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Interview with Mark Isham

May 1, 2013

It seems to be a rule, rather than an exception, that filmcomposers have their roots in others musical genres – mostly popmusic or jazz. The Grammy winning Mark Isham is no exception. Coming from jazz he wrote his first filmscore in 1982 and today, almost 20 years later, he is one of Hollywood’s busiest composers. Rules of Engagement , Imposter and Men of Honor. These are just a few of his recent works. His discography is varied. Romantic drama’s like A River Runs Through It , the horror filmBlade or the IMAX movie Galapagos . And he wrote the tune for the tv-show Chicago Hope . Apart from all this he has written for children’s stories and he has a long history as a jazz composer and trumpet player. He has worked with Tanita Tikaram, Suzanne Vega and Marianne Faithfull. He was in a a band with Van Morrison and worked together with piano player Art Lande. What attracts the multi talented composer Mark Isham in filmmusic?
(From the Archives – by Peter Simons)

“Trial and error”

It all started with Never Cry Wolf , a Disney film about a bad guy who discovers that wolves are not nasty animals at all, but that they are a very interesting species. It’s vintage Disney, but the score is less traditional for it is mostly electronic. Director Carol Ballard had already rejected two scores when he heard a demo by Mark Isham. “I did a couple of cues and he liked it. I got to do the whole film, but that wasn’t easy,” Isham recalls. “I really had no idea what I was doing, but soon I noticed I did have a talent for writing filmscores. I worked closely with editors Mark Adler and Todd Bucklehide and they taught me a lot.”

After that a couple of other synthesizer scores follow and it isn’t until 1992 before he writes his first fully orchestral score. A Rivers Runs Through It was nominated for an Academy Award. Later he would an Emmy Award for the EZ Streets theme (1996), an ASCAP Award for Blade (1999) and for the tv-show Family Law (2000). Not to mention his Grammy winning solo album Mark Isham (1990) and the Grammy nominated children’s stories like The Emperors New Clothes starring sir John Gielgud, Thumbelina starring Kelly McGillis and The Emperor And The Nightingale featuring the voice of Glenn Close. His solo albums Tibet and Blue Sun have both received rave reviews.

He may have written a few replacements score, he himself has been replaced as well. Most recently on Face/off . Isham had finished almost 2/3 of the score when he was fired by director John Woo who hired John Powell instead. About Powell’s score Isham doesn’t say much except that “it is quite different from what I had done.” Waterworld was another film Isham was supposed to score. But when Kevin Costner took over directing from Kevin Reynolds, he traded Mark Isham for James Newton Howard. “The bigger the movie, the less time a director spends on music, so it seems. Costner wants a composer he doesn’t have to pay too much attention to. Howard is that kind of composer. I’m not. I want a director to come listen occasionally,” explains the 49 year old composer.

The talented trumpeter Mark Isham prefers to use his synthesizers to write music. “It allows me to immediately mix the music with the film and to watch and listen to it as if I am the audience. Occasionally I compose on my trumpet or I sit behind the piano with pencil and paper. For jazz the traditional way seems to work best,” explains Isham. Why he chooses to score a certain film? “There are many reasons to write a score: the quality of the film, the message that it conveys or the school bills of my children.” And obviously the fun of writing music itself. “I’ve done films that may not be the best films ever made, but that did require an interesting score.” His personal favorites are Romeo Is Bleeding (“a unique opportunity to write that is very close to my own style; that doesn’t happen often in Hollywood “) and Men Of Honor (“probably the best orchestral I’ve written so far”). What he hasn’t done yet, but would love to is a score like Star Wars . “A really big bombastic commercial film would be a challenge,” says Isham. The ones he is less proud of he doesn’t mention. “Luckily those score aren’t well-known and maybe it should stay that way,” he jokes

Move your body

Mark Isham may be best known for his romantic jazzy music – A River Runs Through It , October Sky and The Education Of Little Tree are excellent examples of that – the man has a huge interest in electronic instruments and he isn’t afraid to use them in his scores. Body Shots is made of ambient soundscapes and dance rhythms. “Everyone agreed that the score had to sound modern. It would fit with the pop songs (Moby and others) and besides, it fits with the modern way of living of the characters.” But how do you compose such music? “If you define composing as writing notes to paper than, indeed, computer composing is something completely different. But the result is the same: you combine blocks of sound and listen to the effect they have. In part it is about experimenting. Sampling and sequencing is less well-defined than traditional composition, which makes the result less predictable,” according to the composer.

Blade , the horror film starring Wesley Snips, is largely electronic as well. Isham about that soundtrack: “Director Stephan Norrington wanted to use a lot of techno songs and he wanted my music to blend with them. The challenge was to find the right balance between synthesizer and orchestra.”

A film like Rules Of Engagement has its own set of demands and difficulties. “We have spotted that movies in three, maybe four, different ways. Ultimately, I have written music for scenes that at first we didn’t want to score. Cues I had written were removed. That is the fun thing about Billy (Friedkin). He is prepared to look at a film in a very un-traditional way. Often he would say: ‘look, he is where you’d expect music, so, let’s not do that.’ Usually that had an interesting and effective result,” says Isham. The score is based on Isham’s track On The Threshold Of Liberty . “Billy had always wanted to use that music in a film and when he used in the temp score for Rules Of Engagement is seemed to work well.” A temp track is hated by many composers, but not by Isham. “I actually find the temp very useful. It gives me an idea of the director’s wishes, so we can talk about it. I try to copy the good elements and than write something that draws the director away from the temp. It works for me.”

Larger than life

Isham has done two IMAX-films. Hidden Hawaii being the first in 1993 and Galapagos which was released last year. “This is the kind of movie I go for,” says Isham, “because here I could use a unique orchestration. On Galapagos I used a lot of South-American instruments like the chirango.” Obviously the IMAX-format requires a different musical approach than a regular film. Isham: “The image is much bigger and the music needs to grow with it. You really have to go for the big gestures. The music is always there and that does require some planning. Luckily, with a computer you can hear how it sounds before you start spending lots of money on actual recordings.

Soundtrack albums more often seem to be about pop songs than about score. There are several composers who detest the presence of songs, but not Isham. “As long as there have been films and soundtracks, there have been songs as well. If it is done well it can be fantastic. Is it done badly it can ruin the film. But it’s the same with original filmmusic! I have nothing against songs and I actually enjoy it to be part of the songs.”

His musical influences are many and varied. There is legendary jazz composer Miles, but there is Bach, Vaughan Williams or Arvo Pärt as well. He continues and mentions Brian Eno, the innovative synthesizer orchestrations of Joe Zawinul, Wheather Report, Wayne Shorter and filmcomposers like Thomas Newman and Elliot Goldenthal. Does that explain why Blade does sound a little Goldenthal-esque? However, he doesn’t go to the movies often. “With three kids that’s a bit difficult, but I did like The Sixth Sense and American Beauty a lot.”

As a musician Mark Isham is aware of the fact that his filmmusic will be listened out of context. “I want my music to be able to stand on it’s on,” Isham says. “I don’t need to beautify my music for that. It depends on how you define ‘beautify.’ I believe that when music has an emotional impact it is good, both within or without the film.” Isham continues: “It is important to have some knowledge of minimalistic techniques, because you shouldn’t put too much in a score that could collide with other film elements. The trick is to write minimalistic without ruining the integrity of the music.

What is the beauty of writing music specifically for film? Isham: “The interesting thing about a film is that it is a combination of different art forms. That mix has a tremendous potential, because when the music blends well with the images the emotional impact is staggering. That is the challenge and the satisfaction that writing filmmusic has to offer.”

Special thanks to Mark Isham ; and to Jamie Fischer at Earle-Tones Music.

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