Oscar Night 2021 was quite a bit different from previous years for Charles Dickerson, supervisor of Special Ensembles in the CSUDH Music Department and executive director and conductor of the Inner City Los Angeles Youth Orchestra (ICYOLA). That’s because this year, “If Anything Happens I Love You,” a short featuring the music of Dickerson and the ICYOLA, was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film.
Dickerson attended a small dinner party at the home of one of the film’s producers, where they all watched the broadcast together. “Man, when it was announced that we won, we screamed at the top of our lungs,” says Dickerson.
The animated film focuses on parents’ grief after losing a child to gun violence in school, and Dickerson adds, “Gun violence is an issue which the kids in my orchestra and I have a real connection to.” In fact, every year at the ICYOLA’s end-of-season concert, they perform a tribute to those who have been killed by gun violence.
Dickerson’s involvement in the film came “out of the clear blue,” he says. Maryann Garger, one of the film’s producers, was looking for an orchestra to record a piece of music for the film, and particularly wanted a youth orchestra, if possible. She did some research and discovered the ICYOLA, then cold-called Dickerson and asked if he would be willing to help.
When Garger told Dickerson what the film was about, he knew ICYOLA’s participation “was a natural fit,” he says. The director asked Dickerson to re-arrange the portion of music the orchestra would be recording, a 45-second piece of the song “Beautiful Dreamer” that occurs about halfway through the film.
The recording session turned out to be more than a bit tricky. Not only did the music have to match the images on the film to the 10th of a second, but “because we did this during the COVID-19 lockdown, we actually had to record the music part by part,” says Dickerson. Instead of assembling the entire 16-piece ensemble at a studio, “we had the three cellos come in and do their part, then we had the violins, the violas, the clarinet, and so on. By the time it was done and we stuck it all together, you never would have known that we weren’t all playing together!”
Once the music was recorded, it was added to the soundtrack and the film was released. What happened next took everyone involved in the project by surprise. “We sat and watched this film just take off,” says Dickerson. The film was picked up by Netflix, and Dickerson says, “I’m told that the film has now been viewed by over 70 million people worldwide. The message is very powerful.”
“We were thrilled to know that this little project that we worked on was starting to gain that kind of traction,” says Dickerson. “Then, the next thing I heard was ‘We’re in the top ten to get an Oscar.’ You gotta be kidding me! Then I heard we’re in the top five and we’re actually gonna be in the room on the day of the award. I thought, ‘Nah, that’s not gonna happen!’”
Dickerson was surprised that he was so affected by the short film’s Oscar win. “I’m not a big movie guy, and I never thought that I’d get so excited about it,” he says. “But what a thrill it has been to have the privilege of being involved in this project.”
Next Up: Rebuilding
Dickerson’s next mission—one he’s already started work on—is rebuilding the CSUDH Orchestra to its former glory. Currently, the ICYOLA and CSUDH Orchestra are one and the same; Toro students who take orchestra classes rehearse and play with the ensemble at their performances. In the past, CSUDH boasted a strong, independent orchestra program, but by the time Dickerson came to CSUDH, it had disbanded.
For more than three decades the university orchestra, as run under former Music Department Chair Francis Steiner, incorporated both Toro students and local residents into the Carson-Dominguez Hills Symphony Orchestra. After Steiner retired in 2009, the orchestra continued under CSUDH alumnus Hector Salazar, but went dark in 2011.
About three years ago, former Arts and Humanities Dean Mitch Avila approached Dickenson and asked if he would like to help resurrect the orchestra program. Dickerson’s response was an enthusiastic, “Heck yeah, let’s make it happen!”
His efforts are set to kick in this fall, when Dickerson plans to launch a recruitment effort aimed at both CSUDH students and the local community. “I want to reestablish an orchestra that serves the entire student body at Dominguez Hills, as well as do what Professor Steiner did, which is to invite people from the local community who would like to participate to join in. We want them to come be a part of this, too.”
Dickerson is excited at the prospect of rebuilding the CSUDH Orchestra program, and says, “I believe in that line from “Field of Dreams”: ‘If you build it, they will come.’ Well, we’re trying to build it back up, and hopefully the students and community will come. The CSUDH Orchestra is back, and if you play, we want you to come and join us!”