Arts & Theater

Bringing “The Passion of Joan of Arc” to musical life

George Sarah presents “The Passion of Joan of Arc” at the Crest.
George Sarah presents “The Passion of Joan of Arc” at the Crest.

The keyboardist and composer George Sarah once thought he’d play in a rock band, record CDs and go on tours. The Los Angeles-based musician went on to do that for a time, performing in the band Stereotaxic Device from 1988 to 1992 and then solo as THC until 1999. It was a hard way to make a living, but to his surprise television and film composing came calling. Now he has combined his two musical pursuits.

Sarah will play live this Saturday night, Aug. 6, at the Crest Theatre accompanying a screening of Carl Dreyer’s 1928 silent film classic “The Passion of Joan of Arc.” He’ll perform his original music on keyboards and laptop with a string quartet and four-person vocal choir. The music is a propulsive blend of electronica and ambient moods with classic elements layered in strings and vocals.

Sarah created the score after he was commissioned by the summer concert series Los Angeles Grand Performances in 2010, but he’s not the first to do so. Other classical composers have scored the film since its debut, and more recently pop musicians have followed suit.

When Sarah first watched a DVD of the film, he didn’t know there was an audio option and saw the silent film without sound. So he had nothing to influence him when he tackled his own score except the biography he’d read, “St. Joan of Arc” by John Beevers. Sarah wanted a “non-biased” telling of her life. The film, after all, is based on the actual record of Joan of Arc’s heresy trial and her subsequent execution.

Sarah took up the “Passion” project at the suggestion of a friend after having a particularly unpleasant time scoring a horror film. He wanted something to clean his palate. “(The horror film) was a long, tedious process. With the silent film I wouldn’t have anyone looking over my shoulder,” Sarah said from his Los Angeles home.

He composed on piano and keyboards, making synthesizer demos for the strings and vocal parts that he admitted sounded “cheesy.” He understood the music would come off differently with actual musicians playing and singing.

“You really don’t know how it’s going to translate to the audience but when we did it, we got a standing ovation,” Sarah said. “It’s a very unique and special thing when it all comes together.”

Sarah will be working with eight local musicians at the Crest. Violinist Ingrid Tracy Peters is putting together a string quartet and vocalist Robert Vann is organizing the choir.

“It’s a combination of this ambient modern glitchy electronic feel, but also a string quartet, and the choir sings in the style of Gregorian chant. I’m mixing histories together,” Sarah said.

His own musical education started with modern pop classics including the Who and the Beatles, then venturing into more modern acts such as Tangerine Dream and Joy Division. His interest in keyboards was sparked by the David Bowie records now known as the Berlin Trilogy (“Low,” “Heroes,” “Lodger”), for which producer-composer Brian Eno had a heavy influence. Other modern musicians such as Bauhaus, Skinny Puppy and Aphex Twin also contributed to Sarah’s sound. The idea of composing longer conceptual electronica pieces came from the work of composers Arvo Pärt and Krzysztof Penderecki.

Sarah’s big composing breakthrough came courtesy of a writer on the popular “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” series who incorporated Sarah’s music into several episodes of the series. Sarah appeared on the show playing his own music as part of a fictional band led by one of the characters.

“That opened the doors,” Sarah said. “Then shows like ‘CSI’ came along, and I licensed some string quartet music to them, then I worked on the Chris Rock show ‘Everybody Hates Chris.’ 

Suddenly, the erstwhile avant-garde rocker had become a television composer. He worked on a series for the Discovery Network, which made the call to use his music even before signing a deal with him.

“You work really hard and make albums and think, ‘This is rough,’ ” he said. “Then the phone rings and you’re like, ‘What? Wait a minute, really?’ 

Sarah calls playing the “Joan of Arc” score the best of both professional worlds.

“The interesting thing about this film is it’s the last two hours of her life. It’s an incredible, beautiful film,” Sarah said.

“Maybe I’ll do more silent films.”

Marcus Crowder: 916-321-1120, @marcuscrowder

The Passion of Joan of Arc

What: A screening of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1928 silent film classic “The Passion of Joan of Arc” with an original score performed live by composer and keyboardist George Sarah, accompanied by a string quartet and a vocal quartet.

Where: Crest Theatre, 1013 K St., Sacramento

When: Saturday, Aug. 6. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. and show starts at 7:30 p.m.

Tickets: $25