INTERVIEW: Jeff Russo Talks Discovery Soundtrack
When you're lucky -- really, really lucky -- and talented, too, sometimes life tends to come full-circle. Case in point: Jeff Russo. The Emmy Award-winning composer grew up in Manhattan, as a kid, loved Star Trek: The Original Series and Star Trek: The Next Generation and their accompanying music. He went on to perform in a 90s rock band, Tonic, and to craft the scores for such television shows and features as Free Ride, Fargo, The Returned, Extant, American Gothic, Lucifer, Bull, The Night Of, Legion and Channel Zero.
And now there's Star Trek: Discovery. The Star Trek: Discovery Soundtrack, with Russo’s music from Season 1, Chapter 1, will be released digitally tomorrow, December 15, with presales underway now. It will then be available as a CD and vinyl album in early 2018. StarTrek.com caught up with Russo earlier this week for an extensive conversation in which he discussed the role of music in general in a film or show, how he landed his coveted job on Discovery, the ways in which he gave each Discovery character his or her own motif, and more. Here's what he had to say:
Before we talk specifically about Trek, what's your take on the role of music in a show or movie? What's the function you feel it serves?
Music serves to be the heart of any narrative. It really does help to tell the emotional story, whether that emotion is tension or fear or love or any of these things. Music can always push on that emotional context. I think that's what music serves to do. When you watch a scene without music, it has a completely different meaning. And two different pieces of music can give any scene a completely different context and a completely different meaning. Music is not meant to lead the audience. Music is meant to serve the story and help tell the story, as opposed to tell the audience how to feel.
How much of a fan are you of previous Trek shows and movies, and their music?
I started as a kid. I watched TOS in syndication on the local channel in New York. And I really got into it. But it wasn't until I was a teenager, when I got into TNG, that I really became a hardcore Star Trek fan. I’d already been watching the movies. I became a huge Star Trek fan not after The Motion Picture, of which the music is spectacular, obviously, but it was The Wrath of Khan that really drew me in. And that was partly because it was a movie based on a TOS episode. It told the continuing part of that story, and that was really interesting to me. Also, I think that might be my favorite score of all the movies. I sort of go back and forth. That's a question people ask all the time… What's your favorite music from Star Trek? I tend to always end up back at Wrath of Khan. James Horner's score for that movie was really, really well done, really spectacular. But obviously TMP is also spectacular.
How did you land the gig as Discovery’s composer, and were there auditions, as there'd be for an actor? How does that typically work on a show and movie?
It differs for every project. In the case of this one, I happened to have a conversation with one of the producers in a completely out-of-context situation. That person was like, "Would you even be interested in doing music for Star Trek?" I was like, "You've got to be kidding me. I was a huge fan as a kid. It's a super-big deal to me." She said, "Why don't you come in and meet the rest of the producers and we'll talk about it." I met with Aaron and Gretchen. We talked about what I thought, my ideas for the show or for a show, in general. I had read a script at that point. They told me what they were looking for, and what they wanted to do with music. In the end, the conversation went to a place where we all were talking about the same things.
I didn't end up writing a demo, but it was all about the context of the conversations we were having about what we thought the music should be. And, obviously, they had known my work from some of the previous projects I've done. We talked about how that might affect what I'm doing. We were in agreement with what that music might be. And they decided that I was the right guy.
What was it that they wanted the music to be?
We tell the story from a really emotional point of view. This particular version of Star Trek is told through the eyes of Michael Burnham, and her emotional journey and her relationships. Then, also, (there are) the other interpersonal relationships between the crew members and between species. The idea is to tell it from a grounded, emotional perspective, as opposed to a high-action perspective. A lot of Star Trek is told from a very hopeful point of view, and I think we still do that in a subtler way than perhaps TOS did, but there is hope in the bonds of people. I think we try to tell the story musically from that perspective as well.
Even from the perspective of the so-called bad guys, the Klingons, what I try to do is tell the story musically in terms of how they connect with each other, as opposed to the adversarial aspect, which they obviously are. There are battle scenes that needed to be scored as battle scenes. I did that. I tried to give it the swashbuckling feel that some of TOS and certainly the movies had. We wanted to continue with that. I think that might be the way I’d describe it.
What was it like doing that first Discovery session? You had 60-plus musicians, yourself…
When I stepped onto the podium that very first time, and we were going to do the main theme, I was terrified. Terrified. There's no other way to say it. I was at the same time thrilled and feeling like a kid and scared and, “Oh my God, what if I fail, and what if this doesn't sound good?” There were so many different emotions going on. Most of that stemmed from my not wanting to mess up this really big deal. Being a part of this franchise and being a part of the idea of Star Trek, it's almost indescribable, that feeling, for someone who was a big fan of it growing up.
There were big shoes to fill, and I certainly felt like I was standing in the shadow of giants, being spoken about as one of the composers who wrote music for this series and the franchise. To be spoken about in the same sentence as Alexander Courage and in the same sentence as Jerry Goldsmith and James Horner, and these unbelievably incredibly talented composers is really humbling. So, I think the terror was also rooted somewhat in that, as well.
Post-pilot, things move fast on any show. Take us through the process of recording episodic scores with a full orchestra, one after the other…
Here's the thing. I started out by writing a bunch of themes and figuring out what those melodic motifs might be; most importantly, the melodic motif of the main title, which I do nod to throughout the series. I do also nod to the themes I wrote for Michael Burnham, Georgiou and Lorca, the bridge crew and the Klingons. Then there's multiple Klingon themes and there's Voq, L'Rell and all these little motifs that I tried to figure out what that was going to be a little earlier than when I'm in full-on scoring every episode mode. So, having those helps me when I look at picture, and I'm sitting down with my keyboard. It helps me think, "OK, so maybe I bring in this melodic motif. How do I do that?” I do that for every episode. That goes pretty quickly. From spot to recording session is usually about 10 days. We spot it, me and usually Alex Kurtzman. We sit down, look at the show and discuss where it is he's feeling music should or shouldn't be, what he wants to feel here or there. We've gotten to a point now where our communication is pretty easy, where he's like, "OK, so here we do that thing we do." It's gotten easier along the whole series, but we start by looking at it, talking about it, and then I take it back to my studio. I write the cues, and as I'm writing them, I'm doing orchestral mock-ups. Then it goes to an orchestrator and then that gets orchestrated. The next thing you know, we're standing in front of an orchestra recording the score.
We also try to do some editing of thematic material. So, when something comes up that has come up before, we usually go back to that melodic motif, and that gets used. Then, it gets recorded in a day. We usually do an entire day's worth, from 10 to five, of recording. Then, we mix over the next few days and they put it in the show, and it airs usually a week later. It's pretty ridiculously fast-paced.
Of the music on the Discovery Chapter 1 soundtrack, main score aside, what are you proudest of and why?
One of the things I love the most about the parts of the score I put on the soundtrack is this waltz when Burnham and Stamets dance in episode seven. I wanted to write a waltz because they were dancing at a waltz pace. So, my first thought was, "OK, I'll write a piece of music that's more of a waltz, a classic type thing." I did that and thought, "This isn't really feeling connected to the show." So, I nodded to the main theme in this waltz. Then, all of a sudden, it started to work for me. It started to be connected to the show. I’d say, I don't know that I'm proudest of, but when I listen to that piece of music, I smile. That's always a good sign for me, when I listen to something and it tickles me enough to smile. That was a really fun one to do.
There are a number of other tracks. Some battle sequences were fun to do. The thing is I couldn't put everything on there, and I know there are going to be people out there who say, "Oh, why didn't you put this one on there? Why didn't you put that one? I really wanted to hear that one. Or that one battle scene. Or this one when that happened." The fact is, there's so much music that I couldn't possibly put it all into one CD or one album. I feel like at some point, I'll probably post stuff if somebody asks me. "I really want to hear this one piece." I'll probably put it up on my website. We had to pick and choose the stuff that we put on there.
How far along are you on scoring the back six?
I just finished 13 and 14. The next scoring date is the middle of January. I'm just starting to write the finale now.
Offbeat last question. Who comes up with the titles for the tracks on the track listing?
It's partly me and partly my music editor. It depends on how important it is for me to remember exactly what a certain piece of music is. Normally, when we're spotting, the names of the cues actually become apparent because it usually relates to what I'm seeing to a certain degree. Now, I did change some of those titles for the soundtrack, simply because I didn't want it to be too apparent to someone who hadn't seen the show.
The Star Trek: Discovery Original Series Soundtrack by Jeff Russo is priced at $9.99. Go to itunes.apple.com to pre-order it.
Star Trek: Discovery is available on CBS All Access in the U.S., Space Channel in Canada, and Netflix in the rest of the world.