Interview: ‘Star Trek: Discovery’ Composer Jeff Russo Talks New Soundtrack Release, Season 2 And More

(Photo: Nathan Adams/CBS)

Composer Jeff Russo was part of the Star Trek: Discovery “Visionaries” panel at WonderCon. Russo was a member of the ’90s alternative rock band Tonic before moving into composing for video games and television. and won an Emmy for his work on the FX series Fargo.  Following the panel, TrekMovie sat down with Russo along with other journalists at a roundtable interview where we talked about composing for the newest Star Trek show.

Jeff Russo at WonderCon 2018

A lifelong fan picks his favorite Trek score

Tell us about your familiarity with Trek and other sci-fi before coming to Discovery?

It began at Next Generation when I was a teenager. And then I went backwards to The Original Series and the movies of the ’80s. Wrath of Khan happens to be my favorite. Once I got into there I became sort of a lifelong Trekkie.

What is more of an inspiration for you, the militaristic score of James Horner or the more operatic of Goldsmith?

I was not a huge fan of [Star Trek: The Motion Picture], as a movie, but I love the score. I’m a huge Goldsmith fan to begin with, like Chinatown. You know, he’s a giant among giants. That score, which led to the theme for The Next Generation, is a really big deal, but my favorite score is Horner’s score.  And not on its own, as a piece of music, but as a score for [Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan]. It made the most sense to me, so I listen to that—not for inspiration for us, because we have a different type of score altogether, but for the love of music. But I don’t think that I would call it militaristic.  It has a militaristic aspect to it, sure, but but it had an off-kilter sense to it that I thought tracked with Khan. And that to me, I’m the kind of person who likes to write for character. And I like to write emotional content, rather than just action. Action sequences are fun to write, and I had to do that in this show, but I’m always trying to find a character center or and emotional center or some sort of heart in what I’m doing, or it doesn’t make sense to me.

Russo enjoys Horner’s score for Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

Scoring Discovery ‘s first season

What kind of discussions did you have with the producers about tone?

When I first sat with Aaron and Gretchen we talked about having a unity in the score–by unity, we meant in the universe. A coming together of missions in this show about exploration. And wanting to reach into the characters hearts, and wanting to play into the emotional core. I think that is what separates us from some of the previous iterations of Star Trek in that we tend to focus on the interpersonal relationships and character development, instead of only the story. As a composer, I tend to want to write that kind of music, which is maybe what drew me to the project, and the project to me. I tend to write emotionally charged music as opposed to only big action music or only militaristic or dark music.

So John Wick may not be the project for you.

Maybe not! (Laughs) I write to what people are feeling, not what they are doing, or shooting. I guess my thought about that is that even when you are shooting, you’re still feeling, so why not play that as opposed to “Oh my god, he’s got a gun,” or “Oh my god he’s got a phaser.” I think that’s what I love about this show. We tell those stories, the stories about people.

Tell us more about composing the theme for Discovery.

I think that you can’t make everybody happy. Especially with Star Trek, or any other iconic franchise, and a sci fi franchise even more, fandom is pretty rabid. Some people will not like it and some will love it so you just have to do what you do. There’s going to be haters and lovers and there’s going to be losers and winners, right?

I feel like the theme really does represent the show. I think in that way the theme is successful. And that’s all I can hope for. My idea of what for what the theme could be and what it means musically to me, and how it relates to what we were originally talking about what the show was works for me. So i think in that way it was successful.

How do you write music for the future? Do you try to project what we might be listening to in the future?

In episode 7, the Mudd episode, we used Wyclef Jean. I mean 200 years later I’m listening to Bach, right? So what is it going to sound like then? They had me write an opera. For episodes 12 & 13 there’s the Kasseelian Opera that Stamets talks about. You know Stamets and Culber have this thing, Culber loves it, Stamets doesn’t, but we had to hear it. So I decided to not try to make a futuristic opera. Opera is opera.  I’m always a little afraid to figure out what it’s going to sound like 250 years from now, so I’d say the answer is no.

Russo recording the main title theme for Star Trek: Discovery

What to expect for Season 2

Anthony Rapp said he wanted to show off his singing in Season 2, are you up for writing some original music for him?

I’ve been a fan of Anthony Rapp’s since he was in Adventures in Babysitting, I was a teenager, and I think we are relatively close in age. And Rent, I’m just a fan.  If he called me and said he wanted to sing a song, I will figure something out. I will figure it out!

Do you think the style of music in Season 2 will change because the tone of the story will change because the war is over?

I don’t know if the style will change. One of the hardest parts of writing the score for this show is trying to create a unique identity for us musically, and yet still have it feel and sound familiar because it’s a franchise. Star Trek is a thing. You know if you go too close in one direction you’re copycatting, and if you go in the other direction, then you’re not doing Star Trek, so it’s a fine line to walk.  I don’t think that we need to change in terms of the style. What will change is how the characters are interacting. I just follow the story. I don’t know if that’s a tonal shift. I think I probably won’t have dark action sequences, like when Starfleet was being annihilated by the Klingons, because that apparently is not a part of what we’re telling in S2 (although I don’t know what we are telling in S2). You may have way more information than I do, having just sat with the writers.

When do you start work on Season 2, if they start filming in a month? And when do you get what you need so you can start scoring?

Aaron told me I should get a script in a week or so, which means I’ll probably start sketching some ideas sometime in May. The real question will be how do we make the transition from [season 1 episode] 15 to [season 2 episode] 1? What’s that transition going to be like? It may be a slighter transition in that episode transition than say, Season 1 with episode 2 & 3 to 4 & 5, as we transition away from the last season. What we know is we’ve got the Discovery and the Enterprise sitting there, so I know I have to do something with that, right? And I know that’s going to be where we pick up, because that’s where we left off. So that transition will be somewhat similar, I think, but where that leads me… if I knew I couldn’t tell you, but I don’t know.

What about the opening theme for Season 2? Will anything be changed in it to give Season 2 a different feel?

I don’t think so. I have to talk to them to see if they want me to reimagine the theme, but I don’t see why we would do that, unless there’s such a shift that they would want to change the theme of the show. But nobody has said anything about that to me. So I’m keeping my fingers crossed that I don’t have to do that, because that was not easy.

The sheet music for Russo’s main theme

More Season 1 soundtrack coming

When will the second half of season 1 soundtrack be available?

In a few weeks. We are releasing a Volume 2, a CD and digital release, the music from Episodes 10-15. And then there will be a deluxe vinyl edition for Season 1 with music from Chapter 1 and Chapter 2. But it will be select, because you can’t fit it all onto 4 discs. I think the vinyl will come sometime in June, but the digital will be out in the next few weeks and the CD right after that.

When you make those choices for a soundtrack release, what goes into that decision?

How much coffee I had that day?  (Laughs). It’s really what I was liking that day. I gave Aaron and Gretchen bound copies of the score for the entire season and there were two books this thick (holds hands about 18” apart) and like this big (holds hands about two feet apart). We do so much music per episode, so it would be impossible to put it all on. So I chose the themes that I really love and that were really important to me. I get the occasional email asking why didn’t you put this or that track on and it’s because i can’t put everything on. I just can’t. And it sort of dilutes the listening experience.  I come from making albums. I was in a band for 25 years, made a bunch of albums.  Making an album and listening to an album is an experience. At least the way I used to love to listen to records, I used to put on headphones and listen to Pink Floyd all day and those records had nine songs on them. So I don’t go that far, but I think putting the right amount of music on a CD or in a soundtrack is important.

Soundtrack for first chapter of season one

More TrekMovie WonderCon 2018 coverage

Interview: ‘Star Trek: Discovery’ Production Designer Tamara Deverell On Season 2 Changes And TOS Fit

Interview: ‘Star Trek: Discovery’ Makeup Team On Klingon And Tellarite Updates And Borg Hopes

Interview: Jason Zimmerman Talks USS Enterprise And 5,000 VFX Shots For ‘Star Trek: Discovery’

Interview: Mary Chieffo Talks Klingon Sex And L’Rell’s Future

Full Star Trek: Discovery Visionaries panel video

Interview: ‘Star Trek: Discovery’ Showrunners Reveal Season 2 Theme, Plans For Burnham, Airiam And More

‘Star Trek: Discovery’ Showrunners Confirm Number Of Episodes In Season 2, Give Production Update

7 Things We Learned About ‘Star Trek: Discovery’ Season 2 At WonderCon Visionaries Panel

WATCH: ‘Star Trek: Discovery’ Bonus Scene Reveals A Familiar Storyline For Season Two

WonderCon18: IDW Announces ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation: Terra Incognita’ + Talk ‘Discovery’ Comics

Star Trek: Discovery is available exclusively in the USA on CBS All Access. It airs in Canada on the Space Channel and streams on CraveTV. It is available on Netflix everywhere else.

Keep up with all the Star Trek: Discovery news at TrekMovie.

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I liked the opening theme but wasn’t a fan of the music during the episode. It probably fit perfectly and therefore I didn’t notice. I am probably in the minority that wants to really notice the music. I want it to stand out and affect they way I feel about what I’m seeing. His music doesn’t do that for me.

I couldn’t agree more. Ron Jones is my favorite composer on the TV shows. I wish that the music for Discovery were more bombastic

I agree. I wasn’t a huge fan of the background music during the Berman era for the most part so when we’re told the production will have cinematic production values I was expecting a upgrade. Sadly I think we got a downgrade. Not ever the main theme is memorable for me.

Few television shows manage to present soundtracks that are truly memorable. Angelo Badalamenti’s “Twin Peaks”, Bear McCreary’s “Battlestar Galactica” and Brian Tyler’s underappreciated but often sampled “Children of Dune” all overdeliver and fully capture the essence of the shows they were meant to represent.

The main title theme and score for season 1 of Discovery were a bit underwhelming. Main title themes set the tone for a series. Discovery’s main title just comes across as a main title theme.

“Few television shows manage to present soundtracks that are truly memorable”

How about Airwolf. The main theme had so many variations there’s actually an album released with 22 of them!

Airwolf! Oh, man. Forgot about Airwolf!

Recently, I’ve felt that a lot of TV shows (including “premium” shows) have rather bland soundtracks, lacking a distinct, memorable theme. Maybe that’s what producers are asking for, I don’t know.

In surprised. I figured they’d adjust the theme every season keeping the TOS style opening and closing moments.

Season 1 sort of had an element of the Klingon theme so I figured it was meant that way and would change every season.

There must have been a glitch with my Nyetflix. Instead of an original theme, the opening music for STD was just placeholder library music. You know, like something labeled “Mellow Ambiguous Minimalism #6.” Weird.

“I think that you can’t make everybody happy. Especially with Star Trek, or any other iconic franchise, and a sci fi franchise even more, fandom is pretty rabid. Some people will not like it and some will love it so you just have to do what you do. There’s going to be haters and lovers and there’s going to be losers and winners, right?

I feel like the theme really does represent the show. I think in that way the theme is successful. And that’s all I can hope for. My idea of what for what the theme could be and what it means musically to me, and how it relates to what we were originally talking about what the show was works for me. So i think in that way it was successful.”

I am sure you tried your best Mr. Russo, but my personal opinion is that you lost rather than won. Your theme is very forgettable and unquestionably the worst orchestrated Trek theme to date. Most of the comments I read, even from eager fans of the show, find it lacklustre and disappointing. James Horner you are not.

The opening theme is musically bland and forgettable. There’s hardly any melody or rhythm to remember. It truly might be the worst Star Trek theme ever.

Like most things on this show, I wish the music was better. I have more ST soundtracks than I can count, but this one will never mean much to me.