Interview With Mark Isham by Marta Mielicki


Marta Mielicki is a member of the TuneCore Artist Support Team.


To make it in the music business, you’ve got to be versatile. Nobody embodies this quality better than Mark Isham. He plays the trumpet, piano, violin and sax. He can program a synthesizer. He has studied classical music, played in rock and roll bands and performed in jazz clubs. In addition to Grammy winning solo work, he has also recorded with artists as diverse as Ziggy Marley, Bruce Springsteen and XTC. He has written music for children’s storybook CDs and soundtracks for psychological thrillers. He received an Academy award nomination for Best Score for his work on A River Runs Through It. Some of his other soundtracks include Crash, October Sky, The Black Dahlia and Save The Last Dance. Mark will be speaking at the ASCAP EXPO which will take place April 22nd – 24th in Los Angeles.

Even with his fingers in so many pies, Mark agreed to answer some questions for the TuneCore Newsletter.

TuneCore: With this amazing list of accomplishments, is there anything you can’t do?

Mark Isham: Well, there’s a number of things I can’t do…I can’t rappel off the sheer face of a cliff, and the last time I checked I can’t run a 4.3 second 40-yard dash!


TC: What were your initial goals as a musician? Did you expect to be doing all of the things you’ve done?

MI: That’s an interesting question. I actually did not ever consciously expect to become a film composer. I was always very attracted to making up compositions at the piano, and I remember sort of doing it with stories in mind sometimes – making up little stories to go along with the compositions. But the actual job of a film composer never occurred to me until it was offered to me. My initial goals were very much performance oriented. I wanted to have a band, I wanted to tour, I wanted to play live shows. I wanted to take improvisational music and explore new worlds with that. That was my initial goal. A lot of the new things I have in mind are similar to that first goal. I’m planning an audio installation that we will probably premiere in NY at a gallery there. That’s an idea I actually had as much as 20 years ago, but I haven’t actually realized it until now.

TC: How did you get involved in composing soundtracks? What was the first score you worked on?

MI: As I mentioned, that came almost by chance. Carroll Ballard asked to meet with me after having heard some of my music – quite by accident, actually. It was not through any real work of mine, but he was presented with some work that I had collaborated on with Bill Douglass, the wonderful bass player and flutist, and the music got to him through Bill. He then offered me the opportunity to score his picture, Never Cry Wolf, and I jumped at the chance.

That was the first soundtrack that I worked on, and I basically learned as I went. Carroll was smart. He put two very accomplished music editors (who were also wonderful composers in their own right) with me to help me along and to teach me the ropes of how to make everything work to picture. So that was trial by fire, but it worked out very well.

TC: What is your favorite soundtrack?

MI: Of my own – I have a soft spot in my heart for The Black Dahlia. That was really a lot of fun. I think I did a really good job on that one. Also, Eight Below. Those two orchestral scores are perhaps two of my favorites. Crash, I think stands out also as a favorite. Never Cry Wolf, actually, I just listened to the other day, and considering that it was my first one, it still stands up! I’m still very proud of that one.

Of other people’s soundtracks – I’m an Elliot Goldenthal fan, and I’m a fan of Tom Newman and John Williams, but I don’t listen to that much of other people’s soundtrack work. I listen a lot to John Adams and Goreki.

TC: What does composing a soundtrack entail? How do you start? How much time does it take?

MI: Once I get hired, the first step in the process is to get involved with the film itself as soon as possible. Sometimes I’m hired before it’s shot and I get to read the script, so I’ll start by trying to learn as much about the story and the director’s ideas for music as I can. A lot of the time a director will be listening to music as he’s shooting, and then certainly by the time of the first assembly of the movie there are some rough ideas of what the music might be from the editor. But really the first concrete thing I do is “spotting” which means you sit down with the director and editor and go through the film and figure out where music is going to start, where it’s going to stop, and the purpose of each piece of music. That’s when we start to put together a structure of how the score will lay out. Then I take 2 or 3 weeks where I usually like to be left alone, and I just write themes and basic conceptual ideas and try to place them as the cues that I feel define the use of music in that particular film. 9 times out of 10, that’s not at the beginning – it tends to be towards the end, or in the key scenes in the middle, where I feel that the music is going to stand out and really contribute the most. That way, when I show a first pass to the director, we’ll know if my fundamental theme ideas and concepts are going to really work. Once I get through that meeting, then it’s about spreading the score out from there.

The whole process usually takes a minimum of about 6 weeks. I’ve done it faster. It’s a lot of stress to do it much quicker than that because the average score is anywhere from about 40 to 50 minutes, and that’s a lot of music to compose, arrange and produce in 6 weeks. 2 months is nicer. You get a little more time to relax in producing the score.

TC: What are the benefits/drawbacks of being a solo composer versus composing a soundtrack?

MI: They both have good sides and bad sides. I’ve found that when I go back to composing non-film music I have to put some sort of framework out there that I’m then going to compose and write in. I’ve found that having a film to help decide what the boundaries are is a good thing. It’s an inspiring thing. And quite frankly, you look at a lot of classical composers in the past and that’s what they’ve done. Vivaldi picked the four seasons and he wrote about that, and that helped define for him what that music was going to be. There’s a large history of programmatic music, but also for me, even if I’m writing for a Jazz band, if I can define that I want to write in this way and I want to communicate this idea, it’s a good starting point.

Obviously in film, that very idea of a framework can feel constricting sometimes, although over the years I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t feel constricted by it anymore. I think the one thing in film that can build up a certain amount of stress is just the number of changes. The more commercial the film, the more “cooks in the kitchen” so to speak. You have producers, you have studio executives, you have lots of people who have opinions, and they all get a chance to weigh in. You have to decide what to do with all those opinions, and which ones have to be paid attention to, and which ones can be ignored – not only from an aesthetic point of view and a musical point of view, but also from a political point of view. That’s a part of the film business that can be a bit trying at times.

TC: Why the trumpet?

MI: My mother is a professional violinist, so when I was young, if there weren’t any baby sitters available I’d be dragged along with her to work, so I ended up being dragged along to a lot of orchestral rehearsals. I would do my homework, and once I finished that I could wander around. I noticed these guys in the back of the orchestra, and they were like the cool guys and they played those instruments that were really loud and had a triumphant sound, and it was a big deal when they came in. There were these older Italian guys back there and they had these big meatball sandwiches that they would eat when they weren’t playing – while they were counting rests. I thought they were the coolest guys in the orchestra, and it made me aware of the trumpet. I has also just heard trumpet music and thought it was beautiful and that it was something I wanted to do. I picked it up and was proficient at it quite early and just never looked back. Of course, obviously I had an epiphany about Miles Davis too and the trumpet as a jazz instrument that came along quite a number of years later. I was a freshman in high school and heard Miles. I said: wow, trumpet can play music like that too? Now I know I’m really hooked.

TC: Beatles or Stones?

MI: I think for me it was Beatles first, but then the Stones definitely later. Actually I ended up working with the Stones and playing with them and got a sense of how talented those guys were, and what they were really like. It’s tough to pick one – I’ve got both sides in me!

TC: As I’m sure you know, TuneCore serves both professional musicians and newbies. Any advice for our users seeking to establish themselves in the music business?

MI: There are a few words that come to mind, and they are pretty general so you can apply them no matter what profession you’re in – film, or performance, or records – whatever your passion is pushing you to do. All these words start with “P.” Passion is one, and because of the passion you have to persist. You just have to keep going, no matter how disheartened you get, persistence is key. And then promotion – you have to let people know that you’re doing what you’re doing. You’ve just got to get it out there. Back when I was starting, we would send out cassettes. Now you can email mp3’s and do YouTube videos and all sorts of interesting, fascinating things. You can make your own records and you can put them out through Tunecore! You promote, you just let people know that you are there, and you persist in the promotion, you persist in the production, you persist with the passion. Way too many Ps!

Check out Mark’s website www.isham.com/free-film-suite-form.html to get a free mp3 download of his work.

Register for the ASCAP EXPO and hear Mark Isham speak for less! Use the promo code TUNECORE in the registration process and you will get access to special rates for TuneCore members. Currently those rates are $300 for ASCAP members and $325 for non-members, but the price will go up on April 1st to $325 for ASCAP members and $375 for non-members. Register now and save!

  • http://profile.typepad.com/cravis Steven Cravis

    Thank you, Marta for this. Fans of Mark Isham might also enjoy this interview http://www.flypmedia.com/issues/plus/13/#1/1

  • CheekyKnight

    Very cool. Thanks to TuneCore and Mark.
    Mark, been a fan all the way back to your Windham Hill Vapor Drawings days.
    This is my stuff. Positive thoughts ‘n promotions welcome by any ‘n all :¬]
    http://goo.gl/GBib

  • http://profile.typepad.com/angelashella Angelashella

    I’m so motivated. Thank you for sharing this. Passion, persistence, and promotion. I love it.

  • http://www.emjmusic.com Michael Moore, Jr.

    That was a great interview. I am so inspired to continue with pursuing my music. Thank you.

  • http://www.haseebgul.blogspot.com haseebgul

    i m haseebgul from quetta i have account in google and tune core post my ads in every website gul