IU Cinema to screen silent film with world premiere orchestral score by Ari Barack Fisher

William S. Hart in The Return of Draw Egan

“The Return of Draw Egan,” released in 1916, features silent-era western star William S. Hart.

Saturday night at the movies often means seeing a new film. But on Feb. 20, the Indiana University Cinema audience will be hearing an old film in a new way.

The Return of Draw Egan” will be a one-night film event featuring the world premiere of a full musical score composed by Ari Barack Fisher, a master’s student in composition at the Jacobs School of Music.

Ari Barack Fisher

Ari Barack Fisher wrote a new orchestral score for “The Return of Draw Egan,” which will premiere at 7 p.m. Feb. 20 at IU Cinema. Photo by James Brosher

For the first time in public, a student orchestra will perform the original music he has written to accompany the film. “They’re going to have a lot of fun,” Fisher said. “It’s a difficult score. It’s very active. The first eight minutes is like gunfights and bar fights and shootouts and chases. They don’t get any rest!”

A recurring theme of the night is return and renewal, on and off the screen.

The William S. Hart film’s plotline follows the comeback and redemption of an outlaw, Draw Egan. Believed to be dead, he resurfaces in the town of Yellow Dog and aims to get the mayor’s daughter to return his love.

Saturday also marks the return of Ari Fisher to IU Cinema. At just 24 years of age, he is in the rare position of having written two full musical scores for silent films. The winner of the inaugural Jon Vickers Film Scoring Award also composed music to accompany the 1922 silent version of “David Copperfield” shown at IU Cinema in 2012.

And like all silent films that have been spared from destruction, “The Return of Draw Egan” has had a rebirth of its own. IU cinema is screening a new 2K digital transfer of the 1916 western, which was produced through a partnership between collector David Shepard and Serge Bromberg of Lobster Films. A home video release of the film with the new score is planned for later this year.

“We are proud to formally launch this program with Saturday’s premiere,” said Jon Vickers, director of IU Cinema. “It is another unique way to showcase IU’s talented students and creative collaborations across academic units, while offering our audience something pretty special.”

Drawn to music

Fisher was awarded the commission for “The Return of Draw Egan” based on a short sample score he entered in a blind competition with other Jacobs School of Music composition students last spring.

When his selection was announced in May, Fisher 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…. I focused on the action, the surroundings and the emotion.”

Since then, he has had a lot of music in his head. In formulating his own sound for the film, Fisher said he has been inspired by different composers.

Some parts of the film have an “American” sound, drawing upon Aaron Copland and a five-note scale common in folk music.

Many of Fisher's melodies for the film are character-driven.

Many of Fisher’s melodies are character-driven.

For love themes, his writing was inspired by the expressiveness of Russian masters such as Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky.

“Love themes are my favorite thing to write,” he said.

For the “lust themes,” he thought more about French Impressionist composers Ravel and Debussy. “To convey romance and to convey lust, they’re two different things,” he said.

For those passages, he added unconventional Italian markings to his musical score: allettante (alluring), seducente (seductively). “I can’t wait to see the reactions on the players’ faces,” he said.

But more than anything, Fisher tried to write melodies that reflected the characters. “It’s been a long journey, but we’re here and I can’t wait for the result,” he said.

His conductor will be Joe Stepec, who led the student orchestra through Neil Brand’s score for the silent Hitchcock thriller “Blackmail” last November at IU Cinema.

“I have such great friends in the orchestra,” Fisher said. “They’re going to have a great time and I’m going to have a good time.

“This is a rare experience to watch a film with a live orchestra. It’s one thing with a pianist, but with an orchestra it’s not very common,” he said.

A score for students

The Jon Vickers Film Scoring Award was made possible through a generous endowment from former IU trustee P.A. Mack Jr.

Ari Barack Fisher has now written complete orchestral scores for two silent films.

Fisher has now written orchestral scores for two silent films.

Through the competition, the Jacobs School of Music and IU Cinema will commission a new musical score for one silent film each year, which will later premiere at the cinema with a student orchestra. A call for submissions has already been posted for next year’s film, Oscar Micheaux’s “Body and Soul.”

“We look forward to helping keep this medium alive with new film scores each year,” Vickers said.

“I’m very grateful to the school for allowing these opportunities to be possible, not just for me, but for everyone,” Fisher added.

“The Return of Draw Egan” will begin at 7 p.m. Saturday at IU Cinema. Tickets for the general public are $6, but IU Bloomington students will be admitted free of charge, thanks to support from Old National Bank.

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