Outlander composer Bear McCreary says writing the music for harrowing scenes takes him to a ‘very dark place’.
“The show has moments that are as bleak and dark as anything I’ve ever scored and I have discovered that I am a bit of a method actor when it comes to my compositions,” he says.
The dramatic finale of season one in Starz TV adaptation of Diana Gabaldon's books made viewers flinch as hero Jamie Fraser was subjected to humiliating torture – and Bear says writing the music to match was also painful.
He explained: “I have to be in the same emotional place as the character, to channel whatever they are feeling.
“It took a tremendous toll on me and it really kind of ruined my life for a week because I had to go to that very dark place.”
The award-winning composer even experienced sympathy pains as his hand started to ache in response to the images on the screen.
His emotional involvement is one of the reasons Outlander’s army of devotees have embraced Bear into their family.
In contrast to the pain of the finale, Outlander’s spellbinding title track was enough to convince fans that he was the man for the job.
The hauntingly beautiful music featuring the famous Scottish folk tune The Skye Boat Song with lyrics inspired by Robert Louis Stevenson had fans swooning and has put the Outlander soundtrack into Amazon’s top 10.
Equally obsessed with Scottish bagpipes and movies since he was a child, when Ronald D Moore asked Bear to work on Outlander, it was a dream come true.
During a short spell living in Great Britain as a youngster, Bear visited Scotland: “I have very fond memories of Scotland and I became obsessed the music and culture as I grew up.”
The annual Highland Games in his hometown Bellingham, Washington fuelled his Scottish passion.
“I really have been trying to shoehorn the bagpipes into ever demo I ever did,” he laughs.
Bear, 36, says he was always destined to do something with music.
“There was always a lot of music in my house growing up and my parents were both musical while three of my four grandparents were musicians.
Growing up, Bear’s mother, the author Laura Kalpakian, would take him to the cinema and the memory had a lasting impact.
He says: “My mum would take me to wildly inappropriate movies, like Ghandi when I was two-years-old. But I would just sit and enjoy the experience.
“So by the time I was five I’d pieced together that the two things I was interested in - music and movies - had a place where they overlapped and I thought ‘I want to do this’.”
Although best known for his work on the Battlestar Galactica TV series and Da Vinci’s Demon, for which he won an Emmy, it’s Outlander that has allowed Bear to unleash his inner Jacobite.
“Most people don’t want romantic themes, they don’t want emotional orchestral writing and most importantly they don’t want to hear accordions and bagpipes.”
Fortunately, Outlander requires all of the above.
But the job came with a certain amount of pressure – not least the weight of expectation from an already strong global fan base.
“Ron first announced my involvement at a fan event and the minute he said it my life started to change,” says Bear.
“Within half an hour my twitter followers had jumped. I was shocked and thought ‘My God, what’s happening'."
“I was familiar with the books but I did not realise the fans were so vocal and so passionate. I realised that I was stepping into their world but what I really appreciated is that Outlander fans put their faith in me immediately.”
He adds: “The reaction has been a joyous part of my life and interacting with the fans has inspired me to write in different ways.
“I’m not just writing for casual viewers, who are going to enjoy it for sure, but when I write for the fans I can put in a little more depth, more nuance and more detail because I know they are really paying attention.
“It adds a layer of complexity to my process and that’s fun.”
The musical score, says Bear, adds a layer of texture to the story and drama unfolding on the screen, however he feels strongly that the audience should not immediately notice the music – despite all his hard work.
“The audience should experience nothing but the emotion of the story,” he says.
“If I have written music that makes people stop and think about the music I have failed fundamentally at my job.”
Bear lives and breathes the music he is composing and admits he can never switch of the noise in his head.
“When I want to decompress I occupy my mind with something else but shutting it off is a difficult task for me,” he admits.
“I don’t think I would want to shut it off. I’m so nervous that the ideas wouldn’t come back that I’d much rather live with the cacophony and know I was always going to have ideas than be nervous that if I ever truly relaxed and heard nothing that could be the end of it.”