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Composer Jeff Russo Brings New Sounds To “Fargo”

BY: Marjorie Galas, Editor

Jeff Russo understands how music can affect an audience. A multiple Grammy nominated member of the group Tonic, Russo has toured the concert circuit for nearly twenty years.  In addition to performing, he’s written numerous songs and scores for film and television.  Two series he worked extensively on, “My Generation” and “The Unusuals”, teamed him with producer Noah Hawley.  When Hawley reached out to him to join his latest venture, a television series based on the feature “Fargo,” Russo was excited to reteam with the show’s executive producer and show runner, and to bring a new sound to a familiar landscape.

“The task was tall; we had enormous shoes to fill,” said Russo.  “The people behind ‘Fargo’ were the best of the best.   The first script (for the show) was sent to the Coen brothers and they liked it.  It stays in the realm of the vibe of the original, but it has its own identity.”

Russo wanted to capture the tone and mood composer Carter Burwell evoked in the original film’s score while crafting his own musical vision and identity for the series.   He read several scripts before he began developing any music in order to fully understand the main characters and themes in the story.  He honed in on Fargo itself, the series’ setting, for a great deal of musical inspiration.

“I didn’t delve into the music of the region, but into the musical origins of the people of Fargo. A lot of the people are descendants of Sweden, Norway and Eastern European countries,” said Russo.  “I focused on traditional instruments such as the Nyckelharpa, a type of bowed violin with keys, and the willow flute and many others I plan to use.   Sleigh bells are useful to emphasize the cold, the snow, the loneliness.  The area you see in the show is a character, so it is important to treat it like a character.”

Avoiding guitars or electric instruments, Russo began creating a melody with a single violin to evoke a melancholy feeling.    He layered flutes, clarinets, traditional instruments and full orchestration around the basic melody.   Working with many long sections of the script with no dialogue, the music holds an important place within the space of the story.  Russo is very careful through the course of an episode not to “wallpaper” scenes with music.  Instead, the scenes are allowed to breathe and develop without musical accompaniment.

When music is employed, he sees it as an enhancement to character development, and is careful to create music that subtly flows with the action and the visuals of the scene.  While he works primarily with Hawley in exploring how the score is woven together with the script, he’ll collaborate with the show’s editorial department to finesse the sequences.

Russo feels his past acting and musical performance experience has informed his approach to creating film and television scores.  He began acting as a teenager and was featured in commercials and numerous film and television projects.  His rock band, Tonic, was formed in 1992 and recorded their first album in 1996.  The band members have performed and acted as characters in many of their song’s music videos.  To explore different musical interests, Russo also created an acoustic band, Low Stars, with three other musicians inspired by the music of Neil Young, Crosby, Stills and Nash, and the Eagles.

“I feel being on both sides has really helped me understand the elements of a narrative,” said Russo.  “I was a teen actor and those earlier experiences helped me understand how music was important to the story.”

The guitar was the instrument Russo began his songwriting career with, and is an intuitive source of inspiration for projects.  However, his greatest joy comes from challenging his sensibilities by testing different instruments and sounds.  He’s enjoyed creating the score for the first season of “Fargo” because it has stretched his musical knowledge.   He learned to play all the Swedish and Norwegian instruments he discovered in research, many of which he’d never encountered before.  What he’s appreciated the most about the show has been the creative flexibility both Hawley and the show’s network, FX, have extended him, and stretching his boundaries is what excites him the most.

“I’ve played guitar the longest, and I think it’s the thing I do the best.  But what I’ve done the longest doesn’t necessarily mean it is what I love doing the most,” said Russo.  “It’s much more interesting for me to think of how to make that guitar piece become an orchestral piece, or to pick up a ukulele or a hardanger fiddle.  I’d never heard of some of the Nordic instruments I’m using now, but in trying new things, I have the greatest sense of enjoyment.”

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