Between two critically lauded FX dramas—Noah Hawley’s Fargo and Legion—the network’s anticipated Snowfall and potent HBO miniseries The Night Of, two-time Emmy nominee Jeff Russo may be one of the busiest composers working in television. Like all composers at the top of their craft, Russo is a master at conjuring strong emotion; in Legion, it’s dread and manic chaos, in The Night Of, bleak tragedy, and hope for a better day to come.
Speaking with Deadline, the composer examines artistic through lines between three series that have captured the imagination this year, and the disparate process of composing for a series’ main title sequence.
With relation to your work on Fargo, Legion, and The Night Of, are there artistic through lines you can point to?
For me, the through line really is character. All three of those shows have such strong characters written for them, and that’s the thing that makes it so great for me to be involved with, because I tend to write music from a character perspective, and the stronger the characters, and the richer the writing of the characters is, the bigger playground I have to explore, on how to expand on the piece.
On any given series, where does your process begin? There’s a heavy presence of strings in all three of these series.
I tend to write from an emotional place. To me, those instruments that you’re talking about tend to push on that feeling, from a musical perspective. I love writing for cello, I love writing for violin, and the way a string orchestra can push on an emotional aspect of the story is really meaningful to me, so I tend to go there.
That’s not to say that I only write from there or with those instruments, but I tend to fall back on that position when wanting to expand on the emotional content.
Do you consider the art of composing for a main title sequence as distinct from the art of composing the main score?
That’s usually where I start. With The Night Of, Steve Zaillian sent me all eight episodes in various states of undress—some were more done than others. But the very first thing that I did was write that piece of music, and it wasn’t to any picture; this is what I was inspired to write, knowing what the show was, and seeing the performances, seeing the narrative.
With Fargo and Legion, I started writing those themes just based on the very first script. As a matter of fact, with the Fargo team, I started writing that just after my first conversation with Noah about our first season.
I was compelled to write that theme because he was so clear about what he wanted, how he wanted it to feel, and what the characters were going to be like. The same held true for Steve on The Night Of. He was so clear on what the characters were, and what the story and the feel and the tone should be, that I was just inspired to write that without really writing it to any picture, in general. I was just writing it about that show.
What kinds of tones or moods were you going for with Legion and The Night Of? Each show and each score is quite specific.
With The Night Of, it’s certainly a tragic story, but there’s some hope. The hope, I think, stems from the thought that maybe people who you think have done wrong maybe didn’t do wrong. Maybe there is some good in the world, and maybe there is someone who cares about that, and really cares about people. That, to me, is the hope—it’s like hopeful tragedy, or tragically hopeful. That was sort of what I tried to evoke with that piece.
There was also the darkness of the experience, the experience of going through a metamorphosis, which is what our main character goes through when he’s thrown into jail, and then has to live in a situation he’s never lived in before. It changes somebody, and I wanted to tip my hat to that.
With Legion, the idea was always to keep the viewer guessing. If the main character was to not know reality from non-reality, reality from hallucination, I thought, couldn’t we also invite the viewer to experience it in the same way? Let’s not play anything that gives away whether or not this is a hallucination, or real, or what.
I really had to be able to play both sides of the coin, and that was why in something like “Chaos and Madness,” there’s this off-time percussion that then shifts between a more electronic and a more orchestral, organic element. It sort of goes back and forth, and that signifies not knowing where we are. That was really the idea behind that particular piece of music, and the score for the show, in general.
You incorporate choral arrangements in both of the above series. What inspired Legion’s gorgeous “Choir and Crickets”?
It’s interesting. We got to that episode [in Legion] where our main protagonist and our main antagonist are together in a scene. [Syd] puts on those headphones, and basically [Lenny] needs to put her to sleep, and make sure she doesn’t get up again for a while.
The idea was, what is she listening to? There was the sound of crickets, and I thought voices would be the most soothing thing, so why not have the crickets become in concert with the voices? What happens is the crickets are chirping, and then all of a sudden the crickets all start chirping in time, and then the voices start. The whole point was, how can I create something that would feel hypnotic to Syd, and put her to sleep with all this chaos going on around her?
A lot of times what happens is I have an idea, but then with that idea, I’m feeling my way around in the dark, trying to figure out what the actual musicality of that idea is going to be. And when I stumble on it, I’m like, “Oh, there it is.” Then, I sort of build on that.
The crickets become a sort of metronome for the voices. Have you experimented with ambient sounds of this nature in a score before?
Certainly in Fargo, every year I’ve tried to incorporate some sounds that are relevant to the story. In the first season, I used the sound of a washing machine, and the washing machine was really important to the narrative in that first episode. In the second year, I used a typewriter—that was connected to one of the characters owning a typewriter store. And this season, I’ve been using the sound of automobiles, because our main character is the Parking Lot King of Minnesota.
I do try to incorporate real-world sounds as they relate to the narrative into the score. It doesn’t always work. In the case of Legion, the crickets definitely were an ambient sound, and I thought, “Oh, what if they were to continue and become part of the music?”
The music of Legion often exudes dread, particularly when the Devil with the Yellow Eyes is near. How did you conjure that feeling through music?
I started with thinking about what an aleatoric, atonal string quartet would sound like. When I started writing music, I started feeling like what I could do is have four of these instruments that, when played together in the right way, sound beautiful, but when played together completely out of touch with one another, might sound really ugly. It might throw you off balance. When I started experimenting with recording some different sound effects with our organic instruments, that was the first thing I went to.
There’s a piece called “First Entry Into Clockworks,” which is when we first see David in Clockworks. At that point, the audience doesn’t know that [what David sees] may not be real, but we are playing this really psychotic place. I thought it would be really good to just play everything out of tune and out of time with one another.
Then, as we continued into the story, and The Shadow King became a character in the story, on top of those horn effects that I did for that character, I though the sliding-around string effect might work really well. It definitely throws you for a loop. From an audio perspective, you hear that and you’re like, “What the hell is that?”
The brass is also used in some very strong, classically propulsive superhero pieces.
Yeah, occasionally we had to nod to what we are, our genesis and our genetics. We’re certainly not your average, everyday Marvel superhero show, but our show did have moments of true heroism. When that happens, it made sense to play the more heroic type theme, and there’s no better way to do that than to add French horn, and the big string swells, and the ostinato-type things, which I only tended to do in this show at the beginning, with the more electronic side of things.
In terms of the electronics-based side of Legion’s score, what instruments are we hearing?
One of the original thoughts I had, along with Noah, when we first started talking about what the score could sound like, was the ability to flip from electronic to organic. David’s main theme started with me writing an ostinato part on a piano—if I program that into a synthesizer, and have it played over and over again, and then change tempo, and change octave, I said that could be really effective, along with all this other synthetic stuff.
That was a number of different synthesizers, one of which was an iconic synth, called a Synthi AKS, which is the same synthesizer they used to make [Pink Floyd’s] Dark Side of the Moon. One of the things we talked about early on was that Dark Side of the Moon is sort of the ‘70s soundtrack to schizophrenia, so why wouldn’t I tip my hat to that style of music?
Legion transitions frequently between genres. Can the synth here be considered any kind of homage to the synthesizer of classic horror films?
Well yes, if you’re talking about the classic horror films like The Shining, and A Clockwork Orange—very cerebral horror films. There is some of that in there. We did have moments of all of those genres, so I did have to do my best to slide from genre to genre, and still have it feel like one unified, and uniform score.
The score of Legion often moves at a manic pace, reflecting David’s internal state. What does that look like on the page?
It’s pretty insane. I remember sitting down with the quartet, and talking about what the music was supposed to sound like, because when you look at it on the page, sometimes it’s just a mess of notes. It does take some conversation between me and the player, in order to get the sound that I want. On the page, it looks like what it sounds like.
What have been the biggest challenges you’ve faced on the three series we’ve discussed?
One of the biggest has been the schedule in Season 3 of Fargo, trying to manage writing and recording with an orchestra on a very short schedule. It’s been challenging, to say the least.
With Legion, I think the biggest challenge was trying to figure out how to slide between those genres, to go from the electronic feel to the more orchestral feel, and how to slide back and forth between the emotional part of the show and the more manic and chaotic part of the show.
With The Night Of, it was finding a very delicate balance, because we never wanted the music to comment too much on the narrative. We really wanted the music to be earned, and we really stuck to that.