BWW Interview: Jeff Russo and the Music of STAR TREK: DISCOVERY
The latest installment of the enduring franchise, Star Trek: Discovery has engaged warp drive with a new vessel, intriguing characters, and engaging music. From Alexander Courage's iconic theme, one could not but get drawn into the voyages of the original USS Enterprise, and the music was a huge part of that.
Those that have followed with their own creativity include Jeff Russo. Co-founder of the 90s alternative rock band Tonic and later one of the founders of the folk-rock quartet Low Stars, Russo expanded into composition for film, television and video games. Among his achievements, Fargo, Shameless, Legion, and the video game What Remains of Edith Finch.
Russo's tale of ending up on ST: Discovery came through meeting a friend as he finished work on the HBO series The Night Of. That led to a sit-down with two of ST's show runners. "I was sitting in the meeting and were talking about the show," he recalls, "how I saw the music and what we could bring to the show from the musical standpoint. The door to the room burst open and (Director) Akiva Goldsman burst in and said, 'Okay wait, I need to know something--is the Klingon ship the only ship that can cloak, or are there other Klingon ships that can cloak?'
"And at that moment, it was like my head exploded," Russo exclaims, "'cause I was like in a meeting where the main writer just burst in and asked if this ship can cloak. And then, of course, they said, 'This is the only ship that can cloak,' and then he turned around and ran out. It was such a surreal moment for me."
He got the job a few weeks later. Russo's Star Trek experience was like that of many, watching the original series as a child in syndication. "I remember it giving me this feeling of hope and this feeling of wonder, that was what always attracted me to it."
Russo speaks with the same enthusiasm for Star Trek as I imagined he had at first viewing the show, and later ST: The Next Generation. "It just made me feel like stories could be told about anything, and I think that's the thing I like about fiction in general, but more important the way the story is told in Star Trek, and the way we tell the story in this new version we can on another (emotional) level."
"One of the points I brought up," Russo goes on, "was the original idea for the show has this common thread in the universe that everybody is connected--how do you experience that with music? There is this harmony, and there's this discord, and through that harmony and discord, there's connections. We talked about how to achieve that connectivity.
"It's always difficult to talk about that in the abstract," Russo continues, "you know, when you talk about music, it doesn't really get across until you actually hear the music. It was difficult to have that conversation, and they trusted me."
The process for composing to TV or film is a far cry from music. "I don't start scoring to picture until it's been shot and edited," Russo explains. "I write in a writing studio, just me with a pencil and paper, a computer and my keyboard and a bunch of different samples. I fashion a score, and then we put it together, and go to a recording studio."
For the larger steps, Russo works with an orchestrator, editors, and a recording engineer. "There's a lot of moving parts," Russo admits, "there a lot of people involved in the creation of a score. When I write a piece of music, there's a number of different levels it goes through."
A music colleague was Russo's entry into this side of the music world. "I never thought of myself as someone who would write music for TV and video games," Russo says, "until I started doing it. It was an interesting transition; I went to work for Wendy Melvoin (Prince & the Revolution, Wendy & Lisa). My wife was a big fan of theirs, and (we) became friends with Wendy. She asked me to come to the studio and watch them work, and eventually, I went to work for them, so I had a unique entry into the world. She basically showed me what it meant to be a media composer. The thing that helped me most in transition was getting used to collaboration; you can't let your ego get in the way of that."
Russo is slated to work on the Starz series Counterpart, set to begin airing in January. For the matter at hand, ST: Discovery "is a tremendous deal to me," he says, "because I've been such a fan my whole life; to be involved in this now, is almost completely unbelievable to me. I look back on my childhood, even my late teens, early twenties when I was obsessed with Star Trek and to think that now, twenty years later I'm actually the composer on the new Star Trek series is literally mind-blowing to me. I think it's an art form, and I say that about Star Trek as well. I'm so blessed by doing it."
(Photos Courtesy: CBS Television Studios)