Outlander: By the Pricking of My Thumbs & The Devil’s Mark
April 19th, 2015
“By the Pricking of My Thumbs” and “The Devil’s Mark” truly feel like a unified two-part story. The first episode is generally lighter in tone, but it’s events set up the relentless emotional rollercoaster of the second.
THE DULCIMER OF SANDRINGHAM
“By the Pricking of My Thumbs” introduces the Duke of Sandringham, a charmingly effete, backstabbing politician who will do anything to maintain his status in society. He’s funny, but ruthless. I did not write him a theme, because there really was no need. His role is primarily as a solution to Jamie’s problem. The actor, Simon Callow, brilliantly provided the character with memorable mannerisms, so I felt no need to clutter his scenes with melody.
Nevertheless, I wanted the score to reflect his presence as early as the episode’s title card at the end of the Main Title. I finished the Skye Boat Song melody with a dulcimer, played with soft mallets. The sound emulates a harpsichord, evoking Baroque upper class society, without that instrument’s uniquely piercing timbre.
THE STONES THEME RETURNS
Early in the episode, Claire finds Geillis in the woods at night, performing an exotic summoning ritual. Claire is immediately reminded of the dancers she witnessed at the stones in the first episode. This marked the perfect occasion to bring back the Stones Theme.
After its memorable introduction in the first episode (“Dance of the Druids” on the soundtrack album), this theme has made a handful of appearances, always instrumental. For this sequence, I wanted to make the musical reference overt, so I brought back vocalist Raya Yarbrough.
Raya’s voice is familiar by now: she is the singer of our Main Title. But, her approach to the Stones Theme is more ethereal, almost like a different voice entirely.
The summoning cue begins as Claire witnesses Geillis, with a solo Raya vocal introducing the theme against the same harp and celeste backdrop I used in the first episode. When Claire has flashbacks to the dancers at the stones, I introduce a second pass of Raya’s voice, singing a harmony line. Raya sings the same melody and lyrics as she did before (the lyrics are posted in my first episode blog entry), but this arrangement feels much more intimate. Back in the first episode, we layered dozens of Raya vocal tracks to create a powerful wall of sound, necessary to compete against driving drums and orchestra. Here, I kept the arrangement sparse; just two vocals exist peacefully above a gentle small string ensemble. I felt strongly that this moment should remind us of the Druid Dance, but stand on its own as a new interpretation of that melody.
Astute viewers and fans of the books may appreciate the secondary level of musical information here. When we later discover that Geillis is a time-traveler like Claire, we can look back and realize that the new version of the Stones Theme in this scene foreshadows this idea!
“By the Pricking of My Thumbs” has many emotional scenes with multiple layers of hidden meaning. The most effective musical approach was not always the most obvious one.
Claire is horrified to come across a sick baby left to die in a tree, and is unable to save it. If you thought this scene was difficult to watch, try spending four or five hours on it and then see how you feel! As a recently new parent, this crushing scene was very difficult for me to score. I knew it needed a huge emotional impact, but struggled to find the best way to get it. I tried it a few different ways, and ultimately found that the lightest approach possible was the most effective. Bigger, fuller orchestral chords made the scene feel like it was more about the baby and less about Claire. A lighter approach, slow moving string chords against an ethereal background, seemed to capture both the heartbreak of a tragic death and the swirling confusion of the circumstances.
Another interesting emotional scene is when Claire helps calm Dougal as he rages after learning of the passing of his wife. My approach was to acknowledge his grief, but focus on creating tension for Claire and Angus and their challenging task of getting him to take the sedative. This scene contains rage, grief, action, stealth, tension and comedy in equal doses. I strove to tread lightly and relied on an expressive fiddle and small hand percussion for most of the narrative heavy-lifting.
The episode takes a bleak turn for the worse at the end when Geillis and Claire are arrested for witchcraft. Churning string chords create increasing dissonance against small Scottish bagpipes, resulting in a horrific texture unique to Outlander.
Raya Yarbrough’s vocals return for the end credits, providing a funereal statement of the Stones Theme. Unlike previous versions, this rests above an ominous bed of strings and low pipe drones. The end credits reference to the Stones Theme is meant to imply that Geillis’ summoning ceremony will come back to haunt them both.
THE DEVIL’S MARK
The next episode, “The Devil’s Mark,” is one of my favorites of the season because it packs enough narrative punch to satisfy as a season finale. It’s a major game-changer with lasting impacts for the rest of the series, overflowing with dread, hope, despair, adventure, lust and romance: the kind of episode I love to dig into.
Given the nature of the subject matter, this episode’s unique title card could have been very dark. However, the background image here is a gorgeous flock of starlings (sorry, a murmuration of starlings!). The image was uplifting and gorgeous, and called out for reflection in the score. So, I used my larger orchestra to create a high sustained chord, and put the Skye Boat song melody in expressive celli and basses. As you know, I strive for a unique ending to every episode’s Main Title. For those of you keeping score, I’m currently 11 for 11.
The first two thirds of “The Devil’s Mark” take place either in the cold depths of the Thieves Hole, and in the crowded, foreboding courtroom where Claire and Geillis have but one ally. I scored these sequences with the textures I discovered at the end of the previous episode. Small Scottish bagpipes provide the foundation against which strings add increasing dissonance. I created the feeling of huge processional drums with the bodhrán and Scottish toms. My hope is that the score helps the audience feel that Claire and Geillis are doomed.
This story arc culminates as Geillis and Claire return to the courtroom, Geillis having decided to sacrifice herself. Low strings and sustained bagpipes drones create the feeling of hopelessness and death. From here, the cue gradually builds excitement and intensity over the course of about ten minutes. The strings move faster and faster as new instruments are introduced. Jamie bursts into the court, accompanied by fiddle, bagpipes and Scottish percussion. At last, when Geillis makes her ultimate sacrifice, the orchestra kicks in. Heartbreaking strings churn with oscillating patterns against mounting percussion, pipes and fiddle.
As we fade to black on the village carrying Geillis to the stake, I’m sure many of you were prepared for the credits to roll, having just experienced so much story and revelation. If this show were on a network with commercials, you would be right. Fortunately, we’re on premium cable, so the episode is barely half over! The rest of the episode tells a new story: Claire confesses everything to Jamie, and they must decide how to move forward with their relationship. For these scenes, I brought the Jamie and Claire theme to the forefront in a major way.
Until this point, their relationship had been consummated in all ways but one: she was still hiding the truth from him. I didn’t do anything that different musically during Claire’s confession, but I think our growing familiarity with their theme makes it more effective with each passing episode. Early on in the season, I held back on romantic passages, allowing the drama to take the lead. As a viewer and fan of the show myself, I feel like this episode may be the point where that initial reservation is really starting to pay off.
Where I stated the Claire and Jamie Theme is almost as important as where I chose not to. At the episode’s climax, Jamie takes her back to the stones at Craigh na Dun so she can return to her own time and to her husband. During this scene, I quoted an emotional variation of the Stones Theme, rather than their love theme. I did this hoping to create musical symmetry with the music associated with her first journey through the stones. My hope is that the presence of this theme here helps viewers think, even just for a fleeting moment, that she will actually go through the stones and return home.
Of course, she chooses to stay with Jamie instead. Oddly, the end of this episode resolves what we thought had been the primary narrative arc of the entire series! To this point, this show felt like the story of a woman trying to get to her own time, like Back to the Future with bagpipes and sex. Suddenly, all of that changes. Ending with such a game-changing sequence, “The Devil’s Mark” could have easily been a season finale or even series finale. Instead, it opens up new narrative possibilities, which will lead to new and exciting opportunities for music.
In the coming episodes, I will dig deeper into Scottish folk music, write the series’ most soaring orchestral passages yet and introduce an entirely new family of sounds to the score. Stay tuned!