A Conversation on Composing ‘Body and Soul’

Eun-Chul “Charlie” Oh's score for Body and Soul

This Saturday IU Cinema will present a World Premiere of a new orchestral score for Body and Soul. To learn more about what was involved in creating a completely new score for a silent film, I spoke with Eun-Chul “Charlie” Oh—IU student, composer, and 2016 winner of the Jon Vickers Film Scoring Award; and Larry Groupé, an Emmy Award winning composer, who has recently joined IU’s faculty to design the new Music Scoring for Visual Media program.

Eun-Chul “Charlie” Oh

Eun-Chul “Charlie” Oh

“As a composer I was thinking which career I should do, which kind of music, what kind of genre I should study,” Charlie shared. “I was looking into my musical language, into my musical style. I thought that film was very close to my language, and then I got this email from David Dzubay [Chair, Department of Composition, IU Jacobs School of Music] saying there’s an opportunity to apply for the Jon Vickers Film Scoring Award, and I was thinking, ‘Wow, is this the one that I should try?’ And then I got it. Actually I was on the plane going home to Korea at the end of the spring semester last May, when I received an email saying, ‘Congratulations!'”

Competition for the coveted Jon Vickers Film Scoring Award was fierce. To apply, students were required to compose original music to accompany a scoring clip:

The Jon Vickers Scoring Award is presented to a Jacobs School of Music student each May to commission a score for a silent film. Having won, Charlie’s task was to create a score for the 90 minute long Body and Soul and prepare to conduct a 15 person orchestra in a live performance at IU Cinema.

Charlie acknowledged, “This is really a big project. It’s actually bigger than what I thought when I applied. I didn’t know at that time it was going to be so much work!” This was Charlie’s first time scoring for film. The longest composition he’d completed prior to this was 15 minutes, so he was about to take a big leap forward in his composing life.

“Since this was my first time I didn’t know what to do first.”  He asked himself, “What is the first step?”

Charlie considers himself lucky to have Larry Groupé as an ally. “He let me follow his own steps, his own experience, which really helped me a lot. Larry suggested having themes for the characters and I really agreed with that. That really helped me a lot to write through the characters. There are 4 main characters. They each have significantly different styles. One is very dark. One is very warm. One is very light and funny.”

Larry Groupé

Larry Groupé

Over the summer Larry helped Charlie focus in on the emotions of the piece.

“Charlie and I communicated by Internet, because he was in Korea at the time. We began by what we call ‘spotting the picture.’ So we looked at the whole thing and analyzed where music should be, also where it shouldn’t be. Who is critical and who is not. Who should have a theme, who shouldn’t have a theme. We came up with four primary character themes. Because it is such a large undertaking, I told him, ‘Here’s what I think you should do: After you’ve watched it, turn off the picture. Write Mother’s theme, then write the Preacher’s theme. Write them as pieces of music. Don’t worry about synchronization. Get to them emotionally and dramatically—correctly—which will take some time.’ He was really challenged by that, but by the end of the summer he had fantastic themes that represented these people in the proper dramatic way, and then he had a toolkit, so as he went through the score these themes would appear along the story arc, re-orchestrated and presented in the way that the scene demanded at the time, but anchored in these emotional designs that are foundational to the entire picture—and highly successful! I’ve heard his entire realization computer wise and it’s going to be great.”

Still image from Body and Soul

In addition to helping build the new Music Scoring for Visual Media program, Larry continues his own composing work in the film industry.  At the moment he’s involved in a pilot that’s being tested: Monsters of God, which he describes as “a gritty western based in the 1860s Comanche wars in West Texas.” The instrumentation is “very modern.  It was a directive from the series creator from the get go that we don’t have any sweeping strings or guitars or anything that is in any way a traditional western. It’s a very modernistic sound design based score,” Larry shared. “As I’ve gone through the process and—what seems to be working—is I’m painting almost a surreal scene over what goes on between the fort and the Comanches and the soldiers. It’s a very different approach… it’s all based on colors and timbres.”

It will be a few weeks before he will find out if the pilot will be picked up. “If we go, it will be ten episodes per season. So we’ll have usually about two weeks per episode. And so it’ll be very regimented, very economically and efficiently done. We’ll turn in our work accordingly and it’ll just move forward. You’re producing a great deal of music under these calendar deadlines. It’s weird. It’s difficult, but it’s also at the same time very invigorating. You learn to trust your instincts, and simply react to the scenes and situations and do the best work you can.”

Larry brings his experience working with these tight time frames into his engagement with students. “I’m putting them through the exact situations. They’re going through the same things I go through.”

Larry works under the umbrella of the composition department at IU Jacobs School of Music, but he’s also working in collaboration with the IU Media School and IU Cinema. In its first semester the program is offering students a choice of three courses: an intro class—held in a screening room at IU Media School—designed to engage student filmmakers, audio engineers, and others; an advanced class for composers, and an independent study course currently focused on Double Exposure, which pairs composition students in the Jacobs School of Music and film students in The Media School for the creation of original works that are presented at IU Cinema with a live ensemble. Larry says, “This is the seed right here.” The vision is to grow the program into a major and eventually to provide opportunities for students to study at the graduate level.

Before we wrapped up our conversation, I asked Charlie what he might say to composition students thinking about pursuing the Jon Vickers Film Scoring Award in the future. He replied without hesitation, “I would definitely tell them to apply, because this is really a rare opportunity as a student to actually compose a 90 minute film. As a student you can’t get this anywhere.”

Oscar Micheaux’s Body and Soul will be presented in 35mm at IU Cinema on Saturday February 18, 2017  at 7:00 p.m. with a live, world-premiere performance of a new orchestral score by Eun-Chul “Charlie” Oh. This screening is made possible thanks to the generous support of Old National Bank. Thanks to the Honorable P.A. Mack Jr. for endowing the Jon Vickers Film Scoring Award. Experience even more original work by student composers and filmmakers when Double Exposure 2017 takes place at IU Cinema on Sunday March 5, 2017 at 6:30 p.m.

Barbara Ann O'Leary

Barbara Ann O’Leary, Indiana University Cinema’s Social Media and Web Specialist, is delighted to serve as editor of A Place for Film Blog. Barbara’s love of film—particularly the work of women filmmakers—inspired her to launch the #DirectedbyWomen Worldwide Film Viewing Party initiative.