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Whether he's performing with a jazz combo, writing orchestral or electronic scores for films, or playing trumpet on rock albums, Mark Isham makes music

Whether he’s performing with a jazz combo, writing orchestral orelectronic scores for films, or playing trumpet on rock albums,Mark Isham makes music that can be sensual and alluring, ominousand suspenseful, or grandiose and compelling. His chameleon-likeability to move between genres has made him an increasinglyvaluable commodity in the close-knit community of Hollywoodcomposers. He has amassed an impressive body of work in filmscoring since 1983, including Blade, Men of Honor, QuizShow, the Oscar-nominated A River Runs Through It,the recent hit Save the Last Dance and numerous othermajor studio and independent films. Isham also has a uniquerelationship with acclaimed art-house filmmaker Alan Rudolph— he’s scored all but one of Rudolph’s films over the past 15years, including Trouble In Mind, The Moderns andAfterglow. (You can even spot Isham as a band leader andtrumpet player, respectively, in Rudolph’s Love at Largeand Made In Heaven.)

As a sideman, he has appeared on albums by Van Morrison, theRolling Stones, Robbie Robertson, Bruce Springsteen, David Sylvian,Joni Mitchell, Patrick O’Hearn, and many, many others. He hasscored music for the Rabbit Ears Storybook Classics Series, whichfeatured children’s classic stories narrated by top actors. He haswritten the themes for the TV series Chicago Hope, NothingSacred and EZ Streets (for which he won an Emmy) andcomposed the theme for, and the first season of, FamilyLaw. Isham won a New Age Grammy in 1990 for a self-titled soloalbum, and he also won a CLIO for composing the commercial forSaturn’s electric car in the mid-’90s.

Fans of Isham’s jazz work will be pleased to know that he isworking on a new solo album with his L.A.-based quintet; that CDshould be out later this year. Further, Isham’s two albums with theearly-’80s combo Group 87 — the first of which featuredguitarist Peter Maunu, bassist Patrick O’Hearn and drummer TerryBozzio — have finally been reissued via One Way Records afterlanguishing in the Sony vaults for years. To learn more aboutIsham’s full discography and studio setup, log on to

Your signature style is mixing acoustic and electronicinstruments together in a very organic way. Were you ever veryconscious of doing that?

I felt that one of the choices that I would make as a programmerearly on was to move a sound into an organic direction or move asound into an electronic direction. In other words, you could makesomething sound like it wouldn’t necessarily come from nature, oryou could make a sound that felt like you’re hitting a couple ofpieces of wood together, but something is wrong with the secondpiece. Consequently, I would work in one or the other direction— the sounds would either go toward one side of that spectrumor toward the other.

Then it became of great interest to blend the organic type ofprogramming with the real stuff. Especially in the film world, youwant to create a new musical world that sets a slightly differentemotional tone for the picture. I see that as part of the job I cando. Part of what I can bring to a film is to create a palette ofsound that makes those pictures feel just a little bit unique. Partof that can be done by taking sounds that are known and people canrelate to, but then adding a few things that have never quite beenheard that way before, so it becomes a slightly new experience.

Many accomplished musicians have recently tried their handat television composing, including yourself, Eddie Jobson and JonHassell. What do you think of this trend?

Miles Davis could do what the trumpet historically had not beenthought of as being able to do, which was be an instrument thatcould whisper in your ear.
Mark Isham

I think that television, itself, has grown up, and it’sattracted a lot of people who want to change the genre creatively,artistically, and music’s gone hand-in-hand with that. Thecinematography, the writing, everything has tried to step up, justgrow up, for a lack of a better word. So it’s attracted a lot ofpeople from features across the board. I think it’s veryhealthy.

Why do think you have such a good relationship with AlanRudolph?

We work very, very similarly. With Trouble In Mind, wejust found each other, because he picked up a record of mine in arecord store and said, “I wonder if this guy scoresfilms?” And I had just gone out and seen Choose Meand said, “This is somebody I would like to work with.”And the phone calls literally crossed on the same afternoon. Wealready knew of each other and were looking for each other, and therelationship has just sort of gone on in that way.

The first day we met, he came over to my house and I just said,“Here’s what I do.” I made a couple of sequences, threwin a few loops and blew some trumpet over it. He said, “Can Itake that with me?” He temped half the film with stuff I madein a single afternoon for him. The relationship has just gone onlike that. He’s basically a jazz musician disguised as a filmdirector. He likes to take those chances on the set — setpeople up in situations, give them a few instructions and see howthings go. He likes the fact that I work similarly in music.

We’ve actually structured different scores to take advantage ofthat. Afterglow was pretty much like that. It’s a jazzscore, and we knew when you have the likes of [jazz greats] BillyHiggins and Charles Lloyd, you don’t necessarily write everythingdown for these guys; you’re not getting what they do best if you dothat. So you open up the process to allow them to create somethingbrand new and be willing to let that enter the film. We sat downand designed a whole way of doing that on that score. Very fewdirectors have that level of courage. Directors get nervous. Theywant to get control over that last major element in the film. But Ithink [Rudolph] had such fine performances from Julie Christie andeveryone that he was totally willing to take the chance. I thoughtit was certainly one of the most fun, most adventurous and mosteffective scores I’ve worked on.

Have any of your Hollywood peers influenced your soundtrackwork?

I really admire Elliot Goldenthal. For orchestral writing, whenI want a shot of “let me dive into some orchestral music toget inspired,” I’ll generally pick up something of Elliot’s,because I think he’s the real deal. I like Thomas Newman’s work alot. He seems to have a similar taste as I do, he makes similarsorts of decisions as I would make, so I always find myself smilingwhen I listen to his music. I have definitely sat down and listenedto John Williams, because, for that traditional approach, itdoesn’t get any better. He’s truly the master of that.

It seems that Hollywood has taken time to warm up toelectronic scores.

I think they go in and out of favor. When I first started in the’80s, for five years there was this very high interest in Vangelisand all this stuff. Then they’ll go out of favor. There was a whilewhere, because I was thought of as the “electronicguy,” that the good movies weren’t open to me. That’s why Igot my feet wet with orchestras to the point where I felt totallyconfident as an orchestral composer. It’s shifting around again,now that you see Moby and this next generation of electronicartists becoming very, very popular through the licensing of theirmusic.

Let’s talk studio gear. You’re using an Euphonix CS3000console?

We made the decision about five years ago to go to a Euphonix.At that point, the [concept of the] computerized studio was stillpretty shaky, and I certainly didn’t trust it. What we have todaywasn’t implemented yet, so I felt that, because I do so much workin film, the Euphonix was a fantastic choice. It’s so flexible, andit could allow me to quickly move back and forth between projectsand also to get a really wonderful 5.1 mixing environment in myroom. That was a great choice; I love the console.

We’re trying to stay up-to-date with all the computer gear. I’ma Logic user. The virtual studio is being developed as it’s beingreleased and as we are able to confront it and get it all working.So for various projects, I think the album stuff is being done muchmore in the virtual environment, while film stuff still tends to bedone on tape. We’ll go record an orchestra on analog, because, whatcan you say, 2-inch Dolby SR still sounds great. For an orchestra,it sounds great. The 2-inch obviously is left over from the olddays, but we keep it up and running, just because the sound isstill hard to beat. Then the Pro Tools is expanding; there’s morehard disk space.

Your engineer, Stephen Krause, uses a lot of Lexicon gearfor mixing, correct?

Steve is the old Class-A collector. He’s the one with the Nevemodules — the Neve preamps and the Neve compressors; the oldstuff. He’s got the Focusrite stuff. I myself haven’t investedheavily in that area because he has. When we do use it, especiallyfor the virtual stuff, when you insert it in the chain, it makesall the difference in the world. So if that seems missing from myparticular setup, it’s because he has it. In the practicalday-to-day world, a lot of the Class-A stuff gets inserted into thewhole process.

You use a lot of Akai samplers and Korgsynthesizers.

I started off with Akai, just because it was recommended to me,and I still love the sound of the Akais. I think for high-endtransience, they’re still the best, so I have a whole lot of them.I have [E-mu] E4Xs, just because they were the first large-capacitysampler. I invested in those, because a film composer has to beable to mock up a sampled symphony orchestra and have it soundpretty effective. It’s just part of the game, it’s part of the jobdescription these days. So five years ago, the E4s were really theway to do it. If you can play these things for the director aheadof time with a pretty convincing sound, then the director has theopportunity to respond before you’re in that environment ofspending $10,000 an hour and having 100 people wait for you. Idon’t have a synthesized orchestra on hand to replace an orchestra.That’s not the point at all. The point is to really be able to mockit up so that the director has an opportunity to respond. We getthe score exactly the way we like it, and then the recordingsessions [with the orchestra] are just fun. “Wow, I didn’tthink it could sound this great!”

I’ve noticed you like “old school” analogsynthesizers.

I began collecting that stuff when I could first save up mymoney and knew that I wanted that ARP Odyssey, which I traded intoward a 2600, which I still have. I have a Prophet-5, I have anold original Moog 12, an original Oberheim 4-voice and OberheimXpanders. And I have the Waldorf Wave; the new stuff. If I were totake a vacation, I would love to sit down with a couple of oldsynthesizers and tweak knobs. That would just be pure fun.

Over the years, you have worked with a lot of inventivemusicians: Peter Maunu, Terry Bozzio, Hector Zazou, XTC, HaroldBudd…Do you have any favorite projects that you have workedon?

In terms of working with other people, I’ve been very lucky thatthe conduit for that has been mostly through a couple of differentproducers — Don Was and Paul Fox. Paul brought me in to workwith XTC, and Don brought me in to work with a wide variety ofdifferent people from Bette Midler to Ziggy Marley. They are twoexcellent producers who always choose fascinating people to workwith. I always know that if Paul or Don has called, it’s going tobe interesting, it’s going to be fun.

I’ve worked on and off with David Sylvian for a number of years,and he’s a great artist. That was fun, because we not only touredthe world, but we recorded a couple of albums. It’s always nice toreally get to know someone and experience working with them in acouple of different types of environments.

With Patrick [O’Hearn] and Peter [Maunu], that’s a whole otherlevel. Those guys are my friends, like school yard friends. Thekids play together, although Patrick’s moved away; I don’t see himnearly as much anymore. But Pete, I still see all the time, and wehang out. We know all the cranky, creaky sides of each other.

In 1998, you released a solo album called MilesRemembered: The Silent Way Project. How much influence hasMiles Davis had on your sound?

Looking back, the first thing that attracted me to the trumpetwas the sound of the classical trumpet. Just that pure sound, avery heroic sound. Then it was a few years down the road, and I wasalready playing when I heard Miles, and I think it was the factthat he had that emotion in his sound. He could be heroic, he couldbe pure and beautiful, but he could also be very, very intimate. Hecould do what the trumpet historically had not been thought of asbeing able to do, which was be an instrument that could whisper inyour ear. It would always be the shouting instrument at the top ofthe band — the electric guitar, if you will, of the firstpart of this century.

He changed that in a big way. Not that there weren’t peoplebefore him who foreshadowed that, but he really put it there asthat whispering music trumpet. It became a major part of our wholemusical vocabulary because of him. That had a huge influence on me,just to show that the instrument had such a diverse spectrum thatit was capable of. Several times in his career, here-conceptualized musical contexts in which to place the trumpet— cool jazz, electric jazz, even toward the end getting intothe hip hop world. It’s a tremendous legacy he’s left in thatregard.

It’s very inspiring to me as a film composer, and just as acomposer in general, to see that you can move things around [likethat]. You can play pretty piano over a reggae groove. You can playmuted trumpet over a hip hop groove. You can do a wide variety ofthings that are juxtaposed against each other and create tremendouseffects. For me, that overall elasticity was tremendouslyinfluenced by Miles Davis.

You’ve played classical, jazz and rock music, both in thestudio and on the road. You’ve composed film soundtracks. Is thereany one style you prefer over the others?

No, I can’t say there is. I still think that there’s a way ofevolving instrumental music beyond the jazz tradition, but that hasa lot more artistic interest than where a lot of instrumental musichas gone in the past 15 years. I can’t say that I’m particularlyproud of the state of instrumental music right now in our culture.I haven’t quite nailed it yet; it’s something that I’ve beenworking on for a long, long time. Group 87 was a big push into thisarea, just because I am a trumpet player, and, therefore,instrumental music is what I would do as a performer.

Without bashing anyone in particular, I know there’s somethingthat could be done in the instrumental genre that’s not onlyinteresting to a wide number of people, that isn’t just an esotericart form, but that also doesn’t pander to either history or thelowest common denominator. It’s done in rock ‘n’ roll all the time,it’s done in various aspects of pop music, and it’s done inclassical music. There’s no reason that contemporary instrumentalmusic can’t follow suit. So that’s my mission right now, to findthat.