The last three episodes of Outlander for 2014 have aired, and despite ending with a huge cliffhanger, they provided me opportunities to bring musical closure to the first half of the season. Each of these three episodes brought unique challenges.
SPOILERS AHEAD: “The Garrison Commander” ranks among the most interesting and challenging episodes of television I have had the honor of scoring. The vast majority of the episode takes place in a single room: a conversation between two characters. There are no cut-aways to a “B story.” This daringly restrained storytelling is exceedingly rare for television.
The episode opens immediately where “Rent” left off, as Claire and Dougal are confronted by redcoats. This sequence is underscored with tense orchestral strings, and pierced with the signature military field drums that I use to represent the redcoats. The field drums are so thematically important, in fact, that I used them in the closing shot of the Main Title sequence. I always create a unique Main Title ending for each episode’s title card, typically built from variations of the “Skye Boat Song” melody. To highlight this episode’s ominous undertones, the title card of “The Garrison Commander” has no melody at all, only the martial cadence of distant military drums.
Claire denies that she is being held captive, but nevertheless agrees to travel with the redcoats to the garrison, and Dougal insists on accompanying her. The travel montage cue I composed is a mixture of English military sounds and Scottish folk instrumentation. The field drums provide a tense, ominous rhythm, perfectly suited to the rigid British soldiers. But, underneath them, small Scottish pipes and acoustic guitars offer a folky backdrop, while the orchestral strings provide an energetic, arpeggiated backbone. The small Scottish pipes take over a melody as they approach the garrison, while a bodhrán adds urgency and energy.
This scene functions like the end of the previous episode, and so its score is very much rooted in the sounds we heard in “Rent.” Emotionally, “The Garrison Commander” is a story that truly begins once Claire enters the dining hall of the British officers. Suddenly, she is thrust into an entirely alien world, and the audience along with her.
We are given a sense of their world in a montage where Claire uses her social skills to charm the officers over the course of a long meal. I used this moment to introduce new musical sounds that would help the British officers feel foreign and emotionally distant. I wanted to stay true to period authenticity, but I felt that any Scottish instrumentation here would hurt the scene. These mincy, arrogant officers are not worthy of the rugged instrumentation that would accompany our Scottish protagonists!
I enlisted the help of my music historian Adam Knight Gilbert. Adam has found me many pieces for Outlander, Black Sails and Da Vinci’s Demons and I knew he could procure something special for this moment. I asked him about the kind of music a dainty British officer might have in his home during this time period. We discussed the music of George Frideric Handel and Johann Christoph Pepusch as potential candidates, but their music just didn’t feel right.
Adam then introduced me to the works of Thomas Arne. Arne was a British composer of the time period, best known to modern-day audiences for his patriotic songs “Rule, Britannia!” and “God Save the King,” which would eventually become the British National Anthem. Obviously, any of those melodies would have been distracting, too ‘on the nose’ for a scene like this, but Adam sent me an elegant little piece Arne composed for harpsichord and viola da gamba, “Blow, Blow Thou Winter Wind.” I made some simple adjustments to the arrangement, and found that it fit the scene perfectly. The harpsichord and viola da gamba evoke upper class parlor music, while music history buffs will chuckle knowing that the tune was composed by a composer arguably more associated with the might of the British empire than any other.
Their lovely meal is interrupted when Black Jack Randall barges in, and before long Claire must face him alone. From his entrance, tension between him and Claire begins to rise. I urged the producers to let as much of their long conversation transpire without musical accompaniment as possible.
The most significant cue during this long dialog sequence underscores Randall’s retelling of Jamie’s lashing. Scoring this scene was a tremendous emotional challenge, one that tested my personal limits. The cue is a relentless six minutes and required a lugubrious bed of heartbreaking strings to amplify it. My job was to make the scene as emotionally painful and difficult to watch as possible. Obviously, without music, the visuals are disturbing on their own, but after a few minutes, most viewers will become numb to it. By using the score to constantly heighten the emotional tension, I could, in essence, never let the audience grow accustomed to the visuals. My job was to keep pouring salt on the viewers wound so it wouldn’t heal. I felt my music was acting like the eye clamps in “A Clockwork Orange,” forcing you to watch the horror unfold.
“Emotional tension” is a term I use a lot when discussing a project with producers, and perhaps it merits a quick definition. I tend to look at any scene in film or television in terms of emotional tension or physical tension. Basically, any conflict will fall in one category, the other or both. In the lashing scene, the physical tension is obvious: one man ruthlessly whips another. Yet, we know that Jamie will survive. This is all backstory. Once the viewer is over the initial shock of witnessing bloodshed, there is (perhaps surprisingly) no physical tension in this scene at all. So, why are we on the edge of our seats as we watch it? The tension comes from trying to anticipate why Randall is telling the story. We are waiting to see what effect the telling of this story will have on his emotional state. We see this through Claire’s eyes, and while there is always a physical threat to her when in Randall’s presence, the emphasis in the scene is not on Claire. I knew I had to focus on the emotional tension with the score.
The music has its moments of dissonance to imply danger, but surprisingly, the majority of the cue here is quite beautiful. Randall describes the creation of a “masterpiece,” so I strove to write a score that would comment on the depths of this man’s psyche that are revealed in his story: his stages of rage, exhaustion, pride and awe.
After he finishes his tale, there is a brief moment where it appears his connection with Claire has inspired him to change his mind and help her. This was a delicate balancing act for me, because I had to write uplifting music that would not be suspiciously hopeful. Hopefully, even fans of the book momentarily wondered if Randall was really going to let her go.
Of course, he does not help her and, instead, assaults her, showing his true character. Here, the score transitions into a terrifying texture of tremolo strings and dark ambient pads. Just as the score reaches a fever pitch, Dougal charges in to the rescue. At this moment, a Scottish fiddle takes center stage and provides a high energy backdrop to Dougal’s rescue. As the scene builds, bodhrán, bagpipes and other Scottish instrumentation sneak in. I had intentionally left the score mostly devoid of Scottish sounds for the majority of the episode, and my hope is that bringing them back in for Dougal’s rescue makes it all the more triumphant.
The episode concludes with Dougal’s plan to marry Claire off to Jamie to prevent Randall from legally claiming her. “The Garrison Commander,” the most shockingly dark episode of the season, ends on a surprisingly upbeat moment as Claire accepts her fate and grabs a drink from her Scottish companions. The closing moments of the episode are underscored with a rousing solo fiddle, building into the most driving and energetic arrangement of the Claire and Jamie Theme that I have yet composed for Outlander.
“Rent” and “The Garrison Commander” combine to paint a fairly searing portrait of British involvement in the Highlands in the era leading up to the Jacobite uprising. Admittedly, I have absolutely no inside knowledge as to why there is no distribution deal for Outlander in the UK, so I can only speculate as a fan, just like everyone else. I must say it is shocking to think that these two particular episodes would have been the final ones to broadcast in the two weeks leading up to Scotland’s historic vote on whether or not to remain a part of the United Kingdom. My American friends and I watched this drama unfold from across the pond with great interest, and after the whole experience, I felt it was probably a wise move to not air these particularly upsetting episodes in the weeks leading up to a major decision like that. Now that the matter is settled for another two hundred fifty years or so (one would imagine), I hope that viewers in the UK will finally get a chance to see this series.
The following episode is “The Wedding.” Right from the episode’s title card, where a gentle string quartet offers a lyrical statement of the Main Theme, we can tell this episode will be more emotional and romantic than the previous.
The episode tells us the story of Jamie and Claire’s wedding. The narrative jumps ahead to their wedding night, and reveals to us the events leading up to it through a series of flashbacks. The tension in the episode comes from the intimacy we witness in their bedroom, as these two lovers discover one another, and from within Claire herself as she grapples with her feelings of guilt for having betrayed Frank by marrying Jamie.
Virtually every cue in the entire episode is built from variations of the Claire and Jamie Theme:
As I mentioned way back in my first episode blog entry, I typically strive to restrain myself with their theme. I never wanted to give it away early. I always let their relationship unfold on screen first, allowing the romantic music to catch up afterwards. In “The Wedding,” they consummate their relationship and I can finally unleash their theme in all its beauty.
Their theme is heard in varying instrumentation throughout the episode. My personal favorite moment is during the wedding ceremony itself, as the theme is introduced first in a haunting penny whistle and eventually picked up by lyrical Uilleann bagpipes, and an elegant small string ensemble. Speaking of which, not many composers can boast they scored a steamy sex scene with bagpipes, without a hint of irony. This is now a merit badge I possess!
“The Wedding” also contains a fun piece of source music that has a fun historical connotation for those who know the material. In one of the flashbacks, Ned Gowan is tasked with finding a suitable wedding dress and ends up in a brothel. In the background, we hear a musician playing viola da gamba. I chose the viola da gamba primarily because I felt that the fiddle and bagpipes were both such piercing sounds that they would have been distracting. Besides, something about bagpipes in a brothel seems like, I don’t know… a mood killer, you know?
The song I selected is a popular tune from the time period called “Celia Learning on the Spinnet.” When sung, the lyrics are about Celia taking spinnet lessons from her tutor, though she’s actually playing his, ahem… “long prick” (this is from the actual text, I swear!). This tune was popular at taverns and brothels, because brothels would frequently disguise themselves as music schools for girls. More importantly, the melody was fun and catchy, and underscored the awkward comedy between Ned and the prostitutes. Sigh… ok, I just spent more time writing about prostitutes and brothels on my music blog than I ever imagined. Moving on.
The mid-season finale, “Both Sides Now,” is my personal favorite of the first eight episodes. The title card alone tells us the scope will be grander, with ethereal orchestral strings, play a slow statement of the main title theme, echoing away over a shot of a twentieth century map of Scotland.
Half of the episode takes place in 1945, following Frank’s heartbreaking journey as he searches for his missing wife. In the first episode, I established a romantic theme for Claire and Frank, called The Frank Theme:
Inspired by British folk and classical music, Frank’s Theme is always performed on a solo clarinet, distinguishing it from the reedy Scottish folk textures of the rest of the score. Since the premiere, I’ve used it on a handful of occasions, to introduce flashbacks or signify Claire thinking about Frank. In “Both Sides Now,” the clarinet comes to the forefront and plays a major role in all of Frank’s scenes.
I found the clarinet remarkably effective at signifying our jump in time, every bit as useful as the saturated color scheme and the sounds of cars and telephones. Because we would never otherwise hear a clarinet in the score, its presence announces to our subconscious minds that the narrative is leaping back to where we began. In the first episode, Frank’s Theme was wistful, nostalgic and romantic. In “Both Sides Now,” I altered the harmonic progression beneath the clarinet to highlight Frank’s sullen despair and loneliness, however the melody remains the same.
Back in the eighteenth century, we catch up with Claire and Jamie, and hear subtle variations of the Claire and Jamie Theme once more, typically on a gentle penny whistle. I strove to establish their honeymoon bliss as quickly as possible, because their relationship would quickly take a turn for the worse.
Perhaps I adored writing the score for “Both Sides Now” mostly because it allowed me to introduce new musical styles for the broadening emotional scope of the episode.
The episode required I write my most intricate action cue yet for this series, for the scene when the MacKenzies are raided by the Grants. Pounding percussion beats thunderously against a blaring bagpipe texture, but the real star here is the Scottish fiddle, that just goes insane. Fingers blazed across the neck as this solo was laid down. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing, and the fiddle alone provided all the energy the scene needed.
The episode’s musical climax comes towards the end, as we witness Frank and Claire both running towards the stones at Craigh Na Dun, hurtling toward one another from across time. The theme here is one that I hope was fairly obvious to astute fans, The Stones Theme:
The Stones Theme was first introduced in “Sassenach,” featured prominently during the dance sequence (though it was actually introduced earlier in the episode, in a subtle statement accompanying Mrs. Graham reading Claire’s palm).
By using the Stones Theme here, my intention was to give the first eight episodes of Outlander a musical arc. We are returning to where we started. As they begin running, a bodhrán and solo fiddle introduce a driving Celtic-inspired rhythm. Then, the Uilleann pipes state the melody. At last, the full orchestra bursts into the theme as the mist parts to reveal Claire traversing a green hill. I must admit, the score really soars here. My hope is that the music is epic enough that it makes you think, even just for a fleeting second, that she might make it back after all. After all the time I spend working on a television series, I am rarely still swept up in the emotion when I watch it on the air. But, hearing my orchestra reach its highest notes while watching the drama unfold, I wept watching this episode last night.
My favorite moment in the scene comes when Frank gives in to despair. He hangs his head and sobs, and the string orchestra disappears into a soft, sustained chord. His solo clarinet sneaks in with his theme as he screams out Claire’s name across the valley. Somehow, she hears him and calls back his name. At that shocking moment when Frank turns his head, the orchestra bursts back in. Pounding bass drums mark the moment as the strings climb ever upward, musically signifying Claire’s ascension up the hill. Their rhythmic subdivision gets faster and faster until it feels like the whole orchestra is spiraling out of control, ramping to a sudden cut off at the fade to black.
Alas, Claire is apprehended by redcoats, just inches from the stones. From here, the score introduces a darker, ominous texture that will carry us to the end of the season. Low strings drift downward as she is pulled down the hill, the musical opposite of their ascending line as she climbed up it. As she is carted away, we hear the signature field drums of the redcoat army.
The final cue in the episode underscores Claire’s interrogation at the hands of Black Jack Randall at Fort William. The last time we witnessed these characters together, I had an entire episode to build up slowly to the climax where he assaulted her. Here, I wanted to pick up where we left off, and build more aggressively. The score enters as Claire pulls her “Duke of Sandringham” stunt, at first offering hope, and then giving into bleak despair as Randall outsmarts her and binds her wrists.
For my string writing in these final minutes, I took influence more from The Walking Dead than Outlander. I wanted to make the scene as scary and horrific as possible. Dissonant string clusters bend and clash against shrill chord clusters. I strove to underline Randall’s threat, and suggest Claire has no hope of rescue.
As the strings build to a screeching climax, the window bursts open and Jamie appears. Here, I bring back my Scottish instrumentation with a vengeance: driving fiddle, blasting bagpipes and fierce Scottish snare drums. These instruments ramp to the credits and end the show, with the promise of an intense season to come, when the series returns in April of next year to finish out the second half of the first season.
Speaking of waiting, I am seeing the word “soundtrack” pop up in my Twitter feed a lot. While there is nothing to announce officially yet, I can assure you all plans are afoot to bring the soundtrack to your ears. (In the meantime, if you’re itching for other music you might enjoy, check out my blog entry about my scores leading up to Outlander.) I’m curious to hear from you: are there any cues in particular you want to hear? (Lets assume that the Main Title, the Druid Dance and the scene in the mid-season finale where Claire and Frank run to Craigh Na Dun are givens. What else has caught your ear?)
Scoring the first eight episodes of Outlander has been an incredible experience. I am lucky enough to have seen much further ahead, and I am confident you will love the episodes coming next year. I will be back blogging about the series again in the spring. In the meantime, there is plenty more exciting music coming out, with new episodes of Intruders and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. currently airing, and the premieres of The Walking Dead and Constantine around the corner.
Thank you for joining me on my musical journey!