'David Copperfield' world premiere features original student composition

Student composer Ari Barack Fisher wrote the original score to the 1922 film "David Copperfield," which is having its premiere Saturday at the IU Cinema. Brian Welk

The image of a man flogging a young boy is not a pleasant sight, but until now, this horrific scene lacked the chilling sound to go with it. 

Ari Barack Fisher has provided that mood in his full orchestra score for the 1922 silent film version of “David Copperfield,” which will have its world première at 7 p.m. Saturday in the IU Cinema. 

“Words can’t explain how happy I am for this opportunity,” Fisher said. 

Fisher, a sophomore composition student in the Jacobs School of Music, was given the chance to score a five-minute clip of “David Copperfield” as part of a competition sponsored by the Jacobs School and the IU Cinema. After beating 16 competitors, Fisher was commissioned to compose an 18-piece orchestra score for the film.

Now, during the weekend of Charles Dickens’ 200th birthday, his work is complete and ready to be shown to the world for the first time.

“It’s almost like a baby being born,” Fisher said. “It’s very magical to watch your creation come to life before your eyes.”

The Film

The film, a Danish silent film directed by A.W. Sandberg in 1922, is quite rare. 

A Google search of 1922’s “David Copperfield” won’t reveal much, and it has a measly 11 user votes on IMDB. But IU Cinema Director Jon Vickers selected it as the flagship movie for the cinema’s first world première showcase.

“I don’t know when the last time it’s been exhibited in the States, so this is a very rare film,” Vickers said. “But everything I’d read about it talked about its beautiful production design and the care that went into it, so it apparently had a richness and lushness to it.”

Vickers said he knew the Nordisk Film Company that produced the film was known for bringing Dickens’ work to life in multiple adaptations. 

“It has a great Dickens story behind wonderful production values,” he said.

Also, because the film did not exist in any digital form and had no existing score, Vickers said he felt the author’s birthday would be the perfect launching point to bolster the national reputation of the IU Cinema and sponsor a collaboration with the Jacobs School.

The Contest

The initial concept for the David Copperfield Project started with the idea that the cinema would need something new if it wanted to make a name for itself.

“Cinema in the middle of Indiana has a very small chance of getting a world première of a Hollywood film,” Vickers said. “To have a world première is tough to do unless you’re creating something. Why rescore something that has a beautiful score that may have been done in collaboration with the director?”

Vickers settled on having a student-commissioned score for an obscure film, rather than a new composition for a well-known one.

“We immediately have this talent pool of some of the best music students in the country,” Vickers said. “It’s very rare in the U.S. to give an undergraduate composition student an opportunity to be commissioned for a score.” 

The cinema and Jacobs School contributors provided a five-minute clip of “David Copperfield” to the participants and asked for a composition that would be full, rich and capture the mood of the emotionally complex segment. 

Considering that most of the students were familiar with only contemporary film scores, Vickers said what they got in return shocked them all.

“A lot of the students involved in this have never done anything like this, so they brought a freshness as well as a naïveté to the process,” Vickers said. “What we were surprised about is that even in five minutes, the composers had developed motifs for the characters. Ari’s did that very well.”

The Music

Fisher’s experience with film scoring had been limited to YouTube clips no longer than 10 minutes. He would mute “Jaws” and see what he could do, but his experience with silents was nonexistent.

Fisher said he quickly fell in love with the scores for “Metropolis” and “The Kid” and cited their Old Hollywood sound as more elegant and expressive than contemporary work. 

“There was a very old-fashioned, Old Hollywood sound,” Fisher said. “I really enjoyed the very warm and full, enveloping orchestrations that they used. They had very sweet themes, very dramatic, and yet not the kind of dramatic you would think in the ‘Inception’ soundtrack — a Rachmaninoff kind of dramatic, just very thick and expressive.”

Fisher said he describes his completed score as dark, romantic and comical, with diverse tones to fit the many moods of the film.

“I think Ari’s score will bring to it some depth that might be missing with only a solo piano,” Vickers said. “It’s a very lush film, and it deserves to have a lush score.”

But Vickers did warn Fisher about one thing: “They told me not to ‘Mickey Mouse’ the score.”

A term common to silent film accompanists, “Mickey Mousing” means overemphasizing the actions on the screen. 

If someone lifts up their hat, you don’t want to use a slide whistle,” Fisher said.

Rather, Fisher adapted the Wagnerian idea of leitmotifs to provide the characters with minimal atmospheres and personalities in accordance to the music.

The Conductor

Student conductor Nicholas Hersh acted as the secret ingredient to make Fisher’s score come to life.

Hersh, a second-year master’s student in the Jacobs School, started his career with the IU Cinema during last year’s performance of “Metropolis,” which was his own induction into silent film.

Working with Fisher, Hersh brings a fluid and lively energy to the process.

In Hollywood, his job would be to use a metronome, or click track, to calibrate the orchestra to the timing of the film, which Hersh described as a very mechanical process. He said silents, on the other hand, use nothing like it.

“That alone takes away the mechanical feel, which makes this a very alive and unique experience for the audience,” Hersh said.  

Hersh explained that although the 75-minute “David Copperfield” is less physically strenuous than the nearly three-hour opus “Metropolis,” performing a silent film score has its own peculiar challenges and excitement.

“It’s a lot like conducting opera, except that the soloists can’t follow you,” Hersh joked. “You have to move things along and always be on your toes to make things coordinated.”

To fix such problems, both Hersh and Fisher have watched the films more times than they can count and said they agree the film with the original score has its own special vitality.

“I think it’s very atmospheric, and it conveys the environment that Dickens was painting in the novel,” Hersh said. “The score itself, performed well, brings a whole new dimension to the experience of seeing the film. There’s a whole range of emotion that the music conveys.” 

The Future

“Hopefully you can start scoring films that are actually coming out rather than ones that came out 90 years ago,” Hersh joked to Fisher, which is precisely his goal.

“I’ve always wanted to write Hollywood scores,” Fisher said. “I want to take a more classical approach to scoring films. It enhances the background without distracting the audience. It’s a more thorough way of expressing what’s on the film.”

Fisher said the act of writing the score was enough of a thrill for him as he looks for job opportunities out West, but he also said at no point did he think his name and his work would be touted across the country.

As part of the David Copperfield Project, Vickers is organizing a tour of the film and the original score to at least 10 cinemas in the Midwest and on both coasts.

“The purpose is to continue to try and get IU Cinema’s name out there as being a leader in cinema programs,” Vickers said. “Part of building cache or street credit with programmers around the country is offering something that hasn’t been put together.”

And Hersh might just be the score’s travel companion.

“I hope that having studied the score so much and becoming really familiar with it, wherever this score goes, they might have a use for me,” Hersh said.

He said he feels that doing performances such as these might brand him for future career possibilities.

“Doing things like this is very much in vogue, and it’s a great way for symphony orchestras to build audiences and get people interested in symphonic music because it’s so engaging for everyone,” Hersh said. 

Tickets are still available for the screenings at 7 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. Composer, conductor and programmer said they agreed that watching this rare film is a once-in-a-lifetime occasion.

“For me, favorite movies are not just favorite movies. They’re memorable movie experiences,” Vickers said. “That takes into account the film, the music and the architecture, and I think this could be one of those magical experiences.”


Sophomore Ari Barack Fisher looks at piano music with junior Rosa Li during a rehearsal Sunday in the Music Annex. Fisher won a contest to compose a score for the 1922 silent film "David Copperfield," which is being premiered Saturday at the IU Cinema. Steph Langan Buy Photos


Graduate student Nicholas Hersh conducts orchestra members Sunday in the Music Annex. Steph Langan Buy Photos

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