Outlander: Sassenach



Outlander, the epic new series from Ronald D. Moore based on Diana Gabaldon’s epic novels, is a project that combines many of my passions. I get to score a sweeping narrative, collaborate with world-class musicians, and integrate the Scottish instrumentation and folk music I’ve adored my whole life. (I have already written a whole blog entry about my experiences with Scottish music, and its impact on my life). In the coming weeks I will write about my creative process scoring each episode of this incredible series. For those new to my blog, I tend to get into pretty intense musical detail regarding themes, composition, orchestration, performance and history. I hope that this blog can be a resource as you journey through the series, highlighting the musical threads that guide the story.

SPOILERS AHEAD: For the uninitiated, Outlander follows Claire, a WWII nurse who accidentally travels through time from 1945 to the highlands of Scotland in 1743. From the beginning, I wanted to draw predominantly from Scottish instrumentation and folk music. Instruments such as the fiddle, bagpipes, accordion, penny whistle, accordion and bodhrán (a type of frame drum) form the backbone of the score, supported by orchestral strings, haunting vocals and larger percussion.


Outlander’s premiere, “Sassenach,” opens with a stunning shot of the Scottish highlands accompanied by Claire’s voice-over. She is clearly speaking from the future, looking back on her experiences, so I wanted the music to add a sense of wisdom and longing. The score begins with a low sustained D in the orchestral basses and celli, before a combination of bagpipe drones and fiddle enter with haunting, yet distinctly Scottish, drones. The opening cue carries us from the first frame of the series, directly to the Main Title. Along the way, we meet Claire in present day Inverness, and flashback to her final day of the war. These images are underscored with a dreamy orchestral presence, meant to give the sensation that this is all a preamble to a larger story.


As Claire realizes that the war is over and takes a well-earned swig on the champagne someone thrust into her hand, a penny whistle offers our first glimpse of what will become the Claire and Jamie Theme:


I’ve already been asked by astute fans why I placed this theme here, before she’s ever met Jamie. My hope was to convey the notion that we’re witnessing this event from the perspective of “Voice Over Claire,” a Claire who’s already gone on this journey and is now looking back on it, to share it with us. The Claire in the voice over has already met Jamie, and is reflecting on this moment as the beginning of her journey that would lead her to him. Furthermore, I could have easily filled this space with triumphant, swelling brass, celebrating the victory for the Allies. But, this story is not about the war, its about Claire. I hope the score helps the viewer focus their attention on the woman in the midst of all this jubilant energy. The Claire and Jamie Theme will develop later in the episode, and I will discuss it in further detail then.

This scene also features one of my favorite orchestral passages in the series thus far. The larger strings fill out the lush harmonies behind the penny whistle, while a smaller string ensemble within them counters with a gently leaping arpeggiated figure:


The figure should feel energetic, but I asked the string players to play as gently as possible, resulting in a gentle, rocking texture that almost feels like a lullaby. This cue leads directly into the Main Title sequence of Outlander: my adaptation of my favorite Scottish folk tune, “The Skye Boat Song.”

I’ve always adored this piece, and felt its well known lyrical connection to the Jacobite Uprising would make it appropriate for this show. I struggled to connected with the famous lyrics by Sir H. Boulton, however. Thankfully, vocalist Raya Yarbrough recalled another set of lyrics by Robert Louis Stevenson. These are much better suited to Claire’s story, and after we altered a few consonants to change the gender of the speaker, they connected even more directly.

Raya Yarbrough, the voice of our Main Title, has sung for me on many projects, dating back to before the Battlestar days. She and I recently performed together at the Outlander premiere, and she debuted my new Battlestar Galactica suite last week at the Hollywood Bowl (all of this after giving birth to our first child less than two months ago, I might add!). Her voice has contributed substantially to The Walking Dead, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Da Vinci’s Demons and many more projects. If you want to get to know her a little better, check out her two albums on iTunes: her debut self-titled album from Telarc / Concord, and the intimate holiday EP I co-produced with her.

Ron Moore and I originally intended to feature an instrumental Main Title. I’ve actually never composed a Main Title theme that featured lyrics before, so the idea wasn’t really on my radar in a serious way. After a little experimentation in my studio, I decided to bring Raya in to see how this melody would sound with lyrics. Immediately, I could tell her uniquely timeless vocal quality would bring something special to Outlander, and Ron Moore and the other producers immediately agreed.

OUT_MT_iTunesI’m thrilled to say that The Outlander Main Title is available now as a digital download from iTunes and other digital retailers!

After the extended prologue and Main Title, we dive into the real narrative, beginning with Claire and Frank in 1945. This episode is unique because we spend most of our time in the Forties, coming to know Claire’s relationship with Frank before she is whisked away through time. With half the episode dedicated to exploring his relationship with Claire, I knew Frank would need a theme of his own.


Frank is a British officer, and a likable, if not passionate, man. I wanted to represent him in a distinct way, to differentiate him from the Scottish aspects of the score. I listened to the works of my favorite English composers Ralph Vaughan Williams, Gustav Holst and Benjamin Britten, who frequently incorporated English folk songs into their orchestral compositions, songs that have a harmonic and instrumental quality distinct from Scottish music. I also wanted Frank to have an instrument unique to him. I selected the clarinet, because it evokes a gentrified sensibility that could stand apart from the rugged, reedy textures of the Scottish folk instruments. At last, I wrote the Frank Theme:


Frank’s Theme is featured prominently throughout the first episode, along with lush harmonies in the strings and concert woodwinds that evoke the writings of my favorite British composers. His scenes with Claire needed to tell their own smaller story within the larger framework of the series: he and Claire are awkward around each other at first, and gradually become more intimate as the episode progresses. The score for their scenes is always romantic, even though the sex (in particular a scene in the overgrown ruins of Castle Leoch!) gets quite steamy. The function of these scenes was to establish a relationship with Frank strong enough to sustain tension for the rest of the season. I always used the score in their scenes together to suggest a deep, meaningful bond between them. The audience must believe they have a genuine connection for this series to work, so I knew where I needed to focus the music.


The Frank Theme sustains much of the score in the first thirty minutes of the episode. A new theme, however, is introduced about halfway through that may prove to be even more important. This theme is first hinted at when Mrs. Graham reads Claire’s palm and discusses her future, in a subtle duet for Celtic harp and concert flute. The theme takes center stage, however, when Claire and Frank witness the dance of the Druids at the stones.

This scene is a pivotal one for the series, and for fans of the novels, so I knew it had to be perfect. Ron crafted the scene in such a way to leave me space for a featured piece of music, one that might straddle the line between score and source. The dancers presumably were hearing some sort of music, to guide their motions, so I wanted to honor the notion that they may have been singing, while simultaneously playing the scene from Claire’s perspective, to acknowledge the profound impact the moment had on her.


I had no clue what sort of music may have survived from the days of the Druids, so I called in my resident music historian, Adam Knight Gilbert.  Adam is incredibly knowledgable, and a real character as you can see from my video blogs with him about collaborating on Da Vinci’s Demons and Black Sails.  I knew I could count on him to help make the musical world of Outlander as authentic as possible.

He informed me what I suspected was the case: no music from the Druids survives today, and much of the music people associate with Druids today is based on mythology built up from pop culture, about as historically accurate as Spinal Tap. With no true piece to draw upon, I decided instead to adapt the oldest lyric from the region that I could. Adam found a number of contenders and I chose the one I felt matched the scene the best, the first stanza of a poem called “Duan Na Muthairn,” or “Rune of the Muthairn.” These were drawn from a collection by Alexander Carmichael called Carmina Gadelica, published in 1900, that was at the forefront of the Gaelic revival movement of that time period. Translated into English, the text reads:

Thou King of the moon,
Thou King of the sun,
Thou King of the planets,
Thou King of the stars,
Thou King of the globe,
Thou King of the sky,
Oh! lovely Thy countenance,
Thou beauteous Beam.

For the music, I composed an original theme, setting this text. I wrote it in the Dorian Mode, a scale I employ frequently for this show for its “old world” flavor, and elegant implied harmonies. Underneath the melody, I composed a distinctly modern harmonic progression to give the theme an other-worldly quality. Listen for the interaction between the F# in the melody and F natural in the bass line. Historically speaking, these scale tones would rarely if ever both appear in a folk song in A minor. With that, I had composed the Stones Theme:


The sequence begins with a simple ostinato in the Celtic harp, over a haunting bed of orchestral strings. Then, two female voices enter, singing the theme in harmony (all the vocals for this sequence were overdubbed by Raya Yarbrough). As the scene builds, I added further layers of Raya singing, as the instrumentation expands into driving percussion, blistering Scottish fiddle and lush string orchestra. The scene is a composer’s dream, one that features gorgeous visuals, soaring emotions and no dialog whatsoever to compete with the music. Composing this has been one of the highlights of the series thus far, and it allowed me to write a theme that will pay off in the future in interesting ways.


At last, more than halfway through the episode, Claire journeys through time and awakens in eighteenth century Scotland. From this point, the score takes on a distinctly Scottish tone, one that will remain consistent for the rest of the series. From here on, bagpipes take center stage.

[WARNING: I’m about to get into extreme detail about bagpipes. If this is too boring, skip ahead. I won’t be offended!]

Let’s talk for a moment about bagpipes and drones. “Drone” itself is a word that has developed negative connotations, but in fact it can be an elegant component of music. By definition, a drone is a sound that can sustain indefinitely. Very few acoustic instruments are capable of this. Singers, woodwinds and brass players have to breath, violinists and string players have to change bows, piano and percussion instruments fade out with each note. The bagpipe was one of the first instruments in history (along with my beloved hurdy gurdy) to sidestep this problem, by developing the technology to inflate the bag and push air through the chanter simultaneously. In short, it can inhale and exhale at the same time.

old_dudeAs a result, a sustained drone has become the foundation for much of Scottish music. In fact, I would argue the harmonic language of Scottish music derives from chords that sound pleasing against a drone. Scottish folk musicians were clever in writing around their drones. To maximize harmonic possibilities, Scottish drones frequently sustain on the “V” of the scale, not the tonic as one would intuitively expect. This allows one to harmonize the most frequently used chords, “I,” “IV,” “V” and “VI,” and still avoid clashing minor seconds against the drone. I believe this is why many Scottish folk melodies end on the “V,” instead of the tonic. This is just my theory, but it makes sense to me that the physical properties of these instruments would have a direct impact on the harmonic and melodic content composers from the region came up with.

I wanted to implement these Scottish qualities into my Outlander score, so I strove to have these drones present throughout as much of my score as I could, weaving them even into gentle string cues. My greatest challenge was finding ways to make the drones vary over time. I knew that if the bagpipe drone became too obvious, it would distract the audience. Most television viewers (ok, maybe not Outlander fans!) have a lower tolerance for bagpipe drones than I, so I knew I would have to tread lightly.

There are several types of bagpipes I write for on this show. Each has a component called a chanter, from which the melody is performed, and each has a different approach to creating its signature drone.

Uillean-PipesWhen the average person hears the word “bagpipes,” they are almost certainly picturing the Great Highland Bagpipes, with their unmistakably loud “jet engine” drones. I used the Great Highland Pipes rarely, because they are loud and harmonically limited. More often, I wrote for the Small Scottish Pipes, which have a mid-range drone that can be shut off if necessary.

Lastly, I wrote for the Uilleann Bagpipes, with their slightly brighter drone that can also be shut off when needed. These pipes have secondary keys called regulators, from which more complex harmonies can be derived. Uilleann pipes hail from Ireland, and date back to a few decades later than Outlander‘s era, however they are capable of far more expressive melodies and more chromatic notes. For a composer, these are invaluable tools. I’m fudging geography and history a little by including them, but its not inconceivable that highlanders of this era might have had access to Irish instruments. Furthermore, doing so opened up a world of musical possibilities for my compositions that I wasn’t willing to exclude merely for the sake of extreme accuracy. (Purists can send their hatemail to ItsJustaTvShow@GetOverIt.com.)

I began to think of these three different bagpipes as orchestral instruments, and experimented with layering them as I would a section of brass with strings. The results were, I must say, quite spectacular. The opening drone of the series is accomplished with two passes of Uilleann regulators against a Small Scottish drone, upon which the Uilleann chanter and fiddle share a folk-influenced melody. This distinct layering and panning of different types of bagpipe drones created a sound that was both distinctly Scottish and totally unique. For scenes that required more subtlety, I found Uilleann regulators against a Small Scottish chanter was an especially haunting texture that sat well behind dialog.

By combining these bagpipes in unusual ways, I found the freedom to write in a more expansive harmonic language and still retain that signature Scottish flavor. There is a cue in the second episode where I pushed this concept to its extreme, writing a contrapuntal duet for two bagpipes, taking advantage of the different scalar limitations of each one, resulting in a clashing, dissonant composition that could never be played by any single bagpipe alone.  But, I digress.  More on that in the next blog!

[Ok, I’m done with the bagpipe details for now!]

After escaping the red coats, Claire has a run-in with Frank’s ancestor, Black Jack Randall. Astute listeners will pick up a dark, reedy bass clarinet (referencing Frank) playing a distorted, minor version of the Frank Theme as he introduces himself!


For the second half of the episode, I was careful not to bog down the action with weighty character themes. In another world, I could’ve gone crazy with individual themes for Duncan, Murtagh, Rupert and other characters. I knew, however, that such an approach would shatter the reality of the world Ron had so carefully constructed. I focused, instead, on instrumentation, color and mood.


The score takes a more folk-influenced approached to arrangement once Claire is back in 1743. This is evident in Jamie and Claire’s first scene together, when they step outside the hut and look upon Inverness in darkness. Here, a solo penny whistle states the Claire and Jamie Theme once again. The arrangement is sparse: the whistle is the only instrument we’re hearing. It’s far from a sweeping romantic phrase.


This reservation was intentional. Ron and I both felt that the romance was the core of the story, and as such, we didn’t need to dive right into it in the first episode. Indeed, you will hardly hear anything romantic even in the second episode. I decided to let their relationship unfold ahead of the score, to always let their intimacy on screen happen first, and have music comment on it afterwards. This is a direct response to romantic clichés, where the music swells before two lovers kiss, telegraphing to the audience what will happen. The audience needs to wait for the romantic story to pay off, and so the music will need to wait as well.


The Claire and Jamie Theme is featured in its most prominent statement yet during a riding montage, as she travels with her new companions towards Cocknammon Rock. The visuals are, frankly, stunning. I could have easily filled those sweeping vistas and misty forests with soaring orchestral lines. Instead, we get a single bodhrán, melancholy small string ensemble and Celtic harp laying the foundation for a solo penny whistle stating the Claire and Jamie Theme, before a lonely Small Scottish bagpipe melody concludes the piece. The tone is almost mournful, and yet emotional. The presence of this theme represents the beginning of Claire’s journey, and only in later episodes will it connect directly to her relationship with Jamie.


At heart, Outlander is not an action series, but it does have its share of action set pieces. These allow me to use Scottish instrumentation in more aggressive ways. My favorite in “Sassenach” is the assault on Cocknammon Rock. Here, I used the Great Highland Bagpipes and took full advantage of the “jet engine.” The pipes are just devastating!

Percussion plays an important role when writing for the Great Highland Pipes. If you’ve ever heard a marching bagpipe band, you will recognize the signature sound of Scottish snare drums. These drums are specifically designed to cut through the overwhelming roar of bagpipes. Unlike normal drums, their heads are made from kevlar, stretched extremely tight, creating the feeling of playing on a table top, and they have snares on both the top and bottom heads, instead of just the top. They are incredibly loud, and require extreme precision from the players. I knew they would come in handy for Outlander action scenes. In addition to the unique sonic quality of the drums, I’ve always been drawn to the complex, swinging rhythms of Scottish marching cadences. Pulling from that inspiration, I wrote an upbeat, martial cadence for the Scottish snares, divided into bouncing upbeats, giving the action sequence a distinctly Scottish feel.


The final cue of the episode takes us to Castle Leoch. Here, I gave in to my orchestral instincts and let the music soar. Full orchestral lines rise above a rolling small string ensemble ostinato, while Uilleann and Small Scottish bagpipes play expressive supporting lines. This rollicking groove carries us into the end credits, where Uilleann pipes perform one of my favorite melodies of the episode. This melody isn’t a theme, it was just an idea I heard in my imagination when I composed the end credits. I was inspired! Maybe I’ll bring it back in a future episode, or maybe it will just be unique to “Sassenach.” I concluded the episode with a reprise of Raya Yarbrough’s haunting vocals, singing an ethereal variation of the Stones Theme.

PosterThis End Credits cue is unique to “Sassenach.” Like Da Vinci’s Demons Season Two, I wrote a special End Credits piece for each episode of Outlander. Because Starz airs their episodes without ruining the end credits with promos, I use the opportunity to give the audience an extra minute of emotion, to savor the conclusion from the episode they just experienced. (At the Comic Con screening, the audience burst into such huge applause at the end that I doubt anyone heard a single note of this, so I’m glad its on the air now!)

The first episode of Outlander introduces the fundamental themes that will provide the building blocks for the score: the Claire and Jaime Theme, the Frank Theme and the Stones Theme. Other themes will weave their way into the score in upcoming episodes, but the biggest shift in the music coming will be my emphasis on Scottish folk tunes and other eighteenth century music. Each episode henceforth features new folk tunes in the score, offering us a glimpse into the world. Some will be familiar, and others will be more obscure. My hope is that the score lives up to and ehances the authenticity of the writing, costumes and immaculate production design.

I am eager to hear what you all think of this series, so leave a comment here if you feel like it. I sincerely appreciate the fan community placing their faith in me to get this right, and I am grateful to Diana Gabaldon, Ron Moore and the rest of the Outlander team for this rare opportunity to live out my musical dreams. Here we go!