Working in the BBC Soundscape: An Interview with Sarah Class

Recently I got ahold of music for the BBC documentary series Africa and was immediately struck by its quality and talent. Composer Sarah Class, a veteran of BBC as well as many other ventures into disparate territories, manages a landscape of orchestration that is beautiful, compelling, and far beyond what I’ve grown to expect from the BBC branding, which is tightly controlled and of a particular aesthetic, most especially with regards to their nature documentaries. In talking I was curious how a talent as she could exist so well within the well-oiled machine.

Garrett Tiedemann: Your career has focused primarily on music for television with a great number of nature documentaries in the mix. Can you talk about how you came to the work? Is the process of composing for nature documentaries quite different from other formats of storytelling?

Sarah Class: When I left college I originally came to the BBC Natural History Unit in Bristol with a simple (and it was very simple!) CD demo and although I wanted to write music for nature documentaries then, I ended up working at the BBC as a researcher. It was a difficult leap to get people to take me seriously as a composer, especially a female one, but eventually the same person who gave me that break as a production assistant let me write my first BBC TV show. It was low budget but a fortune to me. This lead to me leaving the BBC with one potential music job and a couple of other maybes. The risk paid off and work literally flooded in after that.

GT: Seeing as nature documentaries, especially those produced by the BBC, are a particular breed of filmmaking with years of aesthetics to draw upon, how do you adhere to the lineage while also keeping it new and fresh for the documentary at hand?

SC: I think my interests and influences probably keep it fresh for me. I’ve been dabbling in jazz and free improvisation most of my life, writing for other artists—including British choral and on a broader level, music of different ethnicities—and also my own recent venture into the world of the singer/songwriter in the acoustic/folk/Americana arena helps in all areas of composition. I love most genres of music and mix it up a bit with a good melody.

GT: How closely do you work with the team members behind the production? Is there quite a bit of guidance from BBC as a whole or are you allowed to go do your work freely?

SC: At times I work quite closely with the particular BBC producer/director I work with. The first in the Africa series, Cape, was very scrutinized as it was such a high profile primetime film. When it comes to guide tracks with the film already assembled at rough cut stage, I do assess what is working, what is not, what I could enhance and what I could start on, completely from scratch. I’m often left freely to my own devices on this one, although the director may have strong views on keeping something he or she is already tied to. I try to accommodate everyone.

GT: Many of these projects are years in the making. When do you step into the process? How does it usually go for you getting to know the work and what you will bring to it?

SC: I like to work to a final cut if possible—so quite late on in the process. I may have a look at the rough cut and then not go back to it again until I’m ready. By that time the creative juices have already mulled around in my head and I’m inspired to get going.

GT: When you are working on a series like Africa, do you think in terms of the whole or do you break it up into the segments of the show? Do you strive for an overarching narrative or is it typically more fragmented in the composing?

SC: I have an initial chat to the executive and series directors/producers about how the program will be formatted—i.e. Will there be a generic series title or pre-titles on every show? Will there bit different themes for each program or do they want a developing theme throughout each show? All depends. But I like to bring back the most powerful, beautiful, and compelling themes throughout. Often I’ll wait until the best one appears and I’ll strive to use it in different ways throughout the series or single film.

GT: “Up in the Clouds” and “Under the Stars” are specific tracks on the record that really take my breath away. Can you talk about how they came to you and what went into the compositions?

SC: The “Clouds” piece was inspired by energies of angelic realms and a desire for “celestial otherness”—something spiritual. Although it was tempting to go for voices, here a high trumpet reminiscent of cherubs in old Italian frescos seemed to be the way to go. Also, the “Stars” piece just felt like a lullaby and I sang and double-tracked every part which gave it that lush, dreamy feel. I loved that piece, too. It then got extended and developed into the piano with the touching rhino scene.

GT: Many of the tracks carry a kind of fairytale quality. Is that evident to you? Is that speaking to a specific end in reception?

SC: Yes, I hadn’t thought of it like that, but I think it’s all bound up in good story telling. The stories and cinematography were already amazing so I really experienced the music as I wrote it. I think there is an ethereal song of the earth and the heavenly realms we’ve just talked about which begs to be heard, and this is what we as human beings crave, whether we know it or not. I also think we all just love a good fairytale. I’m glad the music did that.

GT: “Journey of the King Fish” makes a return with differing arrangements. Would you consider this your guiding theme? If so, can you talk about that a bit? How do you to come to a sense of a theme that is right for such an extensive project?

SC: That piece seemed to develop naturally and was the one piece in the first film that was totally left untouched. I didn’t actually consciously know that I had arranged it in other pieces. I tend to find that melodies weave their way back into other parts of the film by some kind of audio osmosis. It was a haunting track so it must have affected me during that time.

GT: When composing, do you assign sounds or arrangements to particular animals or locations? Or, is it the cutting and narrative at work that informs the musical support?

SC: Yes, very often I do. Particularly when there is a lot of action going on and when it’s hard to tell which animal is which. For example, in the humorous beetle fighting and mating scene I pick out the golden female beetle with an oboe, the would-be suitor with a clarinet, and the imposter with a bassoon.

GT: Are there musical ideas yet accomplished that may not work in the fields you currently inhabit but may be something you wish to explore in the future?

SC: I would like to do more with vocals and lyrics, mixing up styles/rhythms, and different world genres. Some of this would work, some would be maybe for a standalone album, depending on the film and how open minded the director may be to new ideas. I think there’s a wealth of inspiration and creative ideas inside me just waiting to be released. It’s all in the pipeline.

GT: On that same note, do you wish the musical approach for these sorts of productions to differ at all from the way that has become the standard? Is there a way of doing the music you dream about but have yet to see achieved?

SC: Yes, it would be great if things were a little less musically standardized but I actually always try to do something a little different if I can. If one can just have a bit of a free rein on a film, I think it’s possible to produce something really fresh and exciting.

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