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Emmy FYC: Composer Jeff Russo – From “Fargo” To “American Gothic”

A keen attention to details sets composer Jeff Russo apart.

By: Marjorie Galas

It’s not every day that you get to see a master at work.  I recently enjoyed such an opportunity when I was invited to visit a recording studio where composer Jeff Russo at working on “American Gothic.”  Sitting beside engineers, mixers and assistants, I watched Russo calmly review a musical selection paired with a three minute scene from the upcoming series created by Corinne Brinkerhoff and James Frey.  After a brief period of discussion, Russo has his violin players apply con sordini – the felt device found at the bridge of string instruments – to soften its sound.  Although the augmented passage was hauntingly beautiful, Russo wastes no time, signaling his conductor to play it once more as written. The pure, unadulterated tone of the strings created in the soundproof room pours through a speaker.

Russo’s manipulation of minor details was fascinating to observe.  While no revealing information about “American Gothic” could be discussed, I linger, anxious to speak with Russo about his recording process.

MG: We are not going to talk about the show at all, but can you discuss what you were working towards regarding scoring, and musical style, for “American Gothic”?

JR: Well, you know, the name has a suggestion in it.  I try not to get too dark because there needed to be some sort of juxtaposition of what you see on screen.  My idea was to write a more European sounding score.  There is this sort of “left of center, something a little off” feeling to the music against this picture.

MG: it was interesting to observe the small details and tiny adjustments you made and how they affected the overall sound.  When you are in the process of writing, I’m sure you don’t think of all the details until you get to hear the sound matched with the picture.

JR: Well, it’s funny.  You know, I do have an attention of that sort of level of detail, but not in the way you just experienced.  I’m in a room writing with my keyboard and playing it, hearing it back and making little adjustments so the mock up sounds like what I want it to sound like.  But, I have to suspend some disbelief because that’s never going to sound like what it sounds like when there are twenty or so people playing it.  And what I have written doesn’t necessarily tell them exactly what to play.  They may read it and interpret one way.  Then I have to say, no, let’s try playing it this way until it sounds like what it sounded like in my head.

MG:  How do you make the determination of how many musicians you need?  Did you write it for a specific amount of players to capture the sound you have in mind?

JR:  I wanted a chamber-sized orchestra for a smaller, more intimate sound.  But you never know how it’s going to translate from paper, or from the samples I used to make mock ups, to the exact numbers you actually pick.  (For “American Gothic”) I also changed my standard set up.  Normally you have violins on the left, violas in the middle and celli in the right, and bases are behind the celli.  In this case I changed the orchestra set up to have violins on the left and right.  Then I moved the low celli and violas to the middle, and put the base sort of center in the back, to fill out the sound.   It was really throwing caution to the wind.  I wanted a smaller orchestra and guessed at some numbers and I happened to be right.

MG: So re-adjusting the seating of all the instruments will change the sound?

JR: It does.  A lot of times string orchestras have big passages where everybody is playing the same lines.  But I didn’t write this particular score that way.  I thought it would be nice to split it up.  They are all playing different things, and it sort of comes together to make the sound.  Not to mention the set up that I changed it to is more of a European style orchestra set up.  The American style has violins on the left, and the celli on the right and the mid-ranges in the middle.

MG: This is quite the opposite style from something like last year’s “Tut” that I know you scored with a full orchestra.

JR: Yeah, there’s brass and everything.  I went back a classic compositional style of epic dramas of the 50s and 60s.

MG:  Before I let you go, I have to say I am really so excited to ask you a few questions about “Fargo.”    Last time we spoke I hadn’t watch season two. One thing I really wanted to ask: it seemed that you captured the sound of the washing machine and integrated it throughout the course of the season, is that accurate?

JR: Season one I sampled the sound of the washing machine.  In season two I used an electric typewriter.

MG: That’s so interesting; it had that same sort of thudding that causes a lot of tension….

JR:  It did.  It was a similar sound, but it was the hum of the electric typewriter.  The electric typewriter tied directly into the storyline in the first few episodes.

MG: I also noticed the amount of percussion you used throughout the score.  It seemed like there was a diverse flavor, including African style drumming….

JR:  Sure.   There’s more percussion in season two than in one.  There’s big drums, little drums, hand drums, me banging sticks on the side of my consoles, just to try to vary it up.  I recorded the USC (college drum corp) here in this studio, which was a lot of fun.  My life as a musician began as a drummer, so percussion seems to work its way into everything I do.  One of the hallmarks of the “Fargo” score is percussion.

MG:  I recall you previously mentioning trying to capture a flavor of the geography in the score.

JR:  It was funny because we shot in the same place, but there wasn’t as much snow.  It sort of lent itself to the look of the seventies; there was less of the white and more of the brown. With less snow I didn’t use the sleigh bells; they didn’t fit (the look).  I used them very sparingly early in the season.  Later in the season I started doing more prog-rock synthesizer type stuff,  that was a lot of fun.

MG:  Did you have conversations with the music supervisor throughout the course of the season?  I noticed a lot of the songs used throughout the season were adaptations of songs from various Coen’s films.

JR:  Yes, we had bands cover songs that were in various Coen brother movies, including “Fargo.”  I would be looped in on the conversations when they were thinking about what songs they were going to use for a few reasons: for opinions and I had to go from song into score or score into song, so I had to speak with (Marguerite Phillips, Music Supervisor) a lot. And we have actually been working a lot more together.

MG:   Nice.  Last question:  I know you are often working on a number of projects simultaneously.  What else are you focused on right now?

JR:   Well, “American Gothic” – I thought they played it so well, I’m very excited about that.   Maybe “Time after Time” will get picked up, you just don’t know.  I am working on another project with Noah (Hawley) who is the show runner of “Fargo.”  I’m not technically allowed to talk about what it is.   And we are working on the next season of “Fargo” – in fact he just tweeted that he is working on the script right now.

MG:  And that goes a little bit into the present time with the two main characters from season one…

JR:  I’m not telling you!  (Both laugh)  Also, it is the 20th anniversary of my band’s (Tonic) first album, so my band will be doing a concert.  It’s kind of like my baby, my first project, so that is fun. We also re-recorded the original album with just acoustic guitars to really bring it down to the songs.

MG: Wow, very cool…

JR:  I am also very excited for the vinyl release of the “Fargo” season two soundtrack which comes out in June.  We did a triple album, so it is the score and all the songs combined into three records.   I am very excited about that because, you know, the 70s was all about double albums.  We did a triple album!