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MARK ISHAM: Film Music For Hollywood

Interview | Composer By Jonathan Miller
Published January 2000

MARK ISHAM: Film Music For Hollywood

Mark Isham resides at the top of Hollywood's film‑music hierarchy, equally comfortable composing for orchestra as for a rack of samplers in his home studio. He marks time as an innovative genre‑hopping artist and sought‑after trumpeter too. Jonathan Miller finds out how he fits it all in...

Film composer, acoustic and electric jazz artist, instrumentalist and soloist, television and orchestral score composer, electronica pioneer — Mark Isham is a musician of many parts, all of them talented. With recordings spanning three decades, Isham has, to date, scooped a Grammy and an Emmy Award, plus multiple Academy and Golden Globe Award nominations, both for his work as a recording artist in his own right, and as one of Hollywood's premier film‑score composers.

In the late '80s Isham, together with his contemporary Hans Zimmer, was one of a new breed of technologically proficient composers who launched an energetic challenge to Hollywood's long‑standing musical narrow‑mindedness. Breaking a 'closed shop' industry mentality was certainly no easy task. Yet, ultimately, Isham would be accepted into the Hollywood hall of scoring fame with open arms, to the point where the American Film Institute named him as one of the 'Top Three Composers of the '80s'.

Born into a musical New York family in 1951, he studied classical piano, violin and trumpet, making his debut performance at the tender age of 12. When his family moved to the San Francisco Bay Area, he began his professional career, playing trumpet in the Oakland and San Francisco Symphony Orchestras and the San Francisco Opera Orchestra. He went on to form several jazz and rock bands, and developed a profitable sideline as an instrumentalist. Early in his career, Isham recorded and toured with such diverse acts as. The Beach Boys, Charles Lloyd, and Van Morrison. Demand for his trumpet performance and style grew quickly — more recent album contributions include The Rolling Stones, Willie Nelson and Bruce Springsteen.

Enter Subotnick

Something old, something new. From this angle, Mark's old ARP 2600 modular synth can be seen, contrasting with his Korg Trinity Plus master keyboard.Something old, something new. From this angle, Mark's old ARP 2600 modular synth can be seen, contrasting with his Korg Trinity Plus master keyboard.

Isham branched out into electronic music in his early twenties, becoming a renowned synthesizer programmer: "Even in the acoustic jazz band that I had, I was carrying an ARP 2600 around," he reveals. "Actually, I was one of the first people — perhaps the only person, I'm not aware of anyone else — that used synthesizers extensively with Van Morrison. I brought that sort of world into his music.

"I started in electronic music when I was just out of school. I had observed that strange sounds were starting to appear in popular music. My first introduction to electronic music, however, was through its more serious side — I think it was probably my father who brought home the Morton Subotnick record, Silver Apples Of The Moon; I heard this and said, 'This is it; this is the future!'. Morton was a co‑founder of the Mills College Performing Group and the San Francisco Tape Center. Silver Apples Of The Moon was the first original, full‑scale electronic composition created expressly for the record medium. The modular electronic music system used was built by Donald Buchla for Subotnick and Ramon Sender at the San Francisco Tape Center, and took more than a year to develop.

"After that, I started to really listen to The Beatles' Abbey Road and realised there were those kinds of sounds in there too [George Harrison's Moog 3C indeed graces several tracks on The Beatles' swansong]. Then Switched On Bach arrived and the big modular Moogs became visible in the hands of the few people who had them."

Isham listened to the records of Wendy Carlos, Tangerine Dream, Kraftwerk and Jean‑Michel Jarre, yet this naturally inquisitive musician could only remain passive for so long. "I made a deal with a local music store to pay $100 a month, and they fronted me a little ARP Odyssey. I got into it as soon as I could — and that, of course, was how I got into film music; I was confident enough as an electronic music creator/composer/programmer/sound designer. That's how I had the confidence to start scoring films; I sort of moved backwards into orchestral music later, within the first seven or eight years of my film‑music career."

Hollywood Or Bust

Mark's Wet Dog Studio.Mark's Wet Dog Studio.

But first, Isham would serve an unconventional film‑scoring apprenticeship, utilising his impressive collection of American analogue synthesizers. By now this had grown to include an Oberheim 4‑Voice and a couple of Sequential Circuits Prophet 5 polysynths, alongside his trusty ARPs. "When I was offered my first film score in 1982 [Disney's Never Cry Wolf], electronic music was, for me, the logical medium to use — even though it was not, perhaps, the medium that one would necessarily have thought suitable for that particular film. But Caroll Ballard, the film director, supported me.

"I had no particular career design to become a film composer — I was perfectly happy as a struggling instrumental music guy, looking for a record deal, and working for others as trumpet player or synthesizer programmer and sound designer. But a friend gave a demo tape of mine to Carroll Ballard, and he asked me to score Never Cry Wolf. I recognised it as an opportunity. I remember sitting there and saying, 'Nobody's offered me this kind of money or production budget ever for instrumental music. I can't ignore this!' To this day, it's still quite a unique event that the director of a major Disney film hires someone completely unknown, especially after having had a couple of scores recorded and thrown out." And there was a typical Hollywood ending, too. "An agent saw the movie, approached me and said, 'I'd love to represent you.' And I've just worked hard at it ever since."

With the subsequent release of film scores such as Trouble In Mind (1986), The Hitcher (1986), The Beast (1988) and A Midnight Clear (1991), Isham became one of the leading alternative/electronic film composers in the business. But he had his sights set on conquering mainstream Hollywood, in all its glory — and this would require a different tack.

"At one point in my career, maybe eight or 10 years ago, my agent came to me and said, 'Look, I can't get responses from producers, because you're considered an electronic composer and they won't consider you for a certain level of film. So we need to change your image. It's becoming a hindrance.' We systematically set out to find some smaller films that needed an orchestral score — to get some work that would take me out of that pigeonhole. It took a number of years, but it was a well‑thought out plan, and it worked. Certainly now, I'm considered capable of either electronic, or orchestral. One of the big pushes in my film career occurred after that; I got a tremendous amount done, and some very big films came my way." This is not modesty on Isham's part — films like Robert Redford's A River Runs Through It (1992) and Michael Apted's Nell (1994) garnered him his Academy and Golden Globe scoring nominations.

This is not to suggest, however, that Isham's electronic wizardry has been laid to rest. On the contrary, he senses a turning tide in Tinseltown: "I think it's coming back around, because of this whole new motion in popular music towards electronica. Sample‑based electronic music has become so popular that Hollywood wants to be hip too. Of course, John Williams will always be king of the hill to the degree that he is, but I think the next five years will be quite interesting in music in general. The electronic score is quite a bit more valued and respected in Hollywood."

It's unlikely Isham will miss the electronica boat. Of his recent work, last year's blockbuster Blade serves as an excellent example of the way he skilfully blends the orchestral and the electronic — Isham reckons it's "about 60 percent orchestra, 40 percent electronic" — and one of his recent scoring projects was an all‑electronic score.

Family Ties

The 'Orchestral Pit' — Mark's beloved sampler collection, with some of his old analogue keyboards in the background.The 'Orchestral Pit' — Mark's beloved sampler collection, with some of his old analogue keyboards in the background.

So how might you expect a Hollywood film composer of Mark Isham's standing to spend his hard‑earned nickels and dimes? If you point your browser at his official web site (, you'll find the answer — a state‑of‑the‑art private recording studio, the delightfully named Wet Dog.

Behind all this stands Isham's production company, Earle‑Tones Music, which is run by Mark's wife and is responsible for organising his incredibly busy schedule. "It started with my wife, who was a very successful costume designer. We decided we wanted to raise a family, so she said, 'Look, why don't I expand your career and that way I can be at home and we can have a family.' She set up the company and organised it. Right now, we have three full‑time people on our own staff, plus the agent and management."

With the Earle‑Tones infrastructure in position, Wet Dog's conception was assured. Isham: "We sat down when we knew the first child was coming and realised I needed to work at home. If I got up in the morning and drove to work, with the type of life that film composers have, I wouldn't have been home until midnight, and I'd never see my children. So we built a little compound — the offices, the business, studio and the home are all in the same area. That way, we're all together."

Isham admits he couldn't be happier about his working environment at Wet Dog. "It's the culmination of my lifetime's work so far. The architect did a brilliant job; he worked very closely with my engineer in setting it up so that it works very well as a dual‑purpose writing and recording room. It's quite efficient; we get a tremendous amount of work out of it." The studio is centred around a large room housing a mixing area, which faces the machine rooms either side of a small isolation booth, and a custom‑built writing console with racked electronic instrumentation and keyboards to the rear (which Isham fondly terms 'the orchestra pit').

The studio's flexible floor‑plan layout is designed to suit the man's working needs, and draws upon his extensive experience of working in studios both conventional and improvised: "I've worked out of garages, spare bedrooms and leaky basements. In one apartment I had, the only room big enough was the living room — so that was the studio! The recording room here was based on a room where I had done some radio shows with my jazz quintet, which sounded great. We took that as a model; that way I know I can always make quintet records on my own and be happy!

"Then, the biggest garage I'd ever been in could accommodate three cars, and that had worked out really well as a writing room, size‑wise. It's pretty big, but when you have an arsenal of electronic gear, and you also have clients coming over to listen to demos and stuff, you want a nice, big control room. Besides working as a control room with a recording console, we also had to accommodate what I call the writing console and then all the gear, so we modelled the writing/control room after that three‑car garage.

"Ergonomically, those two spaces had really been successful, so we gave those basic, fundamental sizes to the architect and said, 'That's what you have to work with, but, because we're going to put in a Euphonix console, we need big closets for the machinery and stuff.' Given those criteria, he came up with a really intelligent design and gave us one iso‑booth in addition to those rooms."

Following in the footsteps of fellow 'soundtrackers' Thomas Newman, Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard, all seasoned Euphonix users, Isham opted for that company's CS3000P‑4‑64 configuration at Wet Dog: "At the time it was the most stable, fully automated, best‑sounding console that we were aware of," he explains. "I love the way the board sounds. Plus, they really did address the film world, with IMAX formats and everything; you can now pan between 10 different speakers placed all over the room. As a film‑mixing console it's hard to beat."

For Isham, the bona fide recording artist, the attraction is two‑fold: "All the faders have multiple inputs, so, for example, at the press of a button, we have 'Mark's Writing Setup', where every fader is an input for all the writing gear; then when my engineer Steve Krause comes in, he pushes another button, and it's all turned around into record mode. That efficiency is priceless."

Like everything in the cut‑throat Hollywood soundtrack world, speed is of the essence. Isham's choice of recording medium similarly adheres to this philosphy: "I've got two racks of DA88 — a 32‑track rack and a 16‑track rack, which is sort of configured for film mixing with timecode everywhere. It's a standard now in the film industry. We've also got a 24‑bit Digidesign Pro Tools system, but I'm the Pro Tools fan; Steve prefers tape. He's waiting for a hard‑disk system that he feels comfortable with. There's a couple he's interested in right now — Euphonix is coming up with one he's probably beta‑testing."

The Orchestra Pit

MARK ISHAM: Film Music For Hollywood

One technology the modern‑day film composer cannot afford to ignore is sampling. Isham needs no convincing: "Hollywood now demands that a producer or director can walk in and hear almost an exact replica of the music they're going to finally get, before they've spent a lot of money on it. You need that power. I mean, imagine those old days when the first time the director would hear the score would be on the scoring stage; they could turn to you and say, 'Well, you know, I don't really like it.' And you'd go, 'Sorry, this is it! There's not much I can do at this point.' Now they can say, 'Sorry, I don't like it,' and you can start all over again. To play at the top level of the Hollywood game, you have to be able to offer a brilliant orchestral mock‑up. That means you've got to have a lot of samplers, like Hans Zimmer [who reputedly owns several dozen]. At first, I had four samplers and I thought the way I got so much out of them was so clever, but Hans has really gone for it."

Isham's 'orchestra pit' is, however, no slouch, with several Akais (S3200, CD3000, S1000, S1000PB and three S2000s), three Emu E4Xs, three Roland S760s, plus a selection of older units. "They each have their own characteristics — the Akais have a tremendous transient response, and for percussion they're just brilliant; the Rolands have a warmth about them. I also have so many because of the various different programmers that work in the different formats. Eric Persing of Spectrasonics pretty much works for Roland, and he's just so good that I had to have some Roland gear to take advantage of his wonderful work.

"Picking and creating a palette of sounds is one of the first, most important things I do in any project. With the technology at our disposal, the composer virtually has a limitless palette to choose from, so it's important for me to define a world before I start — although I'm not saying that it doesn't evolve a little during the course of a project. In every film I score I learn more about music, because you're given the challenge of creating a unique musical vocabulary for that two hours. Consequently, I learn more about orchestration, about styles of music, different ethnic musics."

Putting theory into practice, Isham explains, can take one of many forms: "I write the music and mock it up electronically — everything, including the orchestra. The director comes to the house, we go through it, and I get him to sign it off and say, 'Yes, this is good.' After that point, I will choose a production path, and, I would say, nine times out of ten, I would do the electronics first, as that's the simplest way. You've got your click; you've got your stable idea of what the score's about, and you take it and overdub the orchestra. Having said that, if you have a director who is constantly changing their mind, constantly recutting the picture, or you hear rumblings in the background that the studio's going to change the entire picture, then that's more tricky. I might go back and redo the electronics if I have to."

Isham has a long‑standing working relationship with orchestrator/conductor Ken Kugler. Mark supplies Kugler with MIDI files of his compositions, and Kugler transforms these into a score. For Isham, having a sampled 'virtual' MIDI orchestra at his fingertips is a godsend — and Opcode's Studio Vision Pro, his compositional/sequencing software of choice, aids him by not permitting him to play outside the various orchestral instruments' real‑world ranges: "I'm sort of aware already," he jests, "but it's nice to have that built in — just to remind you that the bass clarinet doesn't have that note!"

Trumpet Call

Not that Isham has entirely forsaken his 'synthetic' past — far from it, in fact. Even his beloved analogue collection — now expanded to incorporate an Oberheim Xpander, a Roland MKS80 with MPG80 programmer, and a rare Moog Model 12, one of those 'big modular Moogs' he once admired from afar — regularly gets a look in: "I just did an entire film score that used the 2600, MIDI'd via an old Roland MPU101 MIDI‑CV converter" says Isham, with a hint of bravado. Isham's studio also contains an extensive selection of more modern synths. Of his Korg Trinity Plus, Z1, Prophecy, Wavestation A/D and ubiquitous M1, Roland JD800, and newly acquired, knob‑laden Access Virus, the latter is currently proving most agreeable with the composer. Once again, it's a question of immediacy.

Nor has Isham forsaken his first love in favour of a rack of samplers. He's still in demand as a trumpet player, with many seeking to access his distinctive processed 'sound'. Mark elaborates: "I was just in my last year of school when Miles Davis' Bitches Brew and In A Silent Way came out, and there it was: the electric trumpet. Another trumpet player who was really deep into this was Don Ellis. He, along with Miles, said, 'Yes, the trumpet can be an electrified instrument; it can partake in all the processing guitarists and keyboard players are getting into.' I borrowed my guitar player friend's wah‑wah pedal at the first opportunity and have been really experimenting ever since with the various things that one can do with an electric trumpet."

Is Isham's impressive trumpet assortment therefore a luxury, perhaps, akin to, say, fellow film composer Hans Zimmer's penchant for pricey analogue modular systems? Isham grins at the analogy: "Yeah, well, in the old days when I was a session trumpet player I didn't have the money to collect trumpets! Now I've got a little extra money, so I'm treating myself to a hobby."

Going Solo

Isham made a solo breakthrough with Vapor Drawings, his 1983 long‑player debut for Wyndham Hill, and was initially perceived as a New Age artist. Most notable of his accomplishments in that oft‑misinterpreted genre was his self‑titled solo album, which won him a Grammy for 'Best New Age Performer' and coincided with his jumping ship to Virgin. That Isham's official discography makes no mention whatsoever of this troublesome instrumental marketing term perhaps suggests his discomfort with all things New Age.

"At first, I was very excited at Virgin," he recalls, "because they were a young company and I was very excited about following in the original steps of Virgin Records in the UK, which had been a very eclectic label, finding success in all sorts of alternative markets. But it quickly became apparent that they didn't know how to duplicate that in America in the '90s! At the end of that I got a little disillusioned with the whole instrumental music world. It seemed like soft jazz was becoming the only marketable jazz and the only thing that record companies were interested in. Unless you were a jazz icon already, nobody really knew what to do with you, except sort of peddle you as the next Kenny G and hope for the best! Quite frankly, I was just not interested, so I stepped out of the business for a while and concentrated on the film world."

The Smaller Screen

Not content with mastering the big screen, in 1994 Isham turned his attention to scoring for television, composing the theme to Twentieth Century Fox's popular Chicago Hope serial, receiving two Emmy nominations for his contribution. An 'Individual Achievement in Main Theme Music' Emmy soon followed in 1996 for EZ Streets. Yet Isham seems keen to downplay his small screen exploits: "As a career move, I said, 'I'm not that interested in television.'" This bearing unwittingly cost him a shot at what would become one of the most popular TV shows in recent years — much to Mark Snow's delight, no doubt. "I was originally offered the X‑Files," imparts Isham, sheepishly. "I remember the first show and I was quite interested in it, but at the time I was just too busy with film to fit it in — I wish I'd tried a little harder!"