Soundtrax: Special Edition
March 27, 2020
Jeff Russo: Scoring STAR TREK PICARD
Interview by Randall D. Larson
When I last spoke with intrepid film and television composer Jeff Russo, he was just starting to formulate his score for the CBS series STAR TREK PICARD. Now that the profoundly captivating series has run its course, I’m grateful for the opportunity to chat with Russo again about his music for this latest iteration in the Star Trek Universe.
Q: I really love your main theme with its elegance and serenity and of course that bit from Jerry’s theme at the end – like you did with Courage’s theme in the DISCOVERY main titles. Would you describe the evolution of your PICARD theme?
Jeff Russo: I had conversations with Alex Kurtzman [executive producer] and Michael Chabon [executive producer/showrunner] about what a main theme for PICARD could sound like. We definitely wanted it to have a smaller, more intimate, yet stirring feeling to it. It’s an emotional journey, but it is one man’s journey and not something in a broader sense like previous STAR TREKs have been. I had always thought about the flute being a part of the fabric of the score of PICARD. Obviously the “Inner Light” episode in THE NEXT GENERATION is a really popular episode and I was a huge fan of that, and I thought that was a good way to connect something of Picard’s from that series to this series. So in thinking about what the main title theme would be I thought it would be a good idea to have the flute be a part of that. I thought it would be a good way to begin and end the theme with that sound. But generally speaking, it really needed to be a contemplative emotional construct as opposed to a big, bombastic piece. That’s where the idea came from, and I had gone through a number of different versions of the same piece of music—there are different threads of it in the End Title, there’s a different thread of it in the End Title to CHILDREN OF MARS [the 2019 Short Trek episode that preceded PICARD], there is a different End Title for the finale episode, so it lives in a lot of different ways. It also lives throughout the score of each episode. So it has a rich history now, in how it’s utilized and how it has grown and matured.
Q: You’ve had the opportunity to provide some highly affecting emotional layering throughout this series, because at its heart PICARD is more of a character drama than an action series…
Jeff Russo: Certainly that’s how we wanted to go about looking at the score for this particular series. It is a character drama—it is about Picard’s journey and his self-awareness; his wanting to make amends for himself and to fix things he thought had gone wrong. I needed to play to that. It is a very emotionally-layered series so I wanted the score to be the same throughout.
Q: You’ve mentioned before that you like to treat what a character is feeling rather than what a character is doing, and that seems to have played out quite wonderfully in PICARD.
Jeff Russo: It’s interesting—I say that a lot because it is how I tend to treat music in a narrative form. With PICARD it is particularly effective because of how nuanced and layered the emotional context of this character is. Sir Patrick’s acting is spectacular—very layered and very emotional, so it plays into that as well.
Q: Being STAR TREK, of course, there are some wonderful opportunities for energetic action material. How would you describe your treatment of the show’s fights and battles?
Jeff Russo: I like to write thematically so that becomes more of a question of tempo and instrumentation; we use a lot more percussion and we use a lot more bombast for those moments. On this show I tried to not to become as big or as bombastic as I do, say, on DISCOVERY, because even the action sequences here are still the action sequences of a man who’s in his 90s, obviously when Picard is involved with it. Space chases and fights between, say Narissa and Seven, are aside. I wanted to treat those separately, but I do try to play into what characters are feeling rather than what they’re doing even in an action sequence, because action for action’s sake is really not all that interesting. But when there’s pace coupled with fear and tension that can be very effective in an action piece.
Q: You mentioned Jay Chattaway’s music from “Inner Light.” In addition, you’ve got a number of references to themes from previous STAR TREK iterations that appear here and there in the PICARD series—for example Fred Steiner’s Romulan theme from the original series, the Voyager theme in reference to Seven of Nine, and so on—which appear almost like Easter eggs and integrate the new series with the old very nicely. What prompted this musical integration?
Jeff Russo: I’m one in a long line of composers who have contributed music to this ongoing story, and one of the best ways to pay homage to that is to thread those motifs in one way or another. With Fred Steiner’s original Romulan theme, I sort of nodded to it in the first episode and then utilized it in a very subtle and yet, I think, meaningful way. Either it’s just taking the rhythm of it or maybe it’s playing that one motif once or twice, and it really can take the listener and the viewer on a journey that’s a lot deeper than just what you’re seeing, because it can be subconscious—especially for fans of the original series and fans of THE NEXT GENERATION and fans of VOYAGER, obviously. I thought that Seven’s theme should include that part of the VOYAGER theme on a very subtle level, and I think that it really can help connect everything thematically, story-wise, and musically. It can be very effective and very emotional, too. When you first see Seven and I played that little motif—just like two notes on a piano—that’s really all it takes to connect something. That’s the power of music. The same thing happens when I play Picard’s theme anywhere in the score; it’s like it connects with that—it’s him. And then when you see him and Riker together—I very subtly nod to the Goldsmith thematic cues. I do that in DISCOVERY as well, with Courage’s theme occasionally. That’s the beauty of writing themes; it’s how one can connect pieces that are very far apart from each other. STAR TREK is of a universe, it’s of a piece, and I like to include all of that into it.
Q: Were other familiar guest stars – such as Data, Riker, Deanna Troi – given unique musical treatments when they appeared?
Jeff Russo: It can be sometimes confusing to try to give everybody their own piece of music or their own themes, so a lot of that is just a feeling or an idea or a simple motif that can nod to a generalization of the NEXT GENERATION. Certainly I didn’t write a specific motif to Deanna Troi, but I did lend a little bit of the STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION theme for those characters. Data shares in the Picard theme, because Data and Picard are so intertwined over the course of the story, and over decades, so I decided that it would be a good idea to have them share thematic material. That happened at the beginning of the series, and it’s treated again in the finale.
Q: Aside from referencing previous STAR TREK themes, what original thematic material have you created for the first season?
Jeff Russo: Narak and Narissa have a theme that has moments of Romulan material in it, the La Sirena has its own thematic material. Dr. Jurati has some of her own thematic stuff. Rios had a clarinet theme that I used early on, which comes back later in the series… Again, it’s all of a piece, that’s the thing. Trying to construct an overall unified sound for the show was important to me, and in doing that you pick up little bits of motifs for each one of these characters that deserve to have it. It’s little things like that that connect things subconsciously. I think in Season 2 people will pick up on that even more.
Q: There’s another piece that I found quite striking, the “Soji and Narak Waltz,” as they’re walking through the Borg Cube—especially where it opens with the strings and vocalise. How did this theme came about?
Jeff Russo: I got sent that scene separately from the rest of the episode early on when Alex Kurtzman said, “We really want to figure this particular piece out, because it’s a big piece and we want to look at it pretty closely.” When I saw what they were doing, it felt like it should be a waltz. Even though they’re not technically dancing together, it felt like a dance, going back and forth between the two of them as they’re walking. There was a rhythm to it, and it felt very waltz-like, so I wanted to create something that felt like that. It was an emotional moment for Soji because she had feelings for this guy, while he was manipulating her, so it was even a waltz of the mind—it was sort of a cat and mouse game. That was how I envisioned it, and that’s where that set piece of writing came from.
Q: How large of an orchestra have you used on this score—and are there other additional or unusual instruments brought into your palette?
Jeff Russo: I used four or five different types of flutes, but generally speaking the orchestra is about 65 players.
Q: How does that compare with DISCOVERY?
Jeff Russo: It’s about the same. The difference is in what balance it’s used. I utilized a lot more strings than I do brass in PICARD, and a lot more woodwinds than I do brass. So there’s fewer brass, more strings, but size-wise it’s about the same amount of people.
Q: You mentioned your music for the Short Treks episode CHILDREN OF MARS, which offers a lovely lead-in to the PICARD series score. When you were scoring the short were you looking ahead at how this score might lend itself to PICARD, or did you have it in mind, retrospectively, when you began scoring PICARD?
Jeff Russo: I had already written the main title theme for PICARD at that point, so when I went back to look at CHILDREN OF MARS, it made sense that it was going to be a jumping off point. I wanted to incorporate that theme, at least into the end credits—there’s a motif in it that I give to the end credits there. Thematically, it was really more about how it was going to feel, because that story was connected to what this story of Picard is about. I wanted to connect it but not be too on-the-nose, because I didn’t want to give anything away.
Q: We’re very pleased that the Season 1 Chapter 1 soundtrack was released early on during the first season, and we look forward to the full season soundtrack coming up in April. Has there been any consideration of a series of complete episode soundtracks such as was done with THE MANDALORIAN and currently with STAR TREK: THE CLONE WARS Final Season?
Jeff Russo: You know, it’s funny. My ethos when it comes to putting records out is that I feel like an entire episode of music is not going to be as interesting as an entire season’s worth of music. Thematically speaking sometimes cues get used more than once in a specific episode, so I would rather not do it on an episode-by-episode basis because it could be somewhat repetitive, in terms of themes. I’d rather it be on a much grander and broader scale. I don’t like to release that much music because it feels like overkill. What I really like is to choose what I think is the best of the best and then put that out in a meaningful way that tells the story, because that’s what I’m doing: I’m telling stories. I’m not just writing music to release on albums, I’m writing music to tell a story, and when I put a soundtrack together I like for that soundtrack to tell that story.
Special thanks to Alix Becq and Jana Davidoff of Rhapsody PR for facilitating this interview.
For more information on the composer, see http://jeffrusso.com/.
Lakeshore Records will release STAR TREK PICARD complete season soundtrack on April 3.
PICARD Premiere photos courtesy Rhapsody PR.
See my November 2019 Soundtrax column for a detailed discussion with Jeff Russo on scoring STAR TREK DISCOVERY and many other series and films