'Fargo' Composer Jeff Russo Finds Strength
Vanessa Maas

In FX’s limited series “Fargo,” a chance encounter causes an innocent man’s life to spiral out of control with deadly consequences. It’s trademark Hitchcock territory if it wasn’t inspired by the Coen Brothers’ 1996 theatrical feature, which makes this a particularly malevolent landscape ruled by Murphy’s Law: anything that can go wrong will go wrong. (The series’ principal villain is named Malvo, after all.)

Like its predecessors, this re-imagined “Fargo” is rivetingly cinematic, from its nuanced performances to the meticulously crafted production values. Of particular note is Jeff Russo’s spare yet strikingly detailed score.

Perhaps the music’s most compelling characteristic is its contradictory qualities; it evokes a kind of Grimm’s fairy-tale dichotomy, where Minnesota’s winter wonderland quickly turns into a nightmarish landscape. In a strange way, the series’ underscore can be both soothing and unnerving at the same time.

When show creator Noah Hawley, with whom Russo had worked twice previously (“My Generation,” “The Unusuals”), approached the composer, he laid out some basic tenets.

“Noah had said to me, ‘I’m really looking for it to sound cold and lonesome and stark — all the things that you would expect from the landscape,” recalls Russo. “Yet there’s an emotional aspect to it and a melancholy to it. And all of those descriptors just sort of sent me on a mission. So I went back to my studio and I started writing this melody, and it is what became the theme eventually.”

In fact, that initial burst of inspiration was such that Russo wrote more than 12 pieces of music, all of which were used in the series. “About 60% of the music, or themes I should say, were written to Noah’s first two scripts before we ever shot picture,” says Russo.

That main theme, roughly divided into three parts, is wondrous to behold; it begins as a kind of rueful chamber piece with a single violin and piano, followed by accents of pizzicato, glockenspiel, sleigh bells and even a washboard, rumbling to a symphonic string crescendo with the aid of kettle drums — then back to that quiet opening stanza. In a departure from the norm, it’s used as much as an intro as it is a coda — one of the ways the show’s creators manage to reinvent series drama.

In a way, that theme tells an entire story in and of itself, and it’s all rather wide-screen in feel and tone.

“It’s one of the things that allows me to treat the show like a 10-hour movie,” says Russo of the concept. “Because that was the other direction (Hawley) said: ‘We’re not making a television show, we’re making a 10-hour movie. And we really want it to feel that way.’”

That feel has much to do with the use of a full orchestra, the 47-piece Prague Philharmonic, which found Russo flying back and forth from the Czech Republic capital initially on a weekly basis, since the music for every episode was recorded there.

After those first few trips Russo would collaborate with his players and conductor Adam Klemens via Skype and Source-Connect, which allows for remote recording and monitoring.

“Eastern European orchestras have a very distinctive sound,” explains Russo, who also co-founded the rock band Tonic. “I listened to a lot of different orchestras before choosing Prague. And I really felt like the emotional feeling I got from listening to the orchestra was what I wanted to convey in the score.”

The music’s impact is due as much to what it leaves out, exemplified by large patches of silence in the unfolding drama, making the most out of even the most spartan applications: a grace note here, a sleigh-bell chime there. Certain characters, like Billy Bob Thornton’s cold-blooded killer Lorne Malvo, are signaled by a single timpani hit.

One particularly ominous scene late in the series, when Malvo drops into the coffee shop owned by his police pursuer’s father Lou Solverson (Keith Carradine), an astringent layer of strings plays very low in the soundtrack, building tension almost subconsciously. It’s as if Bernard Herrmann was resurrected for TV’s current golden age.

“I’m extremely lucky to be working in a medium here at this network for these producers that allows (lots of silence) to happen,” says Russo. “Because silence obviously makes music way more important. And because it’s such a character piece, with characters shifting in such subtle ways, using subtle moments of music is very effective.”

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