Fargo Composer Jeff Russo on Working at a Different Pace


There aren’t many scores that devote an entire four-minute line to a single instrument. But composer Jeff Russo knows that sometimes to bring something new to a show like “Fargo,” which tells stories everywhere from a local butcher shop to worlds beyond ours, you just have to focus on a little new idea and close the rest. And so there’s a strange sense of discovery in “Wood Blocks,” a track born out of Season 4 that’s the mark not only of a musician seeking to subvert orchestral expectations, but also of a long creative relationship. date that allowed him to try something unconventional.

“I bought a bunch of these wooden blocks in different sizes and made a bunch of recordings,” Russo said. “And then we used that in a modular way. This rhythm here, this very stripped down rhythm here, this more complex rhythmic structure here. And it really worked,” Russo said. “In Season 4 I use these vending machines and the sounds of credit card machines and the sound of writing on a blackboard, which tied into a few of the different storylines. I try to incorporate that kind of stuff as we make the narrative unfold over time.

It wasn’t the first time Russo had whittled down a vast potential orchestral arsenal to a single unit. His “Wrench and Numbers” drum loop, a staple of Season 1 of “Fargo,” reverberated through subsequent seasons as the life stories of his namesake characters weaved their way through false history. organized crime in the American Midwest.

In the video below, watch creator Noah Hawley break down his four-season collaboration with composer Jeff Russo.

Percussion may not be the go-to tool you might expect from someone whose big break in music came as a rock guitarist. But before his stint in the band Tonic landed Russo on his first set of soundtracks — including contributions to “American Pie,” “The X-Files” and “Scream 2” — the beat came from a different place. .

“My original instrument that I played early on as a kid was the drums. Rhythm has always been a starting point for me. If I need an idea, I just start typing it Russo said, “It’s a really good way to indicate a lot of different things. I can use it for tension, I can use it for pacing, I can use it for action.” I could use it for mystery, I can use it for a lot of different things.The pacing dictates how it comes across, so I find it very easy to go straight there.

This sense of rhythm helped him through an ascendant and prolific first decade as a composer for TV, games and film. (He is the credited composer of more than 25 different series in the past four years alone.)

Jeff Russell

courtesy of the filmmaker

Building from this base of percussion often means starting from a calm starting point and ending up in a very different place. This has come in handy for his recent work on a slew of space-adjacent shows — the expanding universe of “Star Trek,” the Apple TV+ drama “For All Mankind,” and “The Man Who Fell to Earth.” from Showtime – where he calls himself to cover all the ground between a conversation and the cosmos.

“To start very small and end up very big, I will find a piece of music of something else. Sometimes I’ll even take two clues that absolutely don’t work together,” said “The Man Who Fell to Earth” co-creator and director Alex Kurtzman. “And I’ll be like, ‘Okay, Jeff. 45 seconds later you have to go from here to here. We’re just going to put them together in the edit, and then you’ll figure out how you’re going to write something that bridges that tone and that tone. And he knows exactly what I’m talking about, because we have a shortcut at this point.

“It’s the power of volume,” said “Fargo” showrunner Noah Hawley. “I remember for Cristin Milioti, we had this beautiful, very simple melody line for his character [Betsy Solverson in Season 2 of “Fargo”]. Of course, because she has cancer, you don’t want to be too harsh with that. But then there will come a time when you will have earned the right to have the great feeling. I think it’s that restraint and understanding that if you’re leading with great feeling, there’s nowhere to go.

It’s a resultant genre of music that exists in a strange liminal space. Often it’s for shows that bring the fantastic into a recognizable world or ground the fantastic into something recognizable. It often takes place in places other than Earth, but it also means bringing different elements to the Midwest when the moment calls for it.

“Due to its period nature, all of the instrumentation was vintage and authentic to the era,” Hawley said of Russo’s work on “Fargo” Season 4, which winds the show’s clock back to the beginning. ’50s. “But then there was this big station gag where I just heard it and thought, ‘I think that’s our only electronic signal,'” Hawley said. “It creates a state of mind. The moment you bring in those arpeggiated electronic things, it creates a kind of hallucinatory state and just a state of mind for the audience that’s different from what acoustic instruments can do. I think it’s very liberating for him to be challenged in this way and not be told, “No, it’s sad piano, because it’s sad.”

“The Man Who Fell to Earth”

Show time

Working on as many different projects as Russo offers the opportunity to introduce different sounds into the texture of the show. Season 3 of “Fargo” brought car doors, windshield wipers and tire chains. “Star Trek: Picard” prompted him to develop a sound for the fictional flute Ressikan. “The Man Who Fell to Earth” brings the twin keyboard textures of a folding pump organ and an Optigan (the latter using records he intentionally played backwards).

“One of the most amazing things about Jeff is his versatility. He has a solid foundation in music of all kinds. I’ll throw random things at him and if it’s not in his immediate lexicon, he’ll instantly do the research and then come back with a very authentic version because he’ll have gone to the source. It’s hard because every show brings with it a different emotion, so it’s not like there’s a cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all feeling,” Kurtzman said.

That musical dexterity has been the backbone of Russo’s relationship with Hawley, which dates back 13 years to ABC’s offbeat crime show “The Unusuals.” Hawley said the two bonded over “similar musical taste,” which led to them reteaming the following year for “My Generation.” There, a specific request solidified a partnership.

“I said, ‘For the main theme, I want banjo and whistle. He just stepped in and gave me banjo and whistle,” Hawley said. “I firmly believe that if you’re talented, there’s nothing you can’t do unless you prove otherwise. By the time we had done two shows together, I couldn’t think of who else I would want to work with after that.

composer Jeff Russo

Jeff Russell

courtesy of the filmmaker

The introduction of these disparate instruments is combined with an approach to notation that does not rely on a single collection of still sounds. Hawley and Kurtzman, along with the show’s editors and music editors, work directly with the stems of the score, giving everyone involved greater flexibility to blend certain sections higher or lower, or even eliminate them. completely.

“We have conversation after conversation about the possibility of taking pieces of music and separating them and putting them back together in a meaningful way for the scene,” Russo said. “Most of the time as the themes are separated and we start putting them into pictures, I get phone calls from the dub scene, like, ‘Hey, we thought maybe we’d drop this one and put another one or use this one stem from this one and put it with this other one. What do you think?’ They send me stuff and I give them advice on how to do it. Or if it needs to be fixed, send everything back to me. I’ll take care of it, then I’ll put it back together for you.

As with anyone who has had some success in a creative field, there is the double-edged sword of having a body of work that people can use as a point of reference. Although the music for “The Man Who Fell to Earth” has its own feel and atmosphere, Kurtzman has talked about using Russo’s music from Hawley’s “Lucy in the Sky” as some sort of guiding force in the early stages. . It’s a challenge that Russo accepts, even though he’s determined not to fall into the trap of developing a unique, particular style.


Matthias Clamer/FX

“Most of the time, at that time, I don’t even listen to the temperature. Because if I do that, then I’ll always be like, ‘Wait, am I just ripping myself off?’ “said Russo. “When talking about ‘Fargo’, I tip my hat to certain thematic elements or motifs from previous seasons. It can work and I think it’s really important that things can do that and tie everything together. With ‘The Man Who Fell To Earth’ in particular, there wasn’t really that idea, normally I just have to ignore that and try to clear my head and move on and come up with something new.

This modular and iterative approach that applies to television music is based on a trust that extends far into the early parts of the creative process of any given season. This sets the tone for a collaborative process, which in its most magical form results in a result that locks perfectly into place.

“As he writes and explores places, he gets my thoughts on what it’s going to be like. Then there’s a real ability to have a back-and-forth in a really meaningful way, for opposition to ‘OK, we did this.’ You have three weeks to do it. It’s always a little bit harder to do it that way,” Russo said.

“The amazing thing about Jeff is that we start talking at the sketch stage, before there’s even been a script. He will start writing the music for ‘Fargo’ long before production,” Hawley said. “What he’s going to do is write a line that could be 10 minutes long, with all these different themes and layers and dips and dips. It’s always amazing how, when you put it in pictures, it works. Sometimes just drop it in and it works. —Steve Green


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