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Tuesday April 23rd 2019

Dr. Yeagely discusses the Daughter of Dawn film

When the Oklahoma Historical Society discovered The Daughter of Dawn, an historic silent film shot in the summer of 1920 in the Wichita Mountains near Lawton with a cast made entirely of Comanche and Kiowa Indians, it took measures to restore the film and enhance its visual imagery to its former glory, but it also recognized the need for a score that would represents its drama, emotions and meaning.

The Oklahoma Historical Society commissioned Comanche composer Dr. David Yeagely to conjure the spirit of the film—one that includes a love story, buffalo hunt scenes and hand-to-hand combat—and then enlisted the Oklahoma City University Orchestra to perform the score.

Such projects might prompt some musicians to research the forgotten format of silent films, but Dr. Yeagely preferred a pure approach instead.

“I refused to give myself that kind of orientation. I have seen silent films before, but this had to be clean,” Dr. Yeagely said. “I took a phenomenological approach to this film. No associations. Let this thing generate its own power. Do not bring any impositions into it.”

Dr. Yeagely said he proceeded with the project by timing each subsequent section of the film with a stopwatch and matched moods to melodies, but he was averse to shifting the sounds too swiftly. He also developed the theme for the titular character with the imagery of her name in mind.

“You feel what is being felt by looking and following the story and having confidence in your own emotions and vicarious participation,” said Dr. Yeagely. “You have to become a character, and this is why I selected different themes for different characters. The Indian Flute is exclusive to Daughter of Dawn; when she appears, this is what you hear.”

In the beginning, Dr. Yeagely heard other concepts for the opening of the film, but later amended them in order to convey the correct feelings.

The film opens in the dark and the rising of the sun,” Dr. Yeagely said. “Interestingly, in the beginning when I first started writing the score, I had the Hollywood mindset. When the title of the film comes on, it was boom, big orchestra and big excitement. Moving forward, as I was writing other parts, I thought ‘this is the wrong way to begin.’ This is about dawn, and dawn does not begin with a bang.”

He then started anew by selecting instrumentation that evokes the same feelings the steady sunrise brings.

The film starts in darkness at night, and we are awakening the sun. So, how do you do that? With a noisemaker. I selected the rattle rather than the drum. The rattle is the noisemaker, and the bass and cello is the deep, rigorous awakening out of the darkness. But then the music calms down, and then there is the fluttering of the first light. I have an impressionist technique on the violin there that was shimmering and glittering. The flute rests at the top. That is how Dawn begins,” Dr. Yeagely said.

However, Dr. Yeagely made the decision not imbue his work with historical songs still sung among the Comanche and Kiowa people; the score does not resonate with the sounds that are inherent in Native American music.

One thing I do not do is use traditional Indian rhythms or songs. To me, those are sacred. Lots of people would have expected to hear powwow drums, but I was hired as a symphonic composer and the music through which I auditioned was symphonic music,” Dr. Yeagely said. “You will not hear specific tribal influences, and that was a conscious decision on my part.”

Dr. Yeagely likened his score to bare bones, but his collaboration with the student instrumentalists in the Oklahoma City University Orchestra essentially breathes new life into the film many feared was lost forever.