An Interview with Sarah Class by John Mansell
Emmy-nominated composer, singer, songwriter Sarah Class brings an astonishing scope of talents and experience to every score. She is now one of Britain’s most sought-after young composers. Sarah’s ability to think quickly and clearly, together with a positive and flexible approach, equips her well for the challenges of working creatively with production teams to tight deadlines. Sarah’s love for all music has led her to write diverse soundtracks that reflect the power and passion of the African savanna, to a classical score, through to jazz and more urban contemporary styles. One of her more recent scores for the BBC series, Madagascar is hugely popular and has generated a great deal of praise from press and audience alike. Sarah’s epic score for THE MEERKATS, a Harvey Weinstein and BBC production is an exhilarating mix of musical textures featuring the richness of Sarah’s vocals, and African choir with full orchestral forces. Sarah has written extensively for Europe and North America on a number of album, TV and film projects, notably, the score for the independent feature THE WEEKEND starring Gina Rowlands and Brooke Shields. This brought Sarah’s talents to the attention of legendary producer Sir George Martin, who took her under the wing of his company George Martin Music.
One of your latest projects was for the BBC television series AFRICA. When scoring a project such as this do you score it order of episode or do you approach it in any particular set way, by this I mean do you tackle larger cues first or maybe begin with a central theme and then build your score and other themes from this?
I only tackle the larger cues first if the director has asked me to do an initial idea for a scene they feel strongly about and want to see what I would do (maybe for co-producers or if it’s a particularly key scene which may then set the tone for the rest of the film or series). I like to generally start at the beginning of the film and work through to the end. If a good theme arises I may either go back and tweak other main cues – like titles or pre-titles and then work it in to the rest of the series.
How does scoring a documentary film differ from working on a movie or television project that has actors etc?
It seems to me that documentaries – particularly wildlife, calls for writing even more closely to picture – for example a hunt sequence with a lion chasing a gazelle – I take great care to put every hit point in, and go musically with every movement of the animal – picking up pace, building drama. But then I would probably do that with a dramatic film scene also. Maybe in a different way. Whatever you’re writing for, you never want the audience to suddenly think they’re being told what to feel with the music. The trick is in any scene to subconsciously build drama with the music at an undetectable level and when the music is totally allowed to breath and take over the story then you can really let loose on the score and the story is really enhanced.
What size orchestra did you use for AFRICA?
It was around 55 musicians.
When working on a score, how do you develop your musical ideas do you use piano, or keyboards or write ideas down and then develop them by use of computer etc?
I usually sit at my computer and an idea will come. Very often I hear the bass, melody and harmonic structures all at the same time, or I may sit at my piano away from the computer which sometimes helps the creative flow! Or sometimes I’m on a train or something and I’ll get a little idea and I’ll either sing it into my iPhone or recorder or jot it down on some roughly drawn manuscript!
Do you orchestrate all of your music for film or do you at times use orchestrators?
I do all the arranging myself -all the parts are written before I give the score to an orchestrator who then checks through everything and adds dynamics and orchestral direction and generally all the legwork I don’t have time to do like putting all the midi into Sibelius – which is a job in itself!
How many times do you like to watch a film before you begin to get fixed ideas about where music should be placed and what style of music you think will suit?
Once. And if there’s guide music I listen through the first time, and take note if there’s any good things about it – i.e. if it’s working and if the director particularly loves that piece, but apart from that I don’t listen again to the rest as I don’t want to be influenced by other music.
You worked with Polish composer Zbignew Preisner on a Christmas album. How did you become involved on this project?
I met his manager at a concert and he invited me to meet him – he heard some of my music and we ended up working in the studio together.
What musical education did you receive?
I did a Related Arts (Hons) degree in which there was a lot of musical improvisation and I got heavily into jazz. I had formal piano lessons and reached Grade 8 at 16. I have never had a formal training in composition. I’m not technical at all about writing music – I do everything by ear, and have learned everything on the job – I’m still learning and it’s an amazing journey!
Do you come from a family background that is musical?
Yes, my father played the piano and encouraged me from age 4 to play also – he would get me up for piano practice before school every morning – then it was done for the day. I’ve very happy he did now!! My mother and grandmother also played the piano and my sister learned violin when we were growing up.
Was music for film always something that you wanted to do right from the very beginning or was it something that happened as your career in music progressed?
Well initially I wanted to be a concert pianist at the age of 10 then it progressed to wanting to be a jazz pianist by the age of 16!, then I realised that I loved composing and developed that when I left home. As my career progressed after being in different bands I began to see the full scope of possibilities for the film and TV world in my career. I’m now mixing film work with my singing and songwriting, which I’m loving.
Do you conduct at all or do you prefer to have the music directed by a conductor so you can monitor recording etc?
I have conducted in the past, but yes I’ve realised I prefer to sit in the studio where you can hear everything properly.
What are you working on at the moment?
BBC Africa, the concert. A 2014 Concert Tour is now being scheduled, dates and venues to be confirmed in the coming weeks!!!’I’m also working on a new album of my own songs.