconds before Zebrowski comes in and responds. From there, it’s back and forth, give and take until their thoughts and feelings run their course and the piece (like a conversation) naturally comes to an end.

“I think it would be cheating, if we actually prepared something,” said Zebrowski. “Not only because it wouldn’t be improvisation. But it would also lose that spirit of exploration [which] was wonderful about the first time we sat down at two keyboards. Exploring the unknown is the most exciting thing and doesn’t happen often enough.”

Their most common starting point is odz, Poland, a former textile center of Europe whose industrial atmosphere and dark geography they both know well. Zebrowski, who was born in Poland, considers it one of his favorite cities, as does Lynch, who makes the trip for its annual, international film festival, Camerimage. During one of their past visits together, Lynch was inspired to write a scene for “Inland Empire;” Zebrowski helped translate it to Polish.

“We don’t know what will happen,” Lynch added, referring to the performance. “But the secret, I think, is it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter what the show is. If people know upfront it’s an experiment, then there could be some magic. But there could also be some train wrecks.”

Keeping with that mood, the performance was in candlelight. About 100 people — an odd mix of filmmakers and fans, musicians and composers, diplomats and émigré socialites — were gathered in shadows in a gilded room on the second floor of the Beaux Arts-style De Lamar Mansion, home to the Polish Consulate on East 37th Street. As Zebrowski and Lynch entered the room, no one knew what to expect.

“We start with a thought,” Lynch told the audience before sitting behind the synthesizer. “And the thought lets us know where we’re going.”

Over the course of an hour, they played four pieces, each preceded by a lengthy description evoking longing and loss. The first one, said Lynch, was about “the desolate factories of Lodz” sitting still and silent with “only the memories of machines” remaining in them. Of the second, he explained, “a beautiful woman walks through the streets of Lodz at night, carrying a heavy burden — her unfulfilled desires and dreams.” In the third, “great electrical plants stand like cathedrals” while trolleys far below crisscross Lodz throughout the night, their sparks holding the promise of love;” and in the fourth, “snow illuminated by street lights falls through black leafless trees at night.”

Each of these led to different arrangements and sounds, though all clearly within the same world. In the first, Lynch created a mechanical breathiness by holding one or two chords, varying them only slightly as the piece progressed. Over this, Zebrowski added one or two notes on the piano, then one or two more, letting them slowly take form into the suggestion of melody, the most human element, still there among the machines. In the second, the tone was lighter and the sound field more varied. Beyond chords, it included the sound effect of squeaking, like a high heel slipping on cobblestones. Once again, Zebrowski’s nuanced response to this — two or three note phrases, moving andante across the piano — gave musical shape to the whole.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the effect was like film music, but a film that was being made before the audience’s eyes. Lynch would set the frame with the opening description and the sound elements he laid down, while Zebrowski brought the images to life, adding form, complexity, and variation. It was as if they were creating a cinema of the mind, composing the soundtrack for a film that’s within you.

“The key to our experiment is perfect pitch,” Lynch said before the concert. “Marek has perfect pitch. He’s really the engine; I’m just the caboose. Because I’m not a musician, he has to follow me.” But doesn’t that mean that the caboose is leading, then?

“Well, sometimes the train runs backwards.”