A mournful trumpet player – Interview with Mark Isham

Mark Isham has become a noted composer and musician not only for his scores but also his jazz, ambient and new age albums. Although most of his filmography consists of family movies and dramas as far as scores are concerned, he still produced scores in other genres as well. Hungarian movies have recently started to show the dramas Warrior and Lucky Star, the latter directed by Scott Hicks. Furthermore, next to his movie assignments he is continuously working on ABC's adventure series Once Upon a Time. This gave us the excuse to conduct an interview with the composer.

You have a colorful body of work- solo projects, movie scores, concerts, TV series etc. How did you get into the world of film music? Which do you enjoy the most?

Director Carroll Ballard introduced me to film scoring. He had previously heard a collection of my musical compositions and contacted me to score the film Never Cry Wolf. I really enjoy writing music no matter what genre or format. The concert aspect of my career is harder these days because I have a family but the occasional concert is good; it breaks up the days in the studio.

You have done film scores in a variety of genres. Symphonic, ambient, light comedy, electronic, and of course, jazz. How are you so successful in so many different styles? What is your favorite genre to compose? Is there a genre you have not done yet that you would like to?

I enjoy all genres of film scoring. I like changing it up, going back and forth between romantic and comedy to action and adventure films. I do enjoy writing romantic music if I've just completed five action films, and comedic music if I've just completed six dark dramas. I would love to score an animated film – a pixar type. I think that would be inspiring work, very different from my previous projects.

For the TV series Once Upon A Time, how much time do you have to compose music for one episode? How do you manage your time between the TV series and film? How did you get to compose on this series?

When the show started, we had a little over two weeks for each episode. Now that we are in the middle of the season, we have one week per episode. I diligently manage my work time between television and film. I am willing to work long hours to perfect a project. I have a great staff that keeps me well organized.

Dawn Soler, the head of music at ABC television, called and asked if she could entice me back into the world of television. She told me she had three great scripts to send me. I was intrigued, so I told her to send them over. After reading Once Upon A Time, it instantly struck me as being truly unique. The show has such a wonderful concept – very different from other television shows. I decided if I was going to get back into television, Once Upon A Time was the show. When I met with the show's executive producers, Adam Horowitz and Eddie Kitsis (Lost), their vision for the music was so refreshing and different, I couldn't refuse this exciting opportunity.

Warrior is the third film you have done directed by Gavin O'Connor. Each film's score was very different. Do directors allow you a lot of freedom when it comes to scoring for a film? Or do you they have a set idea that they expect you to meet?

I've experienced both aspects when it comes to creative freedom when scoring a film. I have worked with directors who give the composer total free reign over the music. On the other end of the spectrum, I have worked with directors who want the music to sound just as the temp score does, with little to no room for creative leeway.

The goal with any film score is to create something unique and go beyond what any temp score can provide. The most successful relationships with directors is when we work together as a team to create an engaging score that works well within the storyline of the film.

There is a trend nowadays with film music becoming more electronic. Is it the director or you that decides whether a score be more symphonic or more electronic? Do you believe that sound design and effects will be the future of film music or is it just a passing trend?

When choosing between an electronic and symphonic score, the choice is strictly artistic. I want the genre of music to best express the emotions and story of the film. Often when the choice between electronic and symphonic is made, it is the producers spearheading the decision. They may have heard electronic scores in other films and want to emulate that musical trend. There is no set rule in who decides.

I think that sound design will always have its place along with symphonic music. As film evolves, there will always be that blend of the two musical genres.

You frequently update your site with lots of information, not a common behavior of most film composers. Is contact with your fans important to you?

Yes it is. As a performer, I'm used to having direct contact with my fans. A film composer's life can be very lonely. Life is spent mostly in a writing room. It is rewarding for me to be in contact with film music fans through my website and social media accounts.

You have said that you are a mournful trumpet player.

When Brian De Palma approached me about doing The Black Dahlia, he told me he was looking for a mournful trumpet score. I impulsively responded with: "Well you're in luck because I am a mournful trumpet player." The Black Dahlia was a period piece of score with a slight jazz influence. It was a great film to score. Miles Davis's bittersweet sound is still a heavy influence on my work.

The long awaited score of Point Break has finally been released. Is it important to you that your music is available and can be heard separately from the movie?

It is important for a film score to be available separate from the film. I work hard to try and make my music enjoyable outside of the film. It's comforting to know that music can have a life of its own and have a devoted audience.

If we're not mistaken, you have a lot of old and rare synthesizers in your studio. Do you use them for your work or collect the?

I have a number of old synthesizers. I started collecting them when I was very young. I never owned a house because I spent all my money on music equipment. At this point, the synthesizers are considered museum artifacts, but they have all been featured on almost all of my older scores.

Can you tell us about your newest projects?

I've just completed a score for Simon West's film starring Nicholas Cage called Stolen and I'm beginning to score a Kirsten Dunst sci-fi thriller titled Upside Down.

To know more about Mark Isham's work, please visit the composer's official website.


Special thanks to Alex May
June 7th, 2012

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