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‘American Gothic’ Composer Experiments With Strings in CBS Drama’s Score

Watching Jeff Russo in a recording studio provides a rare glimpse into the inner workings of the creative process. Sitting with a modest crew of engineers, mixers, and assistants, the composer reviews a musical selection paired with a scene from “American Gothic,” the mystery drama series that premieres June 22 on CBS.

Created by showrunners Corinne Brinkerhoff and James Frey, “Gothic” centers on a prominent Boston family confronting the chilling discovery that someone among them is linked to a string of murders. This threatens to tear them apart.

Russo, known for his work on FX’s “Fargo,” experimented with a number of techniques to find the right sound for yet another dark tale. Noting that the very title of the series is packed with suggestions for its musical direction, he chose to approach his score with classic orchestration, but added a twist.

Working with a small, chamber-orchestra-sized ensemble, he adjusted the standard musician seating chart. Instead of the normal set-up that finds violins on the left, violas in the middle, and cellos on the right, Russo followed a traditional European arrangement that places the higher-octave violins on the outside of the group, and the lower-sounding cellos and violas nearer the middle, with the bass in the center. Such an arrangement, he says, allows for a richer, fuller sound.

In another experiment, he tested the violins con sordini — applying a felt device to mute their tone — but soon dismissed that approach in favor of a return to force.

Prior to the recording process, Russo drafted the score in his home studio, with an ear toward individual voicing of instruments. Each violin, for example, is given its own direction, rather than having large sections of instruments simultaneously playing the same passage.

The effectiveness of layering sounds was showcased in the way Russo handled the reinvention of the second season of “Fargo.” After underlining the tension in season one with sleigh bells and the hum of a washing machine (a first-episode plot point) the composer turned to the second season’s ’70s timeline for musical cues.

“There was less snow and more browns, so I used less of the sleigh bells because they didn’t support what you saw,” Russo says. The hum of an electric typewriter, synthesizers, and assorted percussion filled out the score.

For “American Gothic,” the composer admits that his multidirectional approach is a leap of faith. “If I’m in a room with my keyboard,” he says, “it’s never going to sound like it does when there are 20 or so people playing it.”

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