At this year’s Soundtrack_Cologne 13 we were fortunate to sit down with composer Jeff Russo (Fargo, Manhattan, Legion) to hear more about his creative process. While an extensive article on his work for ‘Fargo’ will follow (“Writing the music for Fargo Season One was the first time I had ever written music for an orchestra”), we will focus for now on his general advice for every artist starting out in the entertainment industry.
Cure and appreciate feedback
Embracing the collaborative process is key in TV as Jeff told us:
“The biggest advice to anybody starting out is: Don’t take anything too personally. Check your ego at the door and don’t be precious. Because certainly in television your first idea is your only idea. You really don’t have a lot of time for second ideas.
Also, if you write something that somebody is not liking, then forget it, move on and do something else! It’s not a personal affront. We’re trying to collaborate, we’re trying to make something together. You’re making your art in deference to someone else’s art. We are artists and we create music – but what we are really doing is that we are creating music in order to enhance someone else’s artistic vision and when you do that you have to take a backseat from an ego standpoint.
It really is not about: ‘I don’t like it, you suck!’ It is: ‘This is not right, we need to make it right.’
I can sit in my studio and write music by myself all day long and that would be great. I would be able to listen to it and I would be very happy with it. But that’s a different thing than if I’m writing music for a television show or a movie. It has to do a certain thing. And then sometimes somebody says, ‘This is really good up to here but once you get up to here it’s not really connecting with the story – can you change that? Can that make me feel more angry or more sad?’
Every time I submit a version of the score, I am not submitting a version of the score that I don’t like. I am submitting a version of the score that I’m happy with. It is always interesting to cure feedback comments. Because my first version is the version that I want to give you and now people make notes.”
Keep in mind why you do what you do
To avoid being precious, Jeff emphasized the importance of not losing perspective of what you are trying to achieve as a screen music composer and how it is different to being a concert composer or a part of a band like Tonic which Jeff co-founded in 1993:
“It’s television, we are not curing cancer – we are just trying to make people happy, to entertain people. That’s really all it is: It’s just entertainment. It’s great that our art can be that entertainment and yes, we toil, it takes hours of our life and we put a lot into it. But at the end of the day, it’s really still just music and art, it’s still just fun. The moment you take it too seriously is the moment you should become a concert composer – and that’s great! John Adams, for example, writes fantastic music and people have approached him to score their films. He just says, ‘No, I’m a concert composer. I do it, I play it, I want people to enjoy it that way.’ And that’s what people do; they go to enjoy his music. That’s wonderful and I love his music.
Maybe one day I will do that, maybe one day I won’t. I’m lucky enough to have experienced that. Not as an instrumental composer but as a composer of songs and a performer of songs. I’ve already gotten to experience the thrill of writing a song that people know, getting in front of them playing it and having that experience. That’s a different experience than being in a studio and writing music for a movie or a television show.”
His approach to writing music for a successful TV show like ‘Fargo’ will be the core of our next article about his creative process. In the meantime, you can find out more about Jeff Russo on his website.