Outlander: Interview: Bear McCreary

Outlander soundtrack 1Emmy Award-winning composer Bear McCreary was first launched into pop culture with his groundbreaking score to the hit series Battlestar Galactica, lauded by Variety as “the most innovative music on TV today.” Io9.com ranked McCreary one of the Ten Best Science Fiction Composers of All Time, and WIRED Magazine declared him one of only five “Secret Weapons” of the television industry. McCreary was voted “Composers’ Choice Composer of the Year – Television” by his peers in ASCAP, the first award of its kind, and received a 2015 Emmy nomination for his work on Outlander. Look down a list of his credits and you’ll see many of the great genre shows of the last few years – from Battlestar Galactica and its spin-offs to Da Vinci’s Demons, Intruders, Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD, Black Sails and Outlander. With the time-travel show returning shortly, and the two albums of music from the first season now available, Paul Simpson chatted with McCreary about his work…



You’ve described Outlander as the show you were born to score; what was it from your own background that particularly speaks to this story?

Obviously with the last name McCreary, I’m Scots-Irish. I’m also part-Armenian.

Armenian and Scottish music has always resonated with me, probably genetically but also because it’s really beautiful music. Armenian music fits really well in contemporary film score language – the duduk and middle eastern vocals are things that have been popular for a very long time – but Scottish music, interestingly, has struggled a little. I’m not quite sure why, because it sounds so specific to that region of the world. Perhaps because your typical Western film audience knows where bagpipes come from, they only want to hear it on projects that are really truly Scottish in origin?

For that reason, I didn’t previously have that many places to use Scottish folk music in my own writing. I grew up loving the music – I’m not quite sure what it was about it, but it’s so lyrical and so beautiful and fun and memorable. It’s really just some of the most remarkable folk music that exists and had a huge influence on American folk music. Its impact can’t be understated.

Battlestar_Galactica_CD4Outlander reminds me a lot of the score from Battlestar Galactica; are you pulling out some of the same tools for Outlander?

[long pause] Perhaps. Really with Battlestar Galactica, although I had the opportunity to write some Celtic-inspired themes – I used bagpipes and penny whistle and fiddle – I had to cut them into a broader texture, which was drawn from music from all over the world. There was Scottish music almost as much as there was Japanese music, or South American music or Middle Eastern music. It was featured predominantly, for sure, but it was never front and centre in the way it is in Outlander.

If anything, with Battlestar I got to explore these sounds; with Outlander I get to completely unleash them.

Do you see the scripts beforehand or do you wait until you’ve got a locked picture to work to?

I tend to not read the scripts unless there’s something musical in the script that requires my work early, like the one in the third episode of the first season of Outlander. The reason I don’t read the scripts is that my imagination goes into overdrive, and when I read it, I will start hearing music but it may or may not be appropriate for the final version. The actors interpret it, the director interprets it, the editor interprets it – all these people contribute a tremendous amount, and it can change tremendously. I find that I don’t want to get in any bad habits, I don’t want to get set in a way that feels like I know what the score should be and find when I see it, I may be on the wrong path.

The other thing is when I watch something for the first time, it is the closest experience I will ever have to watching it the same way the audience watches it. That first impression, gut instinct reaction I find is very valuable, so I try to preserve that. I try to be a blank slate and watch it as if I’m just a fan watching it on air or watching it in the movie theatre then I can respond by saying “this is what I would want to do or change” and make that impact even better.

SHIELD 2.19So you may need to change if characters do. Take Agents of SHIELD and Grant Ward: in the first 13-14 episodes of the first season, prior to the HYDRA reveal, Grant is pretty much the good guy. From thereon in he’s the bad guy… If you create a heroic resounding theme for a character who turns out to have that change, do you need to know that beforehand?

Obviously, yes it’s always good to know things like that. Sometimes it’s possible, sometimes it’s not. In the case of SHIELD, I’ve been working with Joss Whedon and Jed Whedon and the other producers, and I opted not to write specific character themes only because there are so many characters. Ultimately, I’ve ended up writing faction themes: there’s a HYDRA theme, there’s a Coulson theme, there’s a theme for our heroes and a theme for SHIELD as a broader entity, and a few sub-character themes.

I always think of Coulson’s theme as a Lola theme – it seems to go with him when he’s with the car…

Exactly, I definitely use it for those moments.

Galactica Starbuck tortureAn interesting character to study for that is Starbuck from Battlestar Galactica because she went through so many changes. I wrote a theme for her in the first season, then there was an episode where she’s torturing Leoben – it’s basically just like she’s at Abu Ghraib torturing this guy and you saw this darker side of her. Her theme got darker and darker, and then in the third season, when Leoben comes back, it became an incredibly important plot that there was a divine element to her and I realised that the theme that I had wasn’t going to work. I needed to have a new one. Then she also had a love affair with Lee that was an on-again, off-again thing, so I wrote a love theme…

By the end of the show she had three distinctly different themes for the three different sides of her personality. I didn’t drop them: I kept them all and wove them into the scene depending on the context.

I thought about real people: Battlestar didn’t have archetypes like Star Wars. Luke Skywalker is an archetype, he’s not a character in the way you can develop a character in 80 hours over a TV show. People in real life are messy, complicated. I don’t know if I could write a theme for myself: I’m a moody guy. Sometimes I’m really happy, sometimes I’m not. We’re very dynamic creatures, and when you get a show that’s so well-written and a character like Starbuck, that’s where I can really sink my teeth in and evolve a theme over a really long duration and really change it.

I have the feeling that Outlander will become one of these kinds of projects.

If you do have that on Outlander, would you write the themes so that they can mesh, or are they the theme that is right at the time, so the fact they’re in opposing keys, or metres is irrelevant…

I always think about the adaptability of a theme. I think of a theme like a seed: you want a healthy seed to be able to grow into a big tree, right? So a theme has malleability, it has to be able to grow and adapt.

Da Vinci's Demons 2013I try to write themes that have certain musical qualities that can be changed and still identified. If you look at my theme for Leonardo da Vinci in Da Vinci’s Demons, it’s constructed in such a way it’s symmetrical – it’s actually a palindrome, so play it backwards or forwards it’s exactly the same. That gave it certain qualities: certain intervals repeat and certain contours happen which means I can make it happy, I can make it sad, I can play it forwards, I can play it backwards, and yet it is so clearly his theme.

That was an example of a theme that I felt was really effective and was very helpful as I went through that show and that character went through his trials and tribulations. I could always put his theme on there in a way his audience could identify.

When you come on to a show or a film, what do you need to know? Outlander, for example, is a show that constantly changes – Scotland season 1, France season 2, presumably America for season 3 – but how much of that do you need to know when you start?

I need to know some but personally there is a breaking point where it just becomes overwhelming, and at the end of the day, I’m always scoring one episode at a time, one scene at a time. I get into the micro: I’m scoring one frame, one reveal, one moment. The big picture always helps guide me but at the end of the day, I can’t be overwhelmed and question whether if this cue isn’t right, in three years, I’ll be wishing I did something different. Otherwise I’d never get anything done!

OUT_032914_Claire and Frank_2315.jpgIn the case of Outlander, I was very aware of the books, and aware of some of the broader strokes of the places we will be going, but I also took care to live in the moment. When I started that first episode, it’s totally on Claire: we hear her voice and we see the gorgeous imagery of the Scottish Highlands I just tried to live in that moment and channel that emotion, and trust in myself and trust in Ron Moore and the other writers and producers and the actors that as we move along, it’ll be clear what to do in the future. I think the show is just going to start getting better and better, and be inspiring every step of the way.

On a practical note, do you work through an episode from first to last frame, or do you do it in chunks?

That’s an interesting question. I tend to tackle the more difficult sections first. I always know that there’ll be a big scene, or a big sequence that will take a disproportionate amount of my time so I like to dive in rightaway and start with it.

However, in the case of Outlander, I started from the beginning of the first episode and did every cue in order because it has such a natural progression to it, and I really wanted to score all those scenes with Frank, and I wanted to be with Frank in 1945, just exist in that world – and then when we got pulled into 1743, I wanted to be in that world. That was very helpful to go through in order.

Do you write out everything for the musicians or is there an element of improv in there?

There’s far less improvisation than I think it sounds like. I’m matching picture so I really have to give very strict guidelines. So, for example, something that I won’t write out specifically necessarily is an accompanimental fiddle part, where I know my fiddle player will know what to do. I’m not going to write out the exact double stops. I’ll put in something that evokes what I want it to feel like, and then he knows that he can make it his own.

gillebride_outlanderSo it’s like giving a figured bass to a continuo player?

Exactly. The thing is, when you’re writing in a folk idiom if it sounds notated and precise, it actually won’t sound right. It needs to have a feel of looseness and intimacy for it to work, but sometimes because you’re telling a very specific picture and sometimes you’ve got to be down to the frame where you are doing something with the music, it’s a balance.

I’ve been working with these musicians for a long time, and they know my tastes, and I know their strengths so I think we’ve found a really good balance.

Do you spot the episodes with the producers, or because you know what you’re doing, do they let you get on with it?

It really depends. Television is a producers’ medium; I almost always never talk with the directors. The directors are usually out or on the next episode by the time the music starts but I try to follow the producers as often as I can.

The spotting sessions are a vital time where I get information about the show that I can’t get anywhere else. Sometimes it’s simply watching their body language, the tone of their voice, the little things that they tell you about what they’re feeling. When you’re talking about music, you’re usually talking with someone who does not have the language to talk about music in the same way that the composer can. That’s why meeting in person is so vital: you talk about characters, you talk about what the emotion is, you talk about the emotional goals, what you want the audience to feel. These are the questions I ask. It’s always helpful.

Television is different from movies because you build up a relationship very quickly because you go through the process over and over. There are definitely times when an episode comes along and the producers are unavailable and there’s a huge time crunch. We can chat on the phone or over email.

There is a sense of trust that builds up over time, and that’s very helpful and that can help with the schedule as well.

bear-ronHave you had moments on Outlander where you’ve scored something and they’ve not been sure, or are you normally on the same page?

It’s funny because we basically are on the same page. I have definitely had lots of good feedback from the producers, and we have a lot of collaborative discussions, especially on the dub stage when we’re hearing the music against the sound design for the first time, but we really never have been creatively on opposite ends of the spectrum.

I think Battlestar Galactica has a lot to do with that; in terms of the relationships here, it feels like Battlestar Galactica season 5. We have just picked up where we left off because there’s a lot of trust and understanding of what we’re each trying to do. I understand what Ron is going for and Ron, I think, has a lot of faith in my tastes and my instincts. That’s been a really great experience, so in a way my first episode of Outlander was the most easy-going and relaxed first episode of anything I’ve ever done.

One of Ron’s immeasurable talents is in assembling great teams, and everybody on Outlander brings such passion to it. Speaking personally, I am just so grateful to be on the team because of exactly that: everyone on a Ron Moore is on top of their game and bringing their best to it. It’s a really incredible experience.

outlander-opening-creditsThe choice of the Skye Boat Song as the title music – was that yours? Or was it brought to you?

It was actually a mutual decision. I was talking with Ron and he mentioned he was doing Outlander. I told him that the music of the Jacobite uprising was a bit of a passion of mine at high school. I knew all the songs, their double meanings, their histories. He was really shocked: he’d been pitching and developing the show, and had been mastering this one-minute history of what the Jacobite uprising was. He went, “You know what a Jacobite is?!” I said I’d send him a couple of my favourite songs.

I had recorded some Scottish folk tunes on accordion, some of them going back to my early college days. I sent him some of these lovely simple folk tunes on accordion and one of them was the Skye Boat Song. He wrote back and said he really loved it and it should be the main title.

The first thing I thought was, “Oh it sounds like I’m going to be working on Outlander then.” The second thing I thought was that we had very early in the process made a major decision that I was glad was made, because it meant I could focus on other things. Ron was really excited about the theme, and admittedly it is a really beautiful melody – but other decisions were yet to be made.

Originally we were just going to use the solo accordion; that’s how it started. Then we thought we’d make it a little bigger and brought it some strings, then a little bigger – then I started playing around the idea of having someone singing.

That’s where it really gelled, when I brought my wife, Raya Yarborough, in just to sing a demo. I wanted him to hear what it would sound like with a voice – but she really has a tremendous voice and when Ron heard that, it was like everything crystallized very quickly after that.

Outlander-Soundtrack-Vol-2We wanted the voice, but we changed the lyrics – Ron suggested we changed “a lad that is gone” to “a lass that is gone”, so now we’re not talking about Bonnie Prince Charlie, we’re talking about Claire. At first I was nervous at such a sacrilegious change, changing words that were written by Robert Louis Stevenson, but the fans embraced it and ultimately I think it gives that subtle twist that made that song connect so indelibly to Outlander. I’m so glad that we did it – because it’s now no longer a song playing at the beginning of the show, it is the theme song to Outlander, and that’s really exciting.

The visuals go so well – the shot of the stones puts the hairs up on your arm…

It’s a beautiful sequence and I remember the first time I saw it all come together with the final visuals and the live orchestra and Raya’s vocal performance. I realised that we had really something made something very special.


Outlander Original Television Soundtrack volumes 1 and 2 are now available.

Thanks to Beth Krakower for her help arranging this interview

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