Jacobs School student wins Jon Vickers Award competition to score silent film

  • May 20, 2015


BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- The Jacobs School of Music and Indiana University Cinema have awarded the first Jon Vickers Film Scoring Award to Ari Fisher, a master's student in the Composition Department at the Jacobs School of Music.

Fisher will compose a score for the feature-length silent film "The Return of Draw Egan." His original score will be written for a salon-size orchestra of 17 to 18 instruments and will be conducted and performed by students from the Jacobs School of Music.

"Honestly, I never thought it would happen to me," said Fisher, 23, of Wilmette, Illinois.

The world premiere of the new music score will be Saturday, Feb. 20, 2016, a century after the year the William S. Hart western was released. The IU Cinema screening also will showcase a new 2K digital scan of the film, held by renowned collector David Shepard. Plans also are being made to record the score for inclusion on a forthcoming home video release of the film.

The selection process

"The Jon Vickers Film Scoring Award is truly a unique and fantastic opportunity for composition majors at the Jacobs School of Music," said David Dzubay, chair of the composition department at the Jacobs School.

Students were invited to submit original compositions to accompany a five-minute sequence from "The Return of Draw Egan."

All of the entries were reviewed in a blind jury process by a seven-member panel, which included faculty members from the Jacobs School and The Media School. After individually ranking the musical compositions, the jury deliberated and chose a winner. The name of the winning student was then revealed to the jury.

"Ari Fisher has a special affinity for film scoring and the ability to compose effectively in a variety of styles, making him the perfect choice for the inaugural year of the award," Dzubay said.

"The winning applicant's music was able to stand on its own as a piece of music and not just a soundtrack to the film," said Andy Uhrich, film archivist at IU Libraries Moving Image Archive. "The score wasn't just reacting to the film but teased out the complexity of the western in a way that went beyond presenting it as simple good guy versus bad guy type stuff. Also, there's a way that the music didn't seem to approach the film as a relic out of the past but as a piece of art still relevant and in the now."

Gregory A. Waller, editor of the journal Film History and a film professor in The Media School at IU Bloomington, was another member of the jury impressed by the winning music. "I felt that he had taken the film and its characters seriously, paid careful attention to the shifts in mood and on-screen action, and created music that filled out and enhanced, for me, the experience of the film."

The sounds of silent film

Fisher is no stranger to scoring for silent film.

The idea for the new, annual film scoring competition grew from a pilot program in 2012, when IU Cinema hosted the world premiere of a new, student-composed orchestral score for a screening of the 1922 film "David Copperfield." Fisher's composition was chosen that year, and the full score was written the summer after his first year at Indiana University.

He said he found the "David Copperfield" experience quite rewarding. "It taught me so much. You get to bring this picture to life. It's all you. You are granted complete artistic freedom."

"The Return of Draw Egan" poses its own challenges, he said.

"It's scary to work with a western, because with a western you have the music in your head already. I approached the film in a more personal way, in a more personal voice with a few western tropes," he said.

"I focused on the action, the surroundings and the emotion."

Endowment of an annual award

"I am thrilled and grateful that Jon Vickers has established this as an ongoing program that will result in a new film score commissioned and performed live with musicians from the Jacobs School each year," Dzubay said.

The Jon Vickers Film Scoring Award is funded through an endowment gift to IU Cinema from P.A. Mack Jr., a current member of the IU Foundation Board and past vice president of the IU Board of Trustees.

"Thanks to the generosity of the Honorable P.A. Mack Jr., this annual program will challenge and highlight talented students in the Jacobs School of Music, while giving our campus and community audience unique cinematic experiences," said IU Cinema director Jon Vickers.

Mack also served as chief of staff for U.S. Sen. Birch Bayh and was a past chairman of the Indiana Commission for Higher Education. He and his late wife also have supported Indiana University through the creation of the Marian and P.A. Mack Endowment for Scholarship and Teaching Excellence.

The world premiere event Feb. 20 also will be presented through the support of Old National Bank.

Creating an experience

"This competition is really a unique opportunity not just for student composers, but also for me as a film historian specializing in early American cinema to have the opportunity to participate in a selection process that is so committed to the high-quality presentation of silent films," Waller said.

"It is important to realize that almost no 'silent' films were originally presented in silence -- virtually every movie theater added its own live musical accompaniment (sometimes with sound effects) that could range from a single piano player or some sort of mechanical music machine to a multi-piece band or orchestra.

"In many ways, the challenge of scoring a film from the 1910s is that the possibilities are endless."

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Ari Fisher

Ari Fisher, a master's student in composition at the Jacobs School of Music, is the first winner of the Jon Vickers Film Scoring Award. | Photo by James Brosher, Indiana University

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Jon Vickers

Jon Vickers | Photo by Eric Rudd, Indiana University

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Contact Information

Student maestro Nicholas Hersh conducts a student orchestra at IU Cinema.

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Media Contacts

Jon Vickers

  • IU Cinema
  • Office 812-855-7632
  • jwvicker@indiana.edu