Sarah Class

Composer of BBC's Africa series talks about turtles, baby elephants and writing diverse soundtracks for natural history programmes.

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  • By Paul Nichols
  • 26 Mar 2013
  • min read
Emmy-nominated composer and singer-songwriter Sarah Class brings an astonishing scope of talent and experience to every TV and film score she works on. Sarah’s love of all music — from improv jazz to classical and choral — has led her to write diverse soundtracks that reflect the power of some of the BBC’s greatest natural history series, including Africa, Madagascar and Blue Planet. We caught up with her just as Africa was finishing its run on BBC One.

How did you get into scoring for TV?

I sent a CD to someone at the BBC Natural History Unit. I’d look at these wildlife programmes when I was young and think, ‘Oh I could do the music to those’. I think I was very naïve! I didn’t get any composing work for a long time, but the guy I sent the CD to gave me a production assistant job. He played me some music from an established composer so I could listen to my competition and I was really overawed by it. Now I think the samples were probably dreadful! I kept hassling all the producers I met to see if they would take me on as a composer and eventually I got my foot in the door with a Natural World programme about whales in South America.

Why were you attracted to natural history programmes?

I would always get swept away by the emotions in the programmes. I’m very into nature and wildlife and my dad was a biologist. I grew up on a nature reserve so I’d wander round the woods classifying things in a really nerdy childlike way. Natural history just seemed to gel for me. You don’t realise at that age you need equipment, you need to establish your sound and you need to hassle so many people. I sent out 200 CDs to people and got rejected so many times because they don’t know you. People need to trust you. It’s really tough but I knew I could do it, so I kept trying. It took a long time just to get noticed.

How do you go about composing for such visually striking programmes?

Well, some directors like you to get involved from the very beginning. Personally, I like to see the programme then forget about it because I know its going to change — the music, the shots, everything. If you write from the very beginning you end up doing your job so many times that it’s disheartening. I like to sit with the director on the final cut.

I like to do the whole programme first and then present it. I’ll go back if there are any adjustments that need doing. It’s worked out really well so far. I haven’t had to do that many changes. Any time I’ve had to go back is usually because the director didn’t really know what they wanted. We normally end up going back to my original idea after a very long and winding road…

Did that happen on the Africa series?

Yes — on the turtle sequence. We changed it about six times and I found that my music was totally chopped about because the effects were so loud. They wanted this big dramatic music all over the footage of the baby turtles going down to the sea and getting picked off by every predator going. I think one of my earlier iterations was better and I had to go back to that and re-do it again. My heart was sinking and I was sinking. People have written to me to say they really love the turtle sequence but I can’t look at another turtle ever again!

Another memorable scene from the series featured a baby elephant. How did you compose for that?

It was a very long sequence — six minutes in total. You have to be subtle — you can’t approach it in any other way. It was such a beautiful and sad scene. There was a lot of silence in it. But I’m happy with silence, sometimes you really need it. There were also a lot of effects over it. A lot of directors don’t realise this, but if the music is allowed to take over it can take you right into the story. I kept it very emotionally subdued; I didn’t want to over-egg the pudding. I had a lot of high strings and solo violin. It had a desolate feel to it and it was so sad when the baby elephant dies. I hope I got it just right.

How about the battling giraffe scene?

There was some vocal on the guide music and I love vocals. I really wanted to bring harmonies and lush melodies in – I’m a singer songwriter too. The rising string and arpeggiated passage lent itself to the slow motion dance of the two giraffes. It was quite a treacherous sequence with the two of them beating each other. I wanted it to be beautiful and compelling. Because the footage was slow motion I had more scope to really give it my all. The hit points were very important in that sequence. I always make sure the timings are really spot on because it highlights the dramatic tension. It’s very easy to just do big heavy drums in fight sequences but I wanted something beautiful. Having said that, I had an elephant sequence later and I just went hell for leather on the drums and that just felt right.


The full interview with Sarah will follow soon.