Alex Moreland interviews composer Jeff Russo about Star Trek: Picard, contextualising its score within the wider Star Trek musical canon, and more…
So, first of all – how did you get involved in Star Trek: Picard? I know obviously you were already composing for Star Trek: Discovery, but when were you brought on board for Picard?
Because of my working relationship with Alex [Kurtzman] and my having done two seasons of Star Trek: Discovery and our working together on that, we’d been talking about [Picard] since it was first planned. Right from the beginning!
A little while ago, I interviewed Alex Kurtzman and Michael Chabon, and they were talking about the series not as a television procedural, but as a ten-hour movie. Did that serialised aspect influence how you scored the series?
Well, I kind of approach telling a story for television in the same way, all the way around. Like, a story is a story, so yes… We’re basically a ten-hour movie for this season, because we’re telling one story across the entire season, so I did treat it like that – thematically and motif-wise, and bringing old motifs back, utilising new motifs. So yeah, I would say I did treat it the same way, [but that’s] the same way I do anything of this storytelling type.
So, I want to talk about the theme tune specifically for a moment. What was the process like there, when you came to write that?
I had a number of different versions of this theme in my head. I wanted to nod to the past and look to the future. I wanted it to feel connected to where our main character is now, and where he was, and where he feels he is going to be going. There were a number of different ways to go about doing that, and when I sat down to write it, I found the right melodic content for it.
I wanted to make it feel very emotional, because one of the things that I talked about with Alex was to make it a more intimate portrayal of a character in this universe, because we’re really telling the story of a person who has lived a really, really full, rich life and is trying to figure out going on another journey, finding his way towards this other journey in figuring out the problems that arose because of him being ousted by Starfleet, the Romulan refugee situation, the attack on Mars and the whole banning of synthetics, and wanting to unravel that entire mystery. We’re looking at that as this new journey for him, him being awoken into that journey. I wanted to play that close to him, a smaller version of that for him, and yet still have that grand Star Trek feel. That was really what I was thinking when I was sort of sitting down and thinking about it.
From an instrumental point of view, I wanted to connect it to our previous stories. So, the use of the flute at the beginning and in the end is inspired by Jean-Luc Picard playing the Ressikan flute in The Inner Light. That’s really the only true connection to a musical instrument in the show that I can remember in The Next Generation – other than Riker playing a trombone! It was like, “Let’s not use a trombone. We don’t need to use a trombone.” For one thing, it’s not Star Trek: Riker, and it’s not Riker’s story, so it didn’t strike me as something that would be meaningful. The flute seemed really meaningful to how Picard’s life had progressed.
There’s been quite a few of those references in Picard – the flute in the theme tune, the Balance of Terror sting when Narek is introduced, a bit of the Voyager theme when Seven of Nine appears. How do you decide when to include those little references – I assume it’s the sort of thing you try to use sparingly?
The thing I never really want to do is just copy something without reason. The Balance of Terror sting is a direct nod to Fred Steiner’s original Romulan theme, which I thought was kind of fun to utilise, because why not? It’s so great. So, I take it, and I make it apparent that what I’m trying to do is as homage to where we’ve been. We have these wonderful, wonderful musical motifs. Why not allude to them in the score, to really help connect the entire universe?
The same goes for the Voyager theme, which is really a beautiful piece of music, and there’s no better way to introduce a character from a different show than by utilising something that is as memorable as something like that. So, I try to connect the entire universe. I think that’s the right thing to do in terms of trying to tell the story musically. Star Trek is a very rich, diverse story from a character perspective and a musical perspective, and we try to utilise that canon to help tell our story and tell the whole story, moving forward into new centuries and new stories and new characters. Why not utilise that?
I get the sense that there’s been more musical nods like that in Picard than there are in Discovery – although maybe I’ve just not noticed them?
No, you’re right. [In Picard] There’s more canon to choose from, and I felt it was sort of a little more important to pull on the nostalgia because we have all these characters from other places. With Discovery season two, I did nod to Alexander Courage’s theme a few more times. We had Spock, and we had Pike, and obviously, the Enterprise, so I wanted to use the Enterprise theme. But that was really the only direct connection. In Picard, we have connections to The Next Generation, we have connections to the original series, we have connections to Voyager. So why not utilise sort of as much of that as I can?
Well, I was wondering if that was borne of, I suppose, the desire to set up Discovery as more of its own thing, while Picard is meant to tie more closely to previous eras of Star Trek?
I think it was very organic the way it happened, and the way I sat in front of a screen at my piano keyboard, watching and then figuring out what comes to me. Now, I come at this as a fan. The Next Generation, that was the thing that made me a Star Trek fan. I had already seen the movies, but it was The Next Generation that made me a fan.
I hadn’t been born yet when The Original Series aired, and when it went into syndication in the ’70s, I was way too young to have really paid much attention to it. The very first movie that I saw was the original Motion Picture, which was… I was still young when that came out. Then I saw The Wrath of Khan, which is, I think, my favourite score to date of all the scores. It’s unclear. I sort of vacillate between different scores for what my favourite is on any given day. But anyway, I sort of fell away from it, and then became a huge fan when The Next Generation came on the air. That was right when I was a teenager and really getting into the whole idea of science fiction, and Star Trek just really appealed to me. I just became obsessed with The Next Generation.
So, its connection to me, on a personal level, and on a fan level, is very deep. So, as I watch, I’m trying to think of the things that would make me feel good as a fan, what would make me understand the story as a fan. I have to couple that with trying to tell the story as a storyteller, so I come at it from two different perspectives.
Do you ever worry sometimes about being almost too beholden to that kind of fan instinct?
No. I wouldn’t say I’m worried, because I can only do what I do. Every time I think about it, it’s always in the context of what I do as a composer. I’m never feeling too beholden to it because I want to hear The Next Generation theme, the Goldsmith theme, or any “I want to hear this” type thing. I use instinct a lot when I’m writing. I use the thing that would make me feel right in the moment a lot, and I’m always beholden to that no matter what I do, no matter what project it is.
So, I don’t really feel like I’m necessarily beholden to a specific ideal because of Star Trek. I do have a sense of what I want it to sound like, and I do have a sense of what I want to do in terms of trying to tell the story. But I do also like to give myself those little moments of pure joy. And a lot of times, that happens when like, “Oh, Picard, for the very first time, is about to say the word engage” – right? So, what am I going to do there? It made a lot of sense to me, and it made a lot of narrative sense, so I use all of that as a guide.
You’ve scored a lot of different sci-fi series generally, actually – the different Star Treks, Counterpoint, For All Mankind, arguably Legion as well. How do you keep them each distinct?
I mean, everything has its own tone. Those stories are all unique to themselves, so that helps me. In terms of finding a unique sound, for me, it’s more about finding the unique idea, a unique idea in how to approach a score. How do I approach something like action in a particular style of storytelling? How do I approach the emotional content?
Then I ask, “Well, what does that mean melodically?” It’s just like sitting down to write a song. It’s still going to sound like me, I think. It’s still going to sound like what I do, no matter how I approach it. I do try to give each thing a unique identity. That usually comes in the form of a melody, or usually comes in the form of some sort of thematic motif. Then, how I frame that with either an orchestra, or with me on a guitar, or just playing drums, or just a synthesiser, is really what gives it its own brand.
Someone you’ve collaborated with a lot is Noah Hawley – on Legion, Fargo, and recently his film Lucy in the Sky. He, at the moment, is lined up to do the next Star Trek movie – is that something you’ve spoken to him about at all?
I have! We have spoken about it, and we’ve talked what he is going to want from a musical perspective, and how to approach it, and what the story is looking like it’s going to be, which is extremely exciting to me. But it was not by design. All of that was purely by coincidence, that I happened to be doing Star Trek, but also happened to be a frequent collaborator of the next Star Trek director.
He’s also a fan, and a good friend of mine, so when I started working on Star Trek, we chatted about it, talked about it, had conversations about the storytelling, and the music, and the themes, and stuff. He’s one to definitely talk about music with me, so when he called to say that his film was in the works, I was extremely excited.
Is there anything you can tell us about that, or is it all top secret still?
There is absolutely nothing I can tell you!
Except for that it is really, really, really incredible. From what I have heard, it’s really, really thrilling.
On a broader note, what would you say are your chief influences and inspirations, your desert island discs?
I try not to take too much influence from any one particular place. I mean, I enjoy listening to music. I enjoy listening to classical music, I enjoy listening to pop music, but the true inspiration for when I’m writing for media, or for narrative, is the narrative.
With Fargo, I write a lot of the themes after I read that first and second script, because I’m inspired by the story, and that’s usually where I take that inspiration from. When I sat down to write the theme for Picard, I hadn’t seen any pictures yet. I’d only read a script. I only understood the character as Alex and Michael wanted the character to be in his current form. So, I did have my previous idea of what and who Picard was from previous seasons of The Next Generation and from the movies, Nemesis and Generations and what have you. But really, the main inspiration is always going to be the character, it’s always going to be the story.
What I always say is, I’m always way more happy scoring what a character is feeling, rather than what a character is doing. And I get that from a script. I really do get that from a script. What the characters are truly feeling and trying to emote is the most important thing to me. That’s really the most inspirational.
What have you been enjoying recently? A score, a song, a piece of music, a particular artist released recently.
I’ve been listening to Billie Eilish, and I’ve been listening to Billie Eilish simply because of my kid. Well, I listened to the Bond song, and that was fine, but I got into her as an artist, because my daughter’s really into her, and we would listen to in the car, and it’s sort of gotten under my skin. And I mean that in good way, not in a bad way. Her take on musicality is interesting to me. So, I’ve been listening to that.
Scores? I don’t know… Listening to scores is fun. It’s fun. I don’t do it a lot, because I’m writing a lot of scores, so I tend to want to disengage from that and listen to something totally different. But I will say, just a couple of days ago, I was listening to The Rise of Skywalker, and it’s… I know this is cliché, but it is simply mind-blowing how deft John Williams is with the ability to write music that does everything it needs to do in a short piece of music. It does so much, and it does everything, so you can hear the piece of music and see the picture. And that is… I mean, no one can do that, no one. He’s it. He is the top of the pops. It’s incredible to me, to experience that just in my car, listening to random Spotify stations and that comes on, and it just sucks me right in. It’s incredible.
Finally, then, what’s the most important thing you’d like somebody to take away from your work?
Well, the most important thing that I want somebody to take away from my work, as a writer for narrative, is the understanding of the story and the emotion of the story, because that’s what I’m trying to do. I’m trying to help tell the story. Where there are no words, I can help with music. What can’t be said or shown, can be felt. The only way for that to happen is with music, and I’m hoping that that comes across – certainly with something like Picard, which is a really emotional take on this story. His journey is an emotional one, and I feel like I want people to understand that.
Jeff Russo, thank you very much!
Star Trek: Picard is available now on Amazon Prime.