Jeff Russo Interview: ‘Star Trek: Discovery’ composer
“Star Trek: Discovery” composer Jeff Russo grew up watching “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” so you can imagine his reaction when he got tapped to score CBS All Access’ new TV iteration of the franchise. “When the opportunity even arose, it was like, ‘Well, no way, they’re not gonna want me, they’re gonna want somebody else,’” Russo said during Gold Derby’s Meet the Experts: Music panel, moderated by this author (watch the exclusive interview above). “And then it happened and I pretty much lost my mind.”
Taking on such a beloved property was “terrifying,” Russo said. He had to serve two masters: being faithful to the sonic palette of “Star Trek” while creating something entirely new. For the theme, Russo, who won an Emmy last year for scoring “Fargo,” wanted it to have a more modern sound before adding the iconic Alexander Courage fanfare at the end.
“The original idea came from a musical theory called common tone, which is when a group of chords share one note and as you change chords, there’s one note in the chord structure that doesn’t change. And I was trying to sort of in my mind — I don’t even know if it happened musically — [do something] that represents the unity in the universe,” he said. “And then wanting to nod to Mr. Courage’s iconic fanfare. That was sort of getting at the idea of what I thought the show could be.”
Keeping in line with the cinematic feel of the show, Russo’s goal was to craft more emotional, character-driven music rather than traditional bombastic scores for action set pieces. “One of the things I don’t like to do is that I don’t like to necessarily score the action,” he said. “I like to score what a character is feeling more than what a character is doing. In order to do that with this show, it was really trying to focus on the character work and the interpersonal relationships between these characters. That was kind of new for ‘Star Trek’ in focusing on that. And we talked a lot about that at the beginning of the show and how doing that might set it apart slightly from what had been done before.”
By the end of the season, Russo, who’s also worked on “Legion,” “Counterpart” and “The Night Of,” also had to boldly go where he had never gone before: writing an opera. Stamets (Anthony Rapp) and Culber (Wilson Cruz) discuss a Kaseelian opera in the 12th episode of the season that had an important role in their relationship. “That was also one of those terrifying moments where you get a phone call from the producer around Episode 2 or 3 saying, ‘OK, so we’re writing Episode 12 and we need you to write an opera.’ I was like, ‘OK!’” Russo said. “I hung up the phone and freaked out. What am I gonna do? How do I write an opera?”
Russo, who was one of the founders of the rock band Tonic, soon realized he had to approach it as writing just another song. “I just have to look at it from a different perspective,” he said. “An aria is sung in a different way and I had to figure out how I can apply that logic to an aria, part of an opera.” He later called on his friend, singer Ayana Haviv, to record the piece — which may or may not be heard in Season 2 — and she lent her soprano voice again to Russo’s arrangement of the original ‘60s “Star Trek” theme. The updated theme plays during the finale closing credits, right after the Discovery comes face-to-face with the Enterprise.
“The moment that the band started to play, I didn’t tear up, but I was so in that moment,” Russo said. “I don’t know if I’ve been that much in a moment before on the stand, on the conductor’s podium. It felt like nothing I’d ever felt before. … [“Star Trek”] has such lineage and history that I got swept up in that moment. It was pretty incredible.”
Video produced by David Janove and Andrew Merrill