Next week the first original soundtrack for Star Trek: Discovery will be released. TrekMovie had a chance to speak with Discovery’s Emmy-winning composer Jeff Russo about the release, his process for composing, his Trek favorites and more.
Going ‘cinematic,’ not ‘sonic wallpaper’
Can you give us an update on the scoring and recording for Discovery? Are you done with the season?
I am not done with the first season. I am recording episode thirteen tomorrow and recording fourteen and fifteen right after the first of the year and then I will be done. I have the music written through episode fourteen and currently working on episode fifteen.
Take us through your process. Like how long it takes for each episode, who you work with most closely, how long it takes for each episode, etc.
In general, the process begins with reading a certain amount of scripts and starting to sketch out themes. In terms of episodically, once those themes have been heard by various people and they like the direction of the sound and the melodies and they like the direction of how it is feeling and we start to talk about individual episodes. That begins with a spotting session with me, my music editor and either the showrunner or another executive producer.
The person I have been working with episode-to-episode decision-making has been Alex Kurtzman. He and I sit and watch each episode together and talk about where we want music and what we want the music to accomplish in each of those areas. Then I take the episode back with me to the studio and it usually about a week to write the music for that and about two days to orchestrate that music and then we need to record and mix it. It is usually about a two-week process or a little less than two weeks to go from that spotting session to being done, which is a pretty fast turnaround since we have a relatively big amount of music per episodes with usually around 30 to 34 minutes of music each episode.
Let’s talk about that direction you have been getting. There have been different kinds of direction for music on Star Trek over the decades, most notably the difference between the TOS era and TNG era, where they wanted the music to be more “sonic wallpaper.” Where is Alex on the spectrum of directing the music on the show?
Well the idea was that we wanted to be more about how does a movie do it. And I don’t mean how did the Star Trek movies do it as much as how do movies in general use score and shouldn’t we try to be more like that than the sonic wallpaper era. Now, the first and second season of The Next Generation was actually not sonic wallpaper and they didn’t really get into that I think until the middle of season two where they started changing and we are definitely not that. I think we fall outside of all of that. I think we may tend to be a little more like The Original Series, although it was scored with more of a campy element.
It’s funny, as I was scoring episode 7 – which was our Harry Mudd episode – I went back and listened to the Mudd episode from The Original Series and what I noticed was they were very flagrant and very florid with the scoring of that particular episode, which I don’t tend to write. So, I sort of had to abandon what I thought I might get some inspiration from and sort of figure out how do deal with Mudd’s personality and how do I score it. How do I thread in a little bit of the irony that he brought to the show? Especially with Rainn Wilson’s performance, which had a sort of dark irony to it.
So, I would say we sort of fall in the middle of all those ideals, which is there is the cinematic ideal, and then there is The Original Series ideal and then there is that The Next Generation ideal. I think we have a little bit of all of that. There is a touch of the sonic wallpaper where I use sound design to bridge a cue coming out and a cue coming back in if we don’t want the sound to go away. It is hard for a show like us to be totally silent because there is this idea of the hum of the ship and we spend a lot of time in the ship, so we have to figure out how to make it sound like that and have it still be musical without sounding like white noise.
Drawing inspiration from past Star Trek scores
You drew from Alexander Courage for the main theme and you just talked about how you did look for past episodes for inspiration. Are there other examples where you have looked to specific episodes or composers? And even though it’s a whole different universe, have you been picking up some Michael Giacchino at times?
I have been a Trek fan all my life and I am a huge Giacchino fan, but I didn’t go to his movies for any particular inspiration. He tends to write in a very cinematic fashion and I also wanted to write in a very cinematic way for our show rather than a non-cinematic way. So, I think the comparison or similarities might be in that. In terms of his melodic and his structure in the way he writes, I never really went and listened to those scores for a particular purpose, other than the experience I had seeing the movies in theaters and I loved that music.
So here is a tough question for any fan, which is your favorite Star Trek composer or score?
That’s hard. That is really, really hard because there are a lot of them. But, if I had to pick one Star Trek score as a favorite it has got to be for The Wrath of Khan by James Horner. That particular score was just fantastic. I also love the themes from The Motion Picture from Jerry Goldsmith and obviously its use for Star Trek: The Next Generation. So aside from the Alexander Courage fanfare – which for me is so ridiculously gorgeous and iconic – I would say James Horner.
But you are really putting me in a corner. There are so many wonderful Star Trek scores and music. Giacchino is great. Eidelman’s score for The Undiscovered Country is great. So, it is hard to say there is one favorite, but if I had to, then I tend to like that Horner score the most.
Speaking of Courage’s theme, besides the main theme you have brought that in as a sting as well. Could we see other examples from other scores or is there a direction to only do stings with the Courage theme? Like, could you imagine dropping in a sting from Gerald Fried’s classic “Amok Time” fight music or any other stings? Or are you mainly anti sting homage?
I have never really thought about one way or another. Obviously, I did it the main theme. I did it in episode one when the Shenzhou appears on the planet and I did it one other time. Honestly it was me sitting at my piano and looking at it going “da-ta-da, oh that will work here, that would be a nice button to sort of nod again.” Have I thought about doing it? I am not for or against it. It has been the only that has occurred to me because of how iconic it is. I only want to do it if I am really trying to evoke that nostalgia at that moment. It is the strongest piece of nostalgia in the canon, that one piece of fanfare.
But in a way, you have decided not to do that kind of thing in many cases. For example, many Trek composers have evoked the classic Klingon theme. Not saying you should have, but you are making a conscious choice.
I would say you right, in trying to individualize ourselves. We need to nod to where we have come from and also need try to develop our own individual identity. So, in doing so I have created some thematic material for the Klingons that is separate from what we heard before and some other thematic material for the show that I would rather use because it is really pointing to who we are, as opposed to where we come from.
So, the use of those nods is to deliberately evoke that nostalgia. With ships appearing, and where we are going, evoking that nostalgia is actually really meaningful. I haven’t really wanted to do that anywhere else. I did think about doing it with Mudd, but that didn’t end up working. But, I did go back to that episode to study the score to see if there was something I could pull from it and do just that, but in the end, it didn’t really work with the way shot that episode and the way it worked and with Rainn Wilson’s performance and what it was. It needed to have its own signature. I loved the score to the original, but it was a lot more florid and there was a little more camp involved.
From score to soundtrack
Regarding the upcoming soundtrack release, how were the 21 tracks selected?
I selected material that I thought would be meaningful for the first section of cues. I am sure some people will say “Why isn’t this or that there?” The fact is, I couldn’t put everything in there. I come from a background of making records and I have always thought that people who put two hours of music on an album, even if it is great, no one is going to be able to listen that much music. I would rather pick the ones that I think are really meaningful and I can release the other ones at a later date.
It was deliberate, obviously, to not put any music from episodes 10 through 15 for not wanting to give away anything. And also, there will be another release. What that is, I am not sure as we are still working on it. It might be a special edition vinyl that includes music from the second half or it might be digital only.
It was announced there will be a vinyl release in 2018, so will that cover the full season and be different than the digital release coming this month?
What is probably going to happen – and this is a maybe, so I can’t answer this with the full authority of saying this exactly what is going to happen – but the idea is that for the vinyl, some of the 21 tracks will be taken off and replaced with music from episodes 10 through 15. The special edition vinyl release will have a mix of music from chapter one and chapter two of the first season. And then there will probably also be a digital release of music from episodes 10 through 15.
Changing things for season 2?
On Fargo – and congrats on the Emmy – is it fair to say you have really changed things up with each season in terms of the music?
Somewhat like Fargo, Discovery will have a new arc for each season, with season one being about the Klingon war and season two, three and so on each having their own arcs. So, could the music for Discovery change up each season like on Fargo as these arcs change for each season?
I do appreciate what you mean, but for Fargo it is literally different stories and different characters and different everything and the only thing shared is a tone. The difference with Star Trek is we will still have our crew, it is still the crew of the Discovery. So, yes, there will be changes I am sure in the way tell the story from a musical standpoint. I am sure there will be new themes and new ideas musically. But, I am not sure that the musical tone will change that drastically, because it is still our show.
So, as different as the music was between seasons one, two and three of Fargo, I am not sure it will be as different. Although, I have not had that particular conversation with Alex and the rest of them. They may say “Hey, let’s change it up a little more. Let’s be a little different.” And if so, then my answer would be incorrect. However, my feeling is that we are still going to stay in the world of how season one music has been written. It would just be a matter of new themes and new ideas.
What about the main title theme itself. Would you like to see that change each season? That has been done before.
The best version of that, is that main titles have been reimagined each season. They did that in The Original Series. And when I say reimagined, I mean maybe a different arrangement or a different recording. We may think about doing that. I think that is really up to the filmmakers. The main theme that we have is very indicative of the feeling of the show. That is me saying it as the guy who wrote it. I don’t know if the idea will be to do a new theme for each story. But, perhaps we would do like a version of it or new arrangement of it.
You can add bongos.
We could add bongos, exactly, or someone singing which is what they did on The Original Series.
Star Trek: Discovery soundtrack coming December 15
The soundtrack for Star Trek: Discovery Season 1 – Chapter 1 will be released next week on December 15th. The 21-track digital album has 52 minutes of music and costs $9.99. You will be able to pre-order on iTunes.