Outlander: Return to Scotland

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In the second half of Season Two, Outlander took a major geographical and tonal leap, returning Jamie and Claire to Scotland at the dawn of the Jacobite rising. These episodes focused on their efforts to prevent inevitable deaths at Culloden. My score needed to shift back to the haunting Scottish sounds of season one, with an added emphasis on military percussion and pipes.

This change is evident immediately with the new Main Title Theme in Episode 208, “The Fox’s Lair.” The track begins with Raya Yarbrough’s haunting vocal once more, but I removed the viola da gamba and chamber orchestra that implied Paris. Instead, the bodhrán frame drum returns. At first, it feels like we are simply reusing the season one theme, but the track quickly evolves from there. Iconic Scottish snare drums sneak in behind her voice, providing a distinctly militaristic feeling. For the final chorus, I replaced the moving bassline with a steady drone in the low strings and bagpipes. This gives the final chorus a distinctly Scottish feeling, evoking the pedal-tone drones of military bagpipe bands. The instrumentation is predominantly the same, but the emotional impact of this harmonic change is intense. This main title sequence prepares us for war.

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I felt the Jacobite uprising story arc should be represented with a theme drawn from folk music of the era. Jacobite history is rich with famous folk songs. Indeed, the main title’s “The Skye Boat Song” is one of the most well-known. However, the vast majority of these songs were written after the Scots’ tragic defeat, and lyrically depict themes of melancholy and longing. None of these songs would have been appropriate for these episodes, because the story takes place during a brief historical time of rousing optimism. To properly underscore these episodes, I needed a song that was written during the Jacobite uprising as opposed to after it, a song that makes no comment about loss, only promises of victory.

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I turned to famed Scottish composer and music historian John Purser, who was gracious with his time and assembled a collection a historically-accurate songs for me. I was immediately drawn to the soaring melody in “Moch Sa Mhadainn,” a song composed by Alasdair mac Mghaighstir Alasdair. A celebrated poet of the Jacobite era, Alasdair composed this song upon hearing the news that Prince Charles Edward Stuart had landed at Glenfinnan. That was perfect! When Jamie opens the letter in “The Fox’s Lair” and learns he has been roped into the revolution, this song was actually being composed somewhere in Scotland at that very moment.

“Moch Sa Mhadainn” Lyrics (in Gaelic):

Hùg hó ill a ill ó
Hùg hó o ró nàill i
Hùg hó ill a ill ó
Seinn oho ró nàill i.

Moch sa mhadainn is mi dùsgadh,
Is mòr mo shunnd is mo cheòl-gáire;
On a chuala mi am Prionnsa,
Thighinn do dhùthaich Chloinn Ràghnaill.

Gràinne-mullach gach rìgh thu,
Slàn gum pill thusa Theàrlaich;
Is ann tha an fhìor-fhuil gun truailleadh,
Anns a’ ghruaidh is mòr nàire.

Mar ri barrachd na h-uaisle,
Dh’ èireadh suas le deagh nàdar;
Is nan tigeadh tu rithist,
Bhiodh gach tighearna nan àite.

Is nan càraicht an crùn ort
Bu mhùirneach do chàirdean;
Bhiodh Loch Iall mar bu chòir dha,
Cur an òrdugh nan Gàidheal.

“Moch Sa Mhadainn” Lyrics (In English):

Hug ho ill a ill o
Hug ho o ro naill i
Hug ho ill a ill o
Seinn oho ro naill i.

Early in the morning as I awaken
Great is my joy and hearty laughter
Since I’ve heard of the Prince’s coming
To the land of Clanranald

You are the choicest of rulers
May you return unhurt, Charles.
In that most modest cheek
Runs blood that is pure and undefiled.

Along with overflowing nobility
That ever rises up along with good nature
And if you came again
Each laird would be at his post.

And if the crown were placed upon you
Joyful would your friends be
And Lochiel, as he ought,
Would be drawing up the Gaels for battle. 

I knew the song would require a vocalist. I tracked down an inspiring Gaelic singer named Griogair Labhruidh. I was struck by the power in his voice, which was both contemporary and traditional. I knew he would be perfect for Outlander, and featured him prominently in the episode “Je Suis Prest.” Fittingly, Griogair recorded his vocals in a recording studio less than twenty-five miles from Glenfinnan, where the Bonnie Prince first raised his standard on the shores of Loch Shiel.

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This relatively rare song did not survive in mainstream memory as effectively as others from its era, perhaps because it originated in that brief window of history when Scots really believed this uprising could succeed. For that reason, I felt using it here made Outlander even more authentic. “Moch Sa Mhadainn” was very likely sung during the uprising by mounted or marching Highlanders, with larger groups joining in at the choruses. I wanted to capture that feeling by featuring male vocals in the soundtrack.

“In the aftermath of Culloden and the centuries following many of our traditions were deliberately wiped out during what was effectively a cultural colonization,” Griogair told me recently. “Schools were built in which only English was taught in which children were often beaten for speaking their native Gaelic language. Songs like this therefore only survived in the most remote regions of Gaelic Scotland or were otherwise appropriated by the bourgeoisie of the Anglicised Highlands and denatured by their passage through a musical system which was completely alien to the free flowing, ornamented and non Western rhythms of the natural Gaelic music of Scotland.”

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“Moch Sa Mhadainn” had the melodic qualities I was looking for: strong intervallic leaps and a simple, repetitive structure to make it memorable. I did, however, make several musical changes to shape the song to fit the needs of the series, perhaps bending a few rules along the way. I worked closely with Griogair and John to ensure that essential Scottish musical traditions were preserved while simultaneously accomplishing my musical narrative goals.

“It is always difficult negotiating the gap between tradition and innovation but it is something I am becoming increasingly used to,” Griogair recalled. “I performed the song at a much slower tempo than it would normally be performed traditionally but I think it worked to great effect with the rich string voicings and the percussive elements of the piece. I was also very pleased to work with my friend John Purser who helped direct my performance of the song to suit the arrangement.’

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‘My own regional version of the song differs quite dramatically from the one I performed [for Outlander]. This is quite a common occurrence as there is no such thing as standardization in Gaelic traditional music. Our music is much like modal jazz in that sense and involves a lot of improvisation. All the decorations and irregular rhythms I used in the performance were all improvised round the theme melody.”

I was thrilled to work with Griogair and to bring his unique voice to my score. I was especially grateful for his enthusiasm for the material. “Much like the characters of Outlander, we are living in very interesting times here in Scotland,” he told me. “And much of the music I perform is about being a contemporary twenty-first century Scottish Highlander as well as carrying the spirit of my ancestors who fought alongside Charles Edward Stewart in a struggle for freedom which continues to this day.”

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The second season of Outlander concludes with an epic 90-minute long episode, “Dragonfly in Amber.” The episode leaps forward in time to the 1960’s, where Claire has an adult daughter, Brianna, and together they return to Scotland and meet Roger MacKenzie, now a grown man. Narratively, the story picks up from the season’s dramatic opening episode, bookending the season. My score, too, calls back to the premiere episode with an increased orchestral presence, and richer, more contemporary romantic writing.

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“Dragonfly in Amber” was a logistical challenge for me because of its structure. The narrative leaps back and forth between two centuries, with different tones in each storyline. In the 1740’s, the tension gradually mounts as Jamie and Claire make their final preparations before the battle. This required a backdrop of Scottish instrumentation and a relentlessly accelerating percussive spine that peaked in the soaring emotional farewell at the stones. The music from every scene in the 1740′s can actually be stitched together to form a cohesive single piece of music, something fans will get to hear when the soundtrack album is released this fall.

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In the 1960’s, Claire reminisces about the past while Brianna pieces together the clues of her ancestry. This storyline required a more subdued approach, leaning more towards orchestra than folk instruments. I struggled with writing a new theme for Brianna and Roger for this episode, and ultimately found there wasn’t room in the narrative for an entirely new musical idea. In this story, Brianna chases Jamie’s ghost. She discovers her own identity in this episode. It felt premature to define her musically when she hadn’t yet defined herself. Instead, I used snippets of the Jamie and Claire theme as she gets closer to the truth, an effective way of underlining this idea. Now that she knows who she is, I am confident I will find opportunity to compose an original theme for her next season.

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The season ends with a glorious shot of the camera pushing back in on the stones, as the sun rises in the background. Here, I quoted the Stones Theme once more. I introduced this melody in the first episode, and have used it since to represent our characters taking important steps on an epic journey. There seemed no better way to wrap up one of the most ambitious seasons of television I have ever scored.

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I am thrilled that my label Sparks & Shadows has partnered once again with Madison Gate Records to release my original score for Season Two! The soundtrack will be available on October 28th, and pre-orders are already available on Amazon. The tracks include my favorite cues from throughout the entire season:

1. Outlander – The Skye Boat Song (French Version)
2. Leave the Past Behind
3. Wrath of the Comte
4. Versailles
5. Into Paris
6. Honey Pot
7. The Apothecary
8. Baroque Chess Match
9. The Duel
10. Faith
11. Outlander – The Skye Boat Song (Jacobite Version)
12. Je Suis Prest
13. 125 Yards
14. Vengeance at Your Feet
15. The Uprising Begins
16. Prestonpans
17. Moch Sa Mhadainn
18. White Roses of Scotland
19. Tales of Brianna
20. Running Out of Time
21. Destiny on Culloden Moor
22. A Fraser Officer Survived

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The second season of Outlander has been a tremendous musical adventure for me. One of my favorite experiences as a composer is working on a project that allows me to learn a new musical language. My crash course in French baroque music, performance, and history, was one of the most exciting creative times in my career. I followed that with a dive into unexplored areas of Jacobite musical history. I concluded this season a better composer than when I began, and for that I am grateful. With the series now boldly picked up for two more seasons, I know my musical adventure is only just beginning.

-Bear