Post image for Tyron Cooper

Tyron Cooper

August 27, 2014

Original post by Karen Land of IU Communications, video by Milana Katic

Not many documentaries stage a world premiere in an 18,000-seat arena. But when the subject is an Indiana basketball legend, you throw out the playbook. This summer, WFYI Public Television screened “Bobby ‘Slick’ Leonard: Heart of a Hoosier” at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.

Beyond the hoopla is a new film that follows the accomplished life of a man who helped the Hoosiers win an NCAA banner in 1953. And behind the film is original music composed and performed by Indiana University Bloomington’s Tyron Cooper.

Cooper, an assistant professor in the College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of African American & African Diaspora Studies, previously worked with filmmaker and producer Ted Green on “Undefeated: The Roger Brown Story.”

“I can’t tell you how many comments I’ve gotten specifically about the score of that film,” Green says. “I was so happy with it, I approached Tyron about doing another for the Bob Leonard film before I’d written word one of the script.”

Cooper has been nominated for regional Emmy Awards for his musical contributions to “Undefeated,” as well as the WFYI documentaries “Musical Threads: Expressions of a People” and “Open Door: China in Indiana.”

“Each project thus far has been different,” Cooper said. “Every film score has been different in the kind of approach that you take.

“If you’re going to write film scores, you need to listen to a lot of music,” he says.

And the music Cooper makes spans many genres. It’s an approach he learned at the Jacobs School of Music while earning a master’s degree in jazz studies. Cooper said he marveled at David Baker’s ability “to navigate so many dimensions of artistic expressions, from classical music to jazz to pop.”

Listen to Tyron Cooper discuss his approach to film scores, and hear him play:

Cooper’s skill as a composer draws upon his broad musical upbringing and his extensive academic training.

He spent his Florida youth experimenting with drums, bass, and a multitude of other instruments in his family’s touring gospel band before concentrating on the guitar.

After earning a bachelor’s degree in music education from Bethune-Cookman University, Cooper came to Indiana and ultimately earned a Ph.D. in ethnomusicology.

It was these studies in ethnomusicology with IU professors Mellonee Burnim and Portia K. Maultsby that Cooper says most influenced his film score work. By learning to examine music within its cultural and historical context, he can create and adapt music that best suits a film’s subject matter.

These days, Cooper wears many hats. He’s a performer, an educator, and the director of IU Soul Revue, in addition to his work as a film composer.

“Everything that I do tends to inform each other,” he says. “Everything I do is really connected.”

“I’ve always felt like I had this thing in me to do some sort of film scoring,” Cooper adds, though at first he couldn’t envision how the process might work.

On the Green documentaries for WFYI, the music begins with simple conversations about individuals in the film.

“By the time he and I get through discussing who these people are, I have a good visual as well as artistic sense of what forwards the story,” Cooper says. “So I walk out of the room already with music in my head.”

Surprisingly, one of the most crucial elements in a film score isn’t sound at all. “Silence oftentimes can speak louder than any sound you can make,” he adds.

“Of course, he has his ideas as a director and I have my ideas, so we just meld those together,” he says. “Usually, we’re always on the same page.”

“Sometimes it feels like he’s reading my mind, what I’m seeking,” Green says. “And the funny thing is, what he writes is always completely different from what I hear in my mind, and much better! His music has this almost sneaky way of sweeping the viewer along, almost like a guiding hand, and subtly amplifying whatever emotion we’re trying to get across.”

“I’ve had really great experiences with Ted Green. He’s just a masterful producer,” Cooper says. “We’ve formed this really great marriage of expression.”

He adds, “It’s been a really great ride.”