Outlander: Season 4
Outlander Season Four chronicles a dramatic journey: from the bustling streets of colonial era Wilmington, across vast stretches of Appalachian wilderness, to Cherokee and Mohawk lands. This journey leaps from the modernity of the 1960’s to the simmering pre-Revolutionary tension of eighteenth-century America. These settings present a challenge for a composer, because each era, culture, and geographical location offers potential musical influences for the score. My goal was to assimilate all these ideas into a score that helps the audience follow the various narrative threads and still supports the drama. Oh, and I wanted to use banjos now too!
BAGPIPES AND BANJOS
My work began as I set out to rearrange a new version of “The Skye Boat Song” for the season’s Main Title. Changing a series’ Main Title is relatively rare in television, and yet this marks the sixth, arguably seventh, iteration of the beloved folk song I have produced for Outlander. (The previous were Season 1’s original, Season 2’s “French” and “Jacobite” versions, and Season 3’s “After Culloden” and “Caribbean” versions. I also produced an “Extended” version for the Season 1 Volume 2 soundtrack album, though it was never used in the series itself.)
Before I began writing, the producers requested that my music help transport the audience to a new setting. They wanted the music to sound different. With the season taking place entirely in America, it was clear this new Main Title arrangement – and the fourth season score as a whole – would need to sound distinctly American. I worked with a musicologist, and researched the popular folk music of pre-Revolutionary America. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the majority of American folk songs of this era were imported from England, frequently set to new lyrics. One of the most famous early Revolutionary songs was “The Liberty Song,” with lyrics by John Dickinson, and yet drawing its melody from “Heart of Oak,” the anthem of the Royal Navy of the United Kingdom, and the Irish song “Here’s a Health.” (In fact, I already featured this song prominently in the end credits of the Season 3 finale!)
Stripped of their lyrics, these colonial American songs are essentially British, played on mostly the same instruments with only subtle performance practices separating them. Had I scored this season of Outlander using only historically accurate American music, the audience would have discerned very little difference between this season’s score and the music for when our story was rooted in Scotland. I had to look outside the realms of what was historically accurate to find a new sound. I chose to integrate into the score twentieth century Appalachian music.
A large chunk of the story takes place in the Appalachian Mountains, a region of America with a strong musical identity. Over the course of a few hundred years, Appalachian music developed into what we categorize as bluegrass, country and folk music today. These genres emphasize specific vocal styles: clear, sonorous vocal tones stacked in triadic harmonies, often featuring high falsettos. This music also popularized instruments such as banjo, mandolin, fiddle, and a fretted dulcimer, used so often it became known as an Appalachian dulcimer. In the early 1920’s, Appalachian music began to be recorded in field recordings, and in the coming decades commercial studio recordings would eventually transport it around the world, peaking with a massive influence on the resurgence of interest in folk music in the 1960’s.
Our primary time-traveling protagonists, Claire, Roger and Brianna, would have been familiar with these sounds to some extent, so much so I felt confident employing them in the instrumental score. Yes, Appalachian music was mostly developed in the early twentieth century, but it offered the musical sounds that Claire and Brianna would have associated with the region. In fact, their nostalgic memories of the twentieth century influenced my decisions with the score. After all, I am not scoring a documentary about colonial America. I am scoring the emotional journey of our characters.
(This same philosophy allowed me to use “The Skye Boat Song” as the series’ Main Title in the first place, despite it not being historically accurate to the Jacobite era. The melody’s origins are hard to trace, and the Robert Louis Stevenson lyrics were written over a hundred and fifty years later in 1892. However, due to the song’s overwhelming popularity in the 1890’s and into the early twentieth century, I felt Claire would have known the song, so I imagined that she took it with her back in time.)
One of the great joys of reinventing “The Skye Boat Song” for each season of Outlander comes in making bold changes. And Season 4’s “Appalachian Version” might be the boldest yet. In my first sketch, I again allowed vocalist Raya Yarbrough to introduce the melody a cappella, and then gradually supported her with seemingly effortless strums from a banjo, mandolin, and Appalachian dulcimer. At the B-section, I added to the mix an upright bass and the gentle brushstrokes of a modern drum kit. The rhythm section firmly roots us in twentieth century performance practice. For the final chorus, Raya is joined for the first time by new singers! I brought in the three best bluegrass singers I know: Paul Cartwright, Ira Ingber, and Matt Cartsonis.
Executive producer Ron Moore and the other producers were so surprised and impressed by the sound that they wanted to push it even further, requesting that Raya rerecord the lead vocal once more, and that she lean more into the bluegrass stylings of our backing trio. Raya, whose father had immersed her in the world of folk and blues since she was a child, knew exactly what to do. She performed the song again, and with that, the Season 4 Main Title was complete.
When I reflect back on my experiences with this song, I have to laugh at what a strange journey it has been. In the first season, I was scared to even change a word of the text! (Ron Moore suggested we alter “lad” to “lass” to reflect the needs of the story.) Since then, I have bent and adapted this song into many different styles I could never have foreseen at that time. Yet, with each permutation, the integrity and soul of the song remains clear. Perhaps that is why the song itself has endured for so long. Like all immortal folk songs, there exists something inherent to its musical DNA that allows it to change, evolve, blend, and adapt to new interpretations, while still retaining its identity. I am grateful to this song for what it has brought to my creative life, and I wonder what else might be done with it.
MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD: With the decision made to introduce the instrumentation of Appalachian music, the score to Outlander Season 4 was essentially born. The bluegrass instrumentation can be felt in the season’s first episode, but beginning in the second episode, “Do No Harm,” it makes its musical mark. As Jamie and Claire arrive at River Run we hear the gentle plucking of the banjo and dulcimer. I was inspired by the imagery of their river boat, as it evoked memories of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer. Later in the episode, a comedic sequence involving Rollo after he has been attacked by a skunk provided another wonderful opportunity to lean into the Appalachian instrumentation in a playful style. From that episode onward, bluegrass colors grew in prominence.
As I dove deeper into the underscore, I first considered what elements from previous seasons I wanted to retain. I knew I would preserve elements of the Scottish instrumentation, in particular the various bagpipes, penny whistles, and Scottish-style fiddle, because I’ve come to associate these instruments with Jamie and Claire. I felt it was important for the audience to have some sense of familiarity when they watched this season.
Many of my other original themes play important roles throughout this season, often finding new arrangements within the distinctly American setting. Audiences will hear whispers of the Jamie and Claire Theme, despite it moving to a more supporting role. The string orchestra soars with several variations of the Stones Theme, as always representing journeys in time. Wisps of the Frank Theme recur in a ghostly fashion. Fergus and Marsali, John Grey, and Willie all have themes that echo throughout their scenes. Murtagh, that tough old rebel, is associated as always with an arrangement of a Scottish folk song, “McPherson’s Farewell,” a tune that always seems to echo something of the losses he has endured.
Finding the balance between new and old themes and instrumental colors would eventually prove to be my biggest challenge of the season.
Outlander is a thematic score, with over a dozen important themes already established. Season 4 required new thematic material that would come to represent new characters, locations, and story arcs. These new themes would be interwoven with older themes to create a rich musical tapestry. I believe long-standing musical connections help solidify the story for audiences, and deepen the impact of emotional moments, even if only on a subliminal level.
Of the new themes I wrote this season, none were as important as the Brianna and Roger Theme. It may come as a surprise to some that Roger and Brianna have not previously had their own theme. In my blog entry discussing their introduction, in the second season finale, I even remarked on the lack of a theme for Brianna, making the case that her sequences were about her chasing Jamie’s ghost. There wasn’t room in her scenes to define her musically, when she hadn’t yet defined herself. That decision impacted the third season, where Brianna and Roger made relatively brief appearances, mostly in support of Claire’s storyline. These scenes also left insufficient space to introduce a theme. Instead, I vowed to give Roger and Brianna a theme when the timing was right, and the inspiration struck me.
Now, at the start of the fourth season, not only were Roger and Brianna stepping forward to claim more screen time and narrative weight, but the producers and I were beginning to feel that the score was leaning too heavily on Jamie and Claire’s Theme. We felt it was time to introduce an important new character theme to the score, one that could serve as a musical partner to the Jamie and Claire Theme.
In crafting the Roger and Brianna Theme, my goal was to compose a theme that is distinct, but equal, one that could eventually generate the kind of emotional impact over the course of multiple seasons that I believe the Jamie and Claire Theme has with audiences. I drew heavily on both musical influences from the 1960’s and the bluegrass influence on the score. A simple ostinato on finger-picked acoustic guitars provide the theme’s foundation…
… followed by a gentle melody, featured most frequently on mandolin.
By design, the theme is similar to the Jaime and Claire Theme, with subtle Scottish references and influences. For example, tucked within the melody line are examples of the iconic upward grace-note figure that occurs on downbeats throughout Scottish music. At its purest form, their theme also evokes the popular folk music of the 1960’s, and simultaneously fits with the Appalachian-influenced instrumental score. My hope is that this subtle sense of modernity serves as a constant reminder that these two come from a time closer to our own.
Roger and Brianna’s theme first appears in the premiere episode, during Jamie and Claire’s wistful conversation about how America will eventually become her country in the future. In subsequent episodes, it is featured during every scene in which either character appears, as it represents both sides of their tumultuous relationship, and their journeys to one another. Some of my favorite occurrences of the Roger and Brianna Theme include the extended sequence where Brianna arrives in the past in “Down the Rabbit Hole.” In this cue, wistful orchestral strings state the Stones Themes, weaving it around the Brianna Theme’s piercing solo mandolin. The music mashes together the sounds of Season One and Season Four, subliminally supporting for the audience the idea that Brianna has now travelled back in time.
There are several emotional statements of their theme in “Wilmington,” where Roger and Brianna are reunited. My favorite is probably the handfasting ceremony, where the individual notes of the theme are plucked out elegantly and slowly, against a gentle backdrop of string harmonics, before building energy into a lyrical string orchestra statement, supported by solo fiddle. Another standout moment is when Brianna first embraces her father in “The Birds & The Bees.” Here, the string orchestra supports the melody in a new descending bassline, giving her theme a different emotional color. Briana’s theme can even be found hiding stealthily within Mozart-influenced baroque ornaments in the cue where Jocasta presents Brianna to potential suitors in “If Not For Hope.” The theme’s most soaring moments are perhaps found in several integral sequences in the finale, “Man of Worth,” including Roger and Brianna’s emotional reunion.
The Roger and Brianna Theme was the most frequently occurring new theme of the season, but not the only significant new material I introduced. Season Four presents a villainous new character, Steven Bonnet, portrayed with vile cunning by Ed Speleers. I was immediately struck by his presence, and wanted to write him a theme that could support his villainy.
The Steven Bonnet Theme is malevolent, built from recurring small intervals that give it a twisted, sinister quality. Once again drawing inspiration from the new instrumentation for the season, I most frequently feature his theme on dulcimers and mandolin, requesting that the players leave in the fret noise, scratches, and other live performance irregularities that produce a raw sound. Bonnet’s theme also hints at his Irish upbringing. In fact, my initial long sketch of his theme included a B-Section inspired by Irish reels, almost approaching a Young Dubliners or Chieftans sound. Ultimately, it was predominantly the theme’s steely A-Section that found a home in his scenes this season, but I’m keeping that longer version of his theme in my back pocket for use in the future, should it become necessary.
Technically, the Steven Bonnet Theme makes its debut in the premiere episode, occurring subtly when Jamie and Claire decide to help smuggle him to freedom. At this point in the story, his villainous nature is known only to fans who have read the books. I musically introduce him with a major-key version of his theme, hopefully tricking the audience into thinking he is their friend at this point. That friendly major-key Steven Bonnet Theme is short-lived. His theme next recurs throughout “Down the Rabbit Hole,” supporting his intimidation of Roger as they cross the Atlantic. His theme is also featured during the tense build up to the horrific rape scene at the end of the “Wilmington,” and recurs in a malicious variation in “Providence,” for the sequence where Brianna confronts Bonnet in prison.
Frequently on Outlander, I have used music to represent places as strongly as I do to represent characters, having introduced musical themes to represent Scotland, Paris, the Caribbean, and now the wild mountains of the American east. However, one location in particular, Fraser’s Ridge, sparked a conversation about introducing an even more specific theme.
We first set eyes on Fraser’s Ridge at the end of the third episode, “The False Bride.” This is the place where Jamie and Claire plant roots in America, a commitment that will continue to have narrative significance in the future. My first draft of the sequence featured the Jamie and Claire theme, since it was clearly a big moment for them. That demo sparked a conversation between showrunner Ron Moore, the other producers, and myself about the possibility of introducing a new theme.
The Jamie and Claire Theme has come to represent their tumultuous and passionate adventures. In this context, however, we all felt the theme’s strength was becoming its weakness. It was too familiar a melody to be featured in a scene that was all about new beginnings. In the scene where Jamie and Claire look out from Fraser’s Ridge at their new homeland, we should be thinking about the future, and not the past. Ron suggested we introduce a new theme for Fraser’s Ridge, and I agreed it was a significant enough moment to merit its own music.
Since Jamie and Claire are starting their new life in America, I leaned heavily into the bluegrass and Appalachian instrumentation, going so far as to even bring back the upright bass and drum kit. The Fraser’s Ridge Theme is a simple melody in 6/8, built around a gradually building oscillation between D major and E major that eventually reveals their relationship in a satisfying leap to A major.
We first hear this impactful chord progression at the end of “The False Bride” with that gorgeous wide shot, depicting Jamie and Claire looking to the horizon. The bluegrass rhythm section and symphonic strings swell together in a beautiful crescendo, one of my favorite musical moments of the season.
After that memorable debut in the third episode, The Fraser’s Ridge Theme makes a few other appearances in “Common Ground” and “The Birds & The Bees,” adding hopeful support to scenes where the Frasers are building their new life in America.
Ron Moore and I did not intend this theme to completely replace the Jamie and Claire Theme, which still has a place in both our hearts. The idea was instead to augment their musical identity, by introducing thematic material with the sole purpose of supporting their new life in America, free from the memories of the past. The Fraser’s Ridge theme is one of the season’s most significant musical developments and I look forward to the possibility of using it more in future.
THE NATIVE AMERICAN PRESENCE
Perhaps this season’s most distinct musical development is the introduction of Native American instrumentation. First alluded to in the premiere’s mysterious opening sequence, I found opportunity to fully explore these sounds beginning in the third episode, “The False Bride.” What started with subtle new instrumentation during a trippy sequence where Claire first sees Otter Tooth, eventually evolves into a wholly new musical palette that virtually overtakes the entire soundtrack as the narrative dives into conflicts with the Cherokee and Mohawk tribes.
I felt strongly that the Native American presence in the show needed to be supported with authentic instrumentation, and so I drew predominantly from percussion and woodwinds, adding vocals for extraordinary sequences. For the majority of scenes, I emphasized drums similar in timbre to what would have been performed by these tribes at this time, leaning heavily on double-headed pueblo style drums, shaman drums, and deer hide drums. Various rattles were used, including seed pods strung together with string, gourd rattles, and a turtle shell rattle. For the more ethereal Otter Tooth sequences, or the action sequences that required more colors, I drew upon more exotic colors from throughout the Americas, adding the Inuit qilaut, turtle shells played like a log drum, and the Aztec teponatztli.
While these colors provided the backbone of the majority of scenes involving Native Americans, several sequences stood out to me as needing something special. I added a featured vocal to their already exciting instrumental palettes. Typically, the presence of vocals or choirs in Outlander was always used to represent Claire’s journey, or the Stones, or “The Skye Boat Song.” This is the first time such a distinctly new vocal presence has been introduced to the score, and I hope it had the same impact on audiences that it had on me!
The first such sequence occurred in “Common Ground,” during Jamie’s confrontation with the “bear.” This passage of the score is based on the Cherokee Bear Dance, and the vocals were performed by a talented Native American singer named Jaraneh Nova. I was utterly stunned by her unique musical personality, and was thrilled with how she integrated her sound into the score and elevated the drama.
“I could feel the respect that Outlander extends to the First Nation peoples, how they really value and honor authenticity,” Jaraneh said recently, reflecting on her experience with the score. “The sessions were a beautiful coming together of my ceremonial experience and musicianship, while serving as narration to the unfolding story. Finding vocal lines inside Bear’s brilliant scoring was a true pleasure! I especially enjoyed mirroring the emotion in the scene with the vocal. High vibes and great fun!”
After our first session, I was on the lookout for another sequence in which to feature Jaraneh. That opportunity would arrive in the finale, during the scene in which Claire hears the tale of Otter Tooth. During this passage, Jaraneh’s voice returns, set above the haunting texture of ambient synths, symphonic strings, and Native American percussion. Here, Jaraneh sings words and phrases that are common to Mohawk or universal, making occasional, slight omissions to fit the words into the space afforded by the drama. The text includes:
- Yoon gwa no loon gwa gaw
- _We love the water
- _(“gaw” is shortened from “Oh ne gaw”, which means “Water”)
- Yoon gwa way ah aye
- _We love, vocable
- Yoon gwa no loon gwa
- _We love
- Way ah way ah aye
- _(Vocable, no meaning)
- Yah, yah tewaka (tshennonin)
- _No this is not happy, I am not happy
- Yah yah skennen’ko’wa
- _No great peace
- _Great peace
- _ The Creator
“Native Americans are still very present in this world, although many believe us to be extinct,” Jaraneh said recently. “So, for me, having the opportunity to express ancient wisdom, language and prayer through song, in these modern times, was truly a blessing.”
The job of the film composer introducing cultural music to a score is always a tricky balancing act. I strove to represent aspects of Native American music as authentically as I could, however, I also had to address every scene’s immediate dramatic needs. As a result, the Native American instrumentation frequently ended up woven into the broader tapestry of orchestral strings, English and American folk instrumentation, and modern percussion.
One of the best examples of this kind of musical cross-pollenization is perhaps the finale and end credits of the eleventh episode, “If Not For Hope.” Listen for a strong foundation provided by Native American percussion and woodwinds, supporting a mournful statement of the Roger and Brianna Theme, where the playful guitar ostinato has been moved to deep, sorrowful cello lines. (Check out my blog about scoring the Peruvian episodes of “Da Vinci’s Demons” with indigenous singers for another tale of this in my work.)
OUTLANDER IN AMERICA
Scoring any project of this scale is a massive team sport, and I am fortunate to be supported by the best in the business. I want to take a moment to thank my entire team at Sparks & Shadows for all they do to keep everything running, and ensure we get music across the finish line on time every time, especially Kaiyun Wong and Marisa Gunzenhauser. I want to thank my team of additional writers, especially Jason Akers, Omer Ben-Zvi, Sam Ewing, Joanna Pane, and Michael Beach. Thanks are due to everyone at Kraft-Engel Management, especially Sarah Kovacs, for all their support, and to Joe Augustine at Sparks & Shadows, and Jaime Cyr at Madison Gate Records, for their tremendous contributions to the soundtrack album development. I also want to thank our tireless group of orchestrators, copyists, engineers, sequencers, and performers, with special shout-outs to Ryan Sanchez, Ryan Walsh, Nick Fister, Sergio Jiménez Lacima, and Andy Harris. I am grateful for every single one of these people, each of whom works long hours to make sure the score to Outlander shines in every way possible, and lives up to the remarkable promise of the story. My eternal gratitude goes to Ron Moore, Diana Gabaldon, and all the series’ producers, for the opportunity to contribute to this unique series.
I never could have imagined I would stumble upon a single project that would allow me to integrate both bagpipes and banjos, explore French baroque ornaments, fierce Afro-Cuban polyrhythms, or create a hybrid of Scottish and American folk music, set against a backbone of percussive Native American rhythms. Working on Outlander continues to be one of the most exhilarating creative challenges of my career, and I look forward to seeing where my journey leads next.
Speaking of the future, I’m happy to announce that I am currently working with the Sparks & Shadows team, Madison Gate Records, and Sony Classical on the fourth season soundtrack album! Watch this space, or my social media feeds, for more details soon.