From “King Tut” To “Fargo”: The Music Of Composer Jeff Russo

Creating a score that enhanced Dr.John Ellis (Jason O’Mara) transformation in “Complications” was an invigorating musical challenge for composer Jeff Russo. Photo Credit: USA Networks

By: Marjorie Galas

Leaping from the deadly chill of Fargo to the fiery reign of King Tut is all in a day’s work for composer Jeff Russo. After receiving an Emmy nomination for scoring last year’s critically acclaimed re-imaging of “Fargo”, Russo has lent his musical skills to a wide range of projects, from series including a chiller focusing on individuals reappearing after dying (The Returned) to a procedural police drama (Battle Creek), to a drama revolving around a  doctor who becomes an every day super hero as he interacts with gang members (Complications). Radically shifting gears between multitudes of projects keeps Russo invigorated.

“Constantly switching is great. Once I’m blocked on one, I move over to another and shift focus,” said Russo. “When I go back, I’m refreshed and can approach it with a new perspective.”

Finding a perspective for “The Returned” presented a fun challenge for Russo. Each episode of the series was named after a person who was once dead then suddenly reappeared in everyday life, mingling with loved ones as if nothing happened. Russo carefully looked at the narrative and mined elements that evoked the characteristics of those who returned from the dead. For this series he collaborated with cellist Zoe Keating to construct a haunting, seraphic melody.

“The score was built around guitar, piano and cello. I’d write something, send it to her and then she’d work on it. We sent the music back and forth and played on each other’s writing,” said Russo. “It was very interesting to work this way.”

After completing the backbone of the score, Russo embellished it slightly with minimal percussion and some synthesizers, providing a sparse and haunting treatment throughout the series.

“Battle Creek” involved a different style of close collaboration with show runner David Shore who spotted every episode, ensuring all elements of production matched the narrative. Working with a classic TV procedural approach, Russo “picked up a guitar and had a lot of fun” creating a lively score that supported each weekly episode of the police drama.

When Russo read the script for “Complications” he was particularly drawn to the “guy saving himself by saving others” and the strong sense of family that emerged through the season’s ten episodic arc. After saving a young boy shot in gang warfare, the doctor (Jason O’Mara) feels obligated to step in and try to prevent further gang violence.

“I wanted to really drill down his character, and discover his internal journey when I developed his sound,” said Russo.

Inspired by the powerful effect the cello had on “The Returned”, Russo decided to play with the essence of the instrument’s sound. He took an electric cello and played it through an amplifier that added distortion. The result was a unique, synthetic sound that Russo continued to modify and enhance as the character evolved and became more of a “super hero.”

Never wanted to completely cleanse his plate, Russo has a number of film and television projects in the pipeline. Currently he’s working on a mini-series for Spike TV focusing on King Tut. While Russo did research the period, he has been avoiding melodies that specifically evoke a distant time period in the Middle East. Instead, he is taking inspiration from epic films such as “Laurence of Arabia” and “A Passage to India.” Russo is working with a full orchestra to make a really big, really fun theatrical score.

“It will be epic and traditional but also very modern. There will be modern rhythm s and percussion,” said Russo. “There were very strict rules forty to fifty years ago (when recording an orchestral score). Now we can do much more with the different elements.”

Russo has also returned to the second installment of “Fargo”. While still set in the same town, this season will feature new characters, a new storyline and a jump in time to 1979, thirty-five years prior to season one.

Currently working on the first five episodes, Russo is not utilizing any of the musical motifs from last season. Only the main theme remains the same. Instead, Russo is incorporating some styles that evoke the “free spirit” of the late seventies, including disco rhythms. However, the period influences come more in the choices of instruments he is utilizing; he’s coupled new synthesizers with a vintage 1970s synthesizer. While there are some light, playful tones, the dark storyline requires a very careful balance and placement of such instrumentation. Russo’s primary focus is capturing a dark, menacing quality while maintain an essence of North Dakota’s open terrain – a feat he achieved with such great success in the show’s previous incarnation. To achieve this, Russo is utilizing specific orchestral instrumentation to retain a sense of beauty and vastness while instilling a rough, angular quality to the overall effect.

In addition to the challenge of finding a balance between light-heartedness and pitch black storylines, vast open spaces and geometric rhythms, the early stages of production make establishing a score challenging. Russo is working with the editors as they shape the story, resulting in the retooling of the score, a common practice composers go through during the initial stages of a series’ development.

“It’s very much a work in progress right now,” said Russo. “A rough cut was done, I did the music, now scenes are being recut and moved around, meaning some new music is needed. We are working on it!”