Outlander: In Paris

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With Jamie and Claire spending half of Outlander’s second season in Paris, I knew I would have to make dramatic changes to the score. The Scottish instrumentation that defined season one was pushed into the background, to make room for an entirely new palette of instruments, themes and performance techniques derived from French baroque music. Adapting my writing style to this approach proved to be one of the most daunting creative challenges I’ve faced.

My research began last summer with a phone call to Malachai Bandy, my resident viola da gamba player. I originally started working with him to evoke the sounds of the Renaissance (in Da Vinci’s Demons), a period three hundred years prior to the events in Outlander. Fortunately, the viola da gamba was in popular usage in this historical period, reaching its peak during the baroque era, before eventually giving way to louder instruments such as the modern day violin and cello.

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I suspected that Malachai might know something about the music of this place and time. I was unprepared for the level of enthusiasm greeting me when I asked him if he knew anything about French baroque music, however. It turns out this era is his specialty! Malachai leapt at the chance to help me learn more about this expressive era in music history. He told me that there are “thousands of extant French viol solo pieces” that could fit whatever emotional effect I needed.

Intrigued by his knowledge of the repertoire, I asked Malachai if he would be willing to record some viol music for me, so I could get a feel for the material. He was overseas in Europe at the time, so he recorded them in the twelfth century crypt of Peterskirche in Vienna, with José Vázquez, Lúcia Krommer, and Eva Lymenstull, all on historical viols from 1671-1706.

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I was hoping to receive five or six pieces. Instead, Malachai performed and sent over seventy-six individual pieces, totaling three hours of music! I was awestruck. This library provided a source music foundation for both my research, and for use within the series itself. Several of these recordings ended up in the background of various scenes at the court, providing another layer of authenticity.

In addition to his custom recordings, Malachai also turned me on to dozens of larger ensemble works, recorded by various early music ensembles. I listened to works by composers such as Marin Marais, Michel-Richard de Lalande, Jean-Philippe Rameau, Michel de la Barre, Marc-Antoine Charpentier, and Jean-Baptiste Lully.

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I believed I understood what mainstream viewers expect music to feel like when they see baroque costumes, palaces, carriages and cobbled streets on screen. There is an intensity to the sound we’ve been conditioned to anticipate from films like Amadeus, and period pieces from PBS or the BBC. The French compositions had the right instruments and sounds, but their use of rhythm of wholly different. To my untrained ear, they all seemed to… swing?

I asked Malachai why all the pieces had this unique rhythmic identifier. He told me that the performance practice was called “notes inégales,” (pronounced “In-ay-gall,” meaning “unequal notes”). “A lot of people do this nowadays as a 3 to 1 ratio swung eighths,” he said. “But it really should be more subtle than that. It means, essentially, that any two short value notes (usually eighth notes) should be played unevenly in most dance movements, usually so that the first note to second note ratio of any given pair is around 3 to 2 or even 4 to 3. You’ll hear this everywhere. It’s so commonplace in French music that I completely forgot to mention it. Oops, sorry about that!”

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I initially had reservations about the rhythm. I feared it would add an undesired levity to the scenes, and potentially distract audiences, who are expecting the straight rhythmic subdivisions they’ve heard elsewhere. I asked Malachai if I could simply change the rhythms to make them straight. He made a face like I just ran over his puppy, then thought about it, and said “Sure. I mean… it’ll all just sound German.” I laughed, changed my mind, and assured him I would preserve the notes inégales.

Malachai proved to be a useful resource as a performance consultant, as well. Throughout the Parisian episodes, he would frequently attend other soloist and ensemble recording sessions, ensuring that the players interpreted the rhythms and trills correctly. I appreciated his attention to detail, and his patience with me on those occasions when I had to break baroque rules for dramatic effect.

(Malachai: “Do those drums have to be there? They wouldn’t have had those.”
Bear: “Yes.”
Malachai: “But…”
Bear: “Because this scene is awesome and it needs drums because drums are awesome.”
Malachai: “… ok.”)

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As I dove into the writing, I quickly found that those unique French rhythms, the notes inégales, were an invaluable tool. The rhythmic feel creates a sense of lightness in the source music that contrasts nicely with the darker undertones of my score. I now had the instrumentation, melodies and performance techniques I needed to write a score that was not only distinctly baroque, but distinctly French.

SPOILERS AHEAD: These new sounds are evident within the first few minutes of “Not in Scotland Anymore,” the second episode. In a beautiful sequence, we follow Claire from the window, through their gorgeous home, down the winding stairs, to the courtyard and carriage, and out into the streets of Paris. Inspired by the jaw-dropping production design of Jon Gary Steele, and the luscious costumes by Terry Dresbach, I suspected score could do a lot to support this sequence with a powerful statement.

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I began our immersion into the French baroque musical world here, by arranging and incorporating the famous “Passacaille” from Jean-Baptiste Lully’s Armide. I would return to Lully again and again throughout the course of these episodes, because I found his melodies so evocative. Here, the “Passacaille” is plaintive and wistful. I strove to stay out of the way of the gorgeous visuals, and to provide an airy lift to the sequence. However, for the end credits, I returned to this Lully composition again, in a new, angst-filled arrangement.

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I wove important source music into the tapestry of my score in other places in the episode. For a scene where Jamie and Murtagh spar out in a park, I incorporated another Lully composition, the second “Intermede” from Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme. I picked this source material because the comédie-ballet was a satire of French upper-class society. Using it in this scene only further mocked the outraged and disgusted French nobles as they watched these two filthy Scots spar.

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Later in the episode, we meet two of Claire’s new friends, Louise de La Tour and Mary Hawkins. For their scenes, I incorporated a light little tune from the Overture to Marin Marais’s opera Alcide. I could be wrong, but I am willing to bet this marks the first time that the music of Marin Marais has been used to underscore female waxing. (And, after Outlander… it may not be the last!)

Aside from the waxing scene, by far the most daunting task in scoring “Not in Scotland Anymore” would clearly be the reveal of Versailles! This sequence takes us to an entirely new level of visual splendor, and Ron Moore and I felt that the music needed to kick up a few levels to support the opulent imagery.

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Historically speaking, orchestras and operas at Versailles could reach massive proportions, featuring hundreds of performers in the company, playing in grand halls and gardens for thousands of spectators! While my orchestra wasn’t quite that big, I definitely crammed as much sound in the soundtrack as possible for our transition to the mighty palace. I increased the size of my string ensemble, and added violas da gamba, harpsichord, baroque lute, baroque trumpets, timpani and percussion. I wanted the music to drop us headfirst into a regal, unique soundscape.

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For this sequence, I selected and adapted the Prelude (“Marche en Rondeau”) to Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s Te Deum. The “Te Deum” is an early Christian hymn of praise, and polyphonic motet settings like Charpentier’s were frequently performed at royal courts to commemorate military triumphs and other public events, often as a way of subtly (or not so subtly) implying that the king is God-like. I was drawn to the Charpentier piece because of its regal brass melody, and its striking introduction: a bouncing fanfare performed on two kettle drums.

I have never featured timpani anywhere on this score, because of their association with large symphonic orchestras, so I liked the idea of announcing the arrival of this unique music with an instrument wholly new to the score. I immediately followed up the timpani fanfare with the melody proclaimed proudly in the baroque trumpets, marking the first use of brass anywhere in the Outlander score.

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As we transition from the sprawling exteriors, to the crowded, gilded interiors, I stripped the orchestra down to a smaller group of about eight baroque soloists, and continued the piece throughout the various party scenes as if it were source music being played off camera by musicians in the room. Watch carefully for the exact moment that the huge orchestra stops, before the small orchestra takes over, and you’ll notice I use a moment of jarring silence to sting a comedy beat in the dialog. Fun stuff!

Not all the historical music in the second episode was French, however. Perhaps the highlight of the episode to me is the introduction of Bonnie Prince Charlie, played to delightful, scene-stealing perfection by Andrew Gower. This ego-maniacal, sheltered zealot is hardly the ‘Bonnie Prince’ of legend we were expecting!

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I scored his scene with subtle variations of a classic Highland tune, “Came Ye O’er Frae France?” This gorgeous folk song was written in the time of the Jacobite Revolution. In another context, this melody could have been used to create a heroic, tragic backdrop for this character’s reveal. But, here in this context, it is fractured and nearly unrecognizable, implying that the real-life Stuart is only a shadow of the legend.

As the Parisian storyline moved forward into subsequent episodes, I expanded my repertoire of thematic quotations. The Passacaille from Armide makes another appearance at the beginning of “Useful Occupations & Deceptions.” In that episode, a memorable scene with Suzette and Murtagh is underscored with another Lully composition, the “Marche des Combattants” from Alceste.

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One of my favorite scenes in the third episode is the chess match between Jamie and Minister Duverney, which I set to my own arrangement of the Chaconne from Dardanus, by Jean-Philippe Rameau. I had fun with this extended sequence by setting the baroque ensemble against a backdrop of Scottish percussion, including the iconic bodhrán frame drum. The French bounce of the notes inégales perfectly grooves with the jaunty swinging highland percussion, encapsulating the anachronistic spirit of the season.

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The episode concludes with a musical cameo written directly into the script: J.S. Bach’s “Aria” from the “Goldberg Variations.” For this sequence where Mother Hildegarde plays the harpsichord, no sound was recorded on set (as is frequently the case in productions). I was able to recreate her musical performances in my studio, striving to feature enough notes to trigger her recognition. I had a lot of fun, with this one, and it reminded me of yet another Ronald D. Moore production in which a message was encoded within music.

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One of my favorite thematic quotes towards the end of the Paris episodes comes in “Best Laid Schemes.” At the climax of the episode, Claire rushes off to stop a fight between Jamie and Black Jack Randall. Immediately, the strings start up an urgent ostinato in C minor. Underneath them, the bodhran and small percussion increase the urgency, before a viola da gamba duet takes center stage. The melody is a “Muzette and Double” from Marin Marais’s Piéces de Viole, livre IV. My arrangement highlights its inherent melancholy. I made alterations to the bass line and chord progression to give it an even stronger sense of cinematic tragedy. This is one of my favorite sequences in the season, because it creates an escalating sense of peril. We are finally feeling the events of Claire’s life spiraling out of her control, and we are terrified.

Naturally, not all the music in Paris is pulled from the archives. I composed a number of original themes for new characters.

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I knew that Master Raymond merited his own theme the instant I saw the giant alligator in his apothecary! Raymond’s Theme is very different than any other theme I’ve written for the series. It has elements of comedy, mysticism, mystery and a waltz-like subdivision giving it a sense of playfulness. His theme is generally played on a solo accordion (by yours truly, of course!), giving him a sense of folk influence and Gypsy magic. His theme is incorporated into the score in his every scene, and will be featured prominently in a darker context in the next episode, “Faith.”

That episode will also introduce an important new theme, the Faith Theme. This theme is among the more emotional melodies I’ve written for the series, and I am hopeful it will resonate with viewers. I performed it on solo piano, and it also features a symphonic flute. These are two instruments that I have almost never featured on Outlander, so the sound in this context is immediately distinct, modern and, I hope, heartbreaking.

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Looking back on all this music I composed, I struggle to believe it comes from the same series that also provided my chance to explore Scottish folk music in such detail last season. And yet, this score is tied directly to last season’s. Refrains of the Jamie and Claire Theme float throughout each episode, underscoring their most intimate moments, their most devastating losses, and their hopeful optimism that they might yet change their destinies.

One of my favorite experiences as a composer is working on a project that allows (or forces) me to learn a new musical language. My crash course in French baroque music, performance, and history, will always stand out as one of the most exciting creative times in my career. Shockingly, the sound of the score is about to change once again, to a style both familiar and new at the same time. I’ll be back to blog about that in the near future.

-Bear