We last talked with Star Trek: Discovery series composer Jeff Russo at the September premiere out in Los Angeles, a time when the only part of his Trek score we had heard was the show’s main title theme.
Since then, Russo’s work has accompanied all nine episodes of “Chapter 1” of Discovery, and on December 15 the first soundtrack release from the newest Trek series arrives from label Lakeshore Records on digital download, followed by a debut on CD and vinyl album in early 2018.
We had a chance to spend some time with the composer to discuss both the impending soundtrack as well as his approach to scoring Star Trek: Discovery episodes from the early days of production through his current work finishing up the first season’s themes.
* * *
TREKCORE: At the premiere, you told us how you had enjoyed the score from the previous Trek shows and films, but you hadn’t really dug into them on a compositional level until you joined Discovery. Could you talk a little bit about the research that you did into Trek’s musical history, and how that has influenced your work on Discovery, if at all?
JEFF RUSSO: Well, I would say that the only true influence that I inserted into the Discovery score was the classic Alexander Courage fanfare from the opening title theme — but I think that the idea of what Trek sounds like is pretty apparent in all the scores, in terms of the instrumentation and how we go about doing it.
It’s so funny — we have a joke when we’re recording the scores for Discovery; I sometimes will record the strings and the woodwinds together, and then in a separate session record the brass. And I always sort of joke around that it doesn’t really become a Star Trek score until after the brass session — because once you add that brass to some of these big cues, all of a sudden you’re like, “Yeah, there it is, there’s the Trek sound.”
— Jeff Russo (@jeffersonrusso) September 24, 2017
So while there’s a certain sound to the type of orchestration that I do to make it feel like it’s in the Trek world, I haven’t really inserted anything musically from any of the prior projects — though I did go back and study the scores for the Mudd episodes from the Original Series when I was thinking about what to do for Episode 7 [“Madness to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad”].
In the end, though, none of what had been written or recorded for that original character was going to work in our context, because the Mudd character is being portrayed in such different a different way; it just didn’t really make much sense.
It was a lot of fun to go back to those Original Series scores and listen to the music. It’s interesting to hear just how over-the-top some of that score is, with a bit of camp sprinkled into the music, and how they played with that emotional content.
TREKCORE: Yes, it wasn’t always very subtle!
RUSSO: I think that I’m a lot more subtle when I go about trying to tell the story! [Laughs]
TREKCORE: While we’re talking story, we’re spending a lot of time in this iteration of Trek focused on the alien races — obviously the Klingons are a big factor in Discovery, we’ve spent time with Burnham and Sarek on Vulcan, and Episode 8 centered around Saru, a Kelpian, and the Pahvans.
Have you tried to take any influence from these alien cultures when writing the score for the those scenes, or do you try to stick more towards the story side of things to guide the music?
RUSSO: You know, I really try to do a little of both. I tend to want to tell stories, musically, from a character perspective. I’ve fashioned a couple of Klingon themes, themes for Burnham and her relationship with Georgiou — both in ‘reality’ and for in her memories.
There’s some also some bridge crew thematic material, and there’s definitely a Lorca theme, but overall, I would say all the different characters have a bit of their own theme, which mostly comes through in little motifs.
That mostly comes out a lot in Episode 8 [“Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum”], and that’s probably the most where I’ve done stuff that was more about Saru and the Pahvans, their story, and how that all came together.
But I think, mainly, I try to tell the story from a character perspective so I end up with themes for different characters and different relationships between those characters.
TREKCORE: You’ve shared some photos of your scoring sessions on Twitter and obviously that’s done in post-production — but at what point in the process do you come in for scoring? Is it once the picture is locked from editing, or earlier while the episode is still being put together?
RUSSO: For scoring the individual episodes, yes, it’s after we have a picture lock. They send it to me and I spot the episodes with [executive producer] Alex Kurtzman. That’s when I actually start to look at it and score each episode — but in terms of thematic material, I tried to write that before the season begins.
With a show like Discovery, there’s just so much going on throughout the 15 episodes that it would have been impossible for me to come up with all of that thematic material before starting.
I had read four or five scripts before I started really getting into scoring, and I had read the first two [“The Vulcan Hello,” “Battle at the Binary Stars”] before I had taken a crack at the main title theme. Then I also started a Klingon theme, and started writing a theme for Burnham and Georgiou early on.
But mainly, it’s about two months after they shoot the episode that I will get that episode to start working on.
TREKCORE: We know each episode had an extensive post-production timeline for visual effects, but it’s interesting that you come in so far after the shooting period.
RUSSO: Yeah, except for the very beginning of production when I started writing material shortly after things got started — but not for specific episodes, just for that thematic material..
TREKCORE: During the editing process, is temp score being used to set the picture — and if so, is that a help or a challenge when it becomes your turn to start scoring?
RUSSO: Sometimes it’s a help — but sometimes it’s a challenge! [Laughs]
Temp score is used, yes, and that helps the production team make their edit, but they have been starting to use the material I’ve written for Discovery more and more, as there is more of that to pull from.But for the first three episodes or so, there wasn’t any of my score written yet.
A lot of times, I’ll just ignore the temp score and just try to do our own thing, though sometimes I’ll be told, “This temp score actually works emotionally, and does work in terms of how it’s working to picture – you may want to look at that as a reference.”
I tend to not like to do that, but occasionally, it does help.
TREKCORE: Some of your scoring photos have revealed track titles like “Delicious as Always” or “Dishonor Yourselves,” and of course the new soundtrack has 20 more titles released as well. Do you have a process for choosing track titles?
RUSSO: It all depends, really. It depends on the cue, on the episode, on what’s going on at the time… sometimes I’ll be funny, or sometimes I just let my music editor pick the name.
There’s just so much music that it would be difficult for me to think about the title for every piece of music. Sometimes a title is important, though, if it has do with a line of dialogue that’s right at the beginning when the score begins, or about the scene itself.
But sometimes, it’s just about what I was thinking at the time, and nothing to do with the scene! [Laughs]
TREKCORE: Speaking of having “so much music,” this first soundtrack release is for “Chapter 1” of the season. Are all 9 episodes represented?
RUSSO: It’s a smattering of music from across all nine episodes, though I may have left one out, I can’t remember for sure. But really what I tried to do was give as much of a cross-section of the general feel of the score for the series to date, rather than try to fit everything in.
I come from a background of making albums that you can listen to straight through. Once you start packing 35 tracks onto long two-hour CD sets, nobody ever listens to everything.
And I’m sure there are going to be people who will say, “Well, where’s that ONE piece of music from that scene?” and really, it’s just impossible to put everything in. You can’t ever make everyone happy. [Laughs] But you try your best! Stuff that people are missing, like, at some point, will probably end up on my website or something.
I’m sure that everybody will be happy with what’s on there — I hope, anyway — and we will pick up with the vinyl release next year, where I’ll take some of the tracks from Chapter 1 off and replace them with score from Episodes 10 through 15.
TREKCORE: Oh, so the vinyl will be released after the season finale?
RUSSO: Yes, that’s correct. And then there’ll probably be digital-only “Chapter 2” release, which would just be music from Episodes 10 through 15.
TREKCORE: Regarding the vinyl release, it’s becoming somewhat of a trend in recent years to see movie and television scores coming to these special LP releases. What are your thoughts on these, at a time when many people go right to digital downloads for their music?
RUSSO: I think that it’s a collector’s item, you know? There are some people who enjoy listening to music on records — I know I’m one of them — and I think it’s always fun to have records to see the artwork that’s involved.
You get to see the credits and who’s done what to produce the album, you get special pictures, liner notes, and all that — it’s more about the whole item than just delivering the music, which these days is something that’s easier to do than ever.
That may be a much smaller percentage of buyers, but I still think, especially fans of a franchise like Star Trek, would be interested in something like that.
TREKCORE: There have been a few vinyl releases from the Trek feature films in the last few years, and for those who are really into the music side of fandom have definitely been excited about those sets.
RUSSO: I think that people enjoy the feeling of owning an album and all that goes with it, and I think that’s the real appeal of that.
TREKCORE: From our perspective, one of the more unique episodic score moments was the music from the Burnham/Tilly jogging sequence in “Lethe,” that MIDI-esque take on the Discovery theme….
RUSSO: And that IS on the soundtrack! It’s titled “Persistence.”
TREKCORE: Oh, wonderful! It was certainly one of our favorite pieces of music from the season so far, but what about you — what’s been your favorite musical moment from the season?
RUSSO: You know, it’s a moving target. My first response was about to be “Oh, you haven’t heard it yet!”
Like, as I live with things, the new things that I’m creating for these episodes that haven’t aired yet become more fun and shiny, you know? [Laughs] So, like, there’s something at the end of Episode 10 [“Despite Yourself”] that I’m really super happy about, but I’m really happy about the end of Episode 9 [“Into the Forest I Go”] too!
I have no specific favorite part — there are a number of things that I’m really excited and happy to do, like the waltz between Stamets and Burnham in Episode 7. That was fun to do, and I really enjoyed that.
I had to write an opera and you haven’t heard that yet.
TREKCORE: Would that be Kasseelian opera, the favorite of Stamets and Culber?
RUSSO: The Kasseelian opera, that’s correct! And my saying that doesn’t reveal any story point whatsoever, other than there’s an alien race called the Kasseelians and one of them is an opera singer!
But that was really super fun to do and super amazing. I’ve just been so artistically thrilled to be able to do all of this different stuff with this show, and it’s hard for me to nail down just one favorite.
I’m partial to the main title, a I reference it a good deal in the episodic score, because it has emotional value to me. It has nostalgic value to me, meaning I can immediately bring someone back to the feeling of the show by just nodding a little bit to the theme.
I enjoy doing that because it makes it feel like it’s a whole picture.
— Jeff Russo (@jeffersonrusso) November 28, 2017
TREKCORE: And you’re still working to score the last episodes of the season, right?
RUSSO: Yeah, I’m going to record Episode 13 on Friday, then Episodes 14 and 15 will be recorded and finished after the first of the year.
TREKCORE: And then on to Season 2!
RUSSO: Apparently so — I’ve been told that the story for Season 2 is being broken now, and at some point next year, I’ll be writing some more music!
To preorder Star Trek: Discovery – Season 1, Chapter 1 for digital download, head over to Amazon now, and you’ll get Jeff Russo’s music once the soundtrack lands on December 15.
Check back to TrekCore for our review of this soundtrack later this month!