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Five Questions: Sarah Schachner - EMusician

Five Questions: Sarah Schachner

Composing for otherworldly environments, from Call of Duty to the Cassini mission
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Multi-instrumentalist and synthesist Sarah Schachner creates music for worlds at the edges of our imagination. In addition to writing for film, television, and commercials, she’s earned acclaim for her evocative, atmospheric scores for blockbuster game titles such as Call of Duty and the Assassin’s Creed series. Recently, Schachner composed the music for Assassin’s Creed Origins, which transports players to ancient Egypt; and she contributed to the Cassini Finale Music Project, a musical trilogy commemorating the spacecraft’s dramatic final moments around Saturn.

What are some of the ways that the instruments you play inform your composing process?

I love playing and writing on string instruments because they are so expressive. There are infinite ways you can play the same melody with different articulations, phrasing, portamento, bow pressure, etc. Having all of those options allows for a very direct form of expression, similar to singing. You can immediately convey subtleties of emotion that can be harder with instruments like piano that have fixed pitches.

I love working with synths for the same reason. My favorite part of working with Eurorack modular is the unexpected nature of the result and the happy accidents. It can sometimes be intimidating, but it gets you out of your head and breaks the way you naturally approach music.

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How do you develop motifs that evolve with the nonlinear game experience?

It can be harder to develop thematic material in the same way you would in a film, where music is always developing in one direction from point A to B of a story. Each game state requires a certain musical energy level that can last for a very short or long amount of time depending on what the player does. Play styles can affect the experience as well. In Assassin’s Creed, for instance, if you wrote an assortment of combat music that referenced the main theme but the player wanted to avoid combat as much as possible, he or she would have a unique musical experience that’s maybe different than what you intended.

With less of a focus on linear storytelling, the most important thing is to create a soundscape that is as immersive as possible. The more you can engage the player emotionally through ambience, mood, and energy in every stage and not just the big cutscene moments, the more they’ll feel connected to the characters and story.

For Assassin’s Creed Origins, I gave [the main character] Bayek a simple five-note motif with a very specific sonic quality that is instantly recognizable. That way, it was easy to weave it in and out of gameplay tracks as a repeating background texture as well as use it singularly to punctuate key story moments in cutscenes. Since it wasn’t dependent on any chordal harmony, it was easily adaptable to a wide array of scenarios.

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In Assassin’s Creed Origins, how did you balance “ancient” sounds with sci-fi elements?

I used detuned CS-80 and Jupiter 6 textures as well as modular-synth drones to evoke the feeling of the vast desert. I utilized solo ethnic and string instruments to reflect the ancient Egyptian time period, but a lot of these acoustic sounds were altered with granular synthesis and other audio processing. Nothing is off limits when I’m making custom sounds; I actually used an otter I follow on Instagram as a sound source at one point.

When you’re performing, arranging, and writing, what is your general process for developing musical ideas?

I don’t really think of performing, writing, and arranging as distinct, separate phases. It’s more like one jumbled process. Sometimes I will sit down at the piano and plan something out before recording, but I usually just pick up an instrument nearby, hit Record and fiddle around until something cool happens. Once there’s an initial idea or inspiration, I’ll start fleshing it out from there and tracking more parts as I go. I try to avoid using temporary MIDI sounds as much as possible and need to be inspired by the sound itself and not just the melody/harmony to see an idea through.

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I love your music for the Cassini finale; where did your inspiration come from?

I was looking at actual Cassini footage of Saturn as I was writing, so I was constantly thinking about how far away and alone the spacecraft was, discovering all of these incredible wonders for us. The rings of Saturn are so weird and fascinating and I tried to capture their beauty with exaggerated portamentos and arpeggios.

I was also imagining what Cassini would sound like if it was sentient and could talk. There’s a repeating synth motif with a call-and-response pattern that sounds like the spacecraft making little observations to itself and saying, “Hello? Is anyone out here?” Finally, Cassini is asking us not to forget her sacrifice. Joby Harris from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory put together the most incredible videos to accompany each song of the project and I was beyond thrilled with what he came up with for mine using the actual black-and-white Cassini visuals.