Hollywood composer Mark Isham talks film scores and virtual instruments

Hollywood composer Mark Isham talks film scores and virtual instruments

Best known for his uniquely innovative sounds and hauntingly beautiful melodies, Mark Isham’s scores have featured in numerous Academy Award-winning films. His lengthy filmography features an abundance of box office successes including Point Blank, Crash, Blade, Rules of Engagement, and The Mist (to name just a few) and only goes to emphasise the reasons why he has so many awards and nominations to his name – Grammys, Emmys, Golden Globe plus Hollywood Film

Festival Composer of the Year in 2007.

In addition, to live recordings, Mark also utilizes virtual instruments and sample libraries within his scores, many of which come from Time+Space brands including Spectrasonics, Synthogy, Rob Papen, Sample Logic, Garritan and more. It therefore made complete sense for us to get in touch with Mark for the latest Time+Space feature…

Hi Mark, thanks for taking the time to talk to Time+Space. First up, how did you enter the world of scoring for TV and films?

I’d recorded a series of pieces that were an attempt to bring modern electronic music and traditional Chinese instruments together. They were done with my good friend Bill Douglas and we were seeking a record deal, possibly with ECM, The New Music Series. We did not get the deal, unfortunately, but we did the next right thing that you must always do, which is promote the music that you’ve created. We sent it to a number of people, and it fell into the hands of a film director. He heard it and decided that he wanted to meet the creators of this music because he thought it would be a wonderful approach to his film. The film turned out to be Never Cry Wolf and the director was Carroll Ballard. It was a tremendous opportunity for me and I jumped into it wholeheartedly – right into the deep end. I spent about four and half months on this score, seven days a week. I came out the other end having learned a tremendous amount and having scored my first film.

How do you tend to start tackling a new film score project when you receive the initial brief?

I usually pick a scene that I feel is the culmination of the message of the film. A lot of the time this will be maybe 2/3 of the way through the film, maybe the actual ending. It will have to be a scene that is long enough, substantial enough – 2 or 3 minutes – where I’m able to spend time with it and write an actual theme. I’ll get a sense of what the vocabulary should be. After that, I’ll play the music against picture until I see some relationships that really grab me, that I feel are going to make the right contribution. Then it’s a matter of going back and forth, getting a sense from what the picture is telling me, what more has to happen with the theme. The music will take on a life of its own and develop. Over a period of days, something will evolve that is a pleasing musical experience but is also contributing to the emotional message that the film is attempting to make.

You use virtual instruments and sample libraries from many of our distributed brands including Spectrasonics, Synthogy, Nine Volt Audio, Rob Papen, Sample Logic, ProjectSAM, Garritan, Toontrack, Vir2 and Zero-G. For each of these brands please could you explain which titles of theirs you use the most, why you choose to use these and, where applicable, which key TV or film scores they have been used for?

Spectrasonics has a group of instruments I’ve used for a long time. I think Eric, first thing, is brilliant. He’s very musical and his instruments are a big part of my vocabulary. Right now I use the Stylus RMX for a lot of drums, but also any “cut up” type samples – guitars, anything to be cut up and sequenced in that fabulous format that he’s designed. Omnisphere is a big part of my sound as well as Trilian. Those three give a very solid background, a very flexible group of instruments.

Pianos are always a big question. There seem to be new ones coming out all of the time, but the Synthogy Ivory is something we’ve used for quite awhile and has always done a good job. I believe the piano on The Secret Life of Bees demo was done on that. It certainly is a brilliant demo piano, it’s used all the time here!!!

Nine Volt Audio, of course, has all of those wonderful chopped and textured guitars that we use in the Stylus RMX. I love them all. They show up in several scores – including Valley of Elah and Warrior, which will be out next year.

I really like Rob Papen’s synthesisers. I used Predator in Mechanic, which is coming out next year. There’s a new record that I’m working on called Cover Art that has a bunch of Rob’s instruments on it. I used the Sample Logic Morphestra a lot on The Crazies as well as ProjectSAM’s Symphobia.

Gary Garritan still has the best harp ever made. His harp for gigasampler, well there’s nothing better. I think we used part of his marching band as a writing tool for The Express. We use his cello a lot for demoing cello parts. I use the Toontrack EZdrummer quite a bit. I believe it was used quite extensively on The Women.

Vir 2 – I like their stuff a lot, Electri6ity is a great one. That shows up on The Mechanic quite a bit. I really love the guitar samples from them. We have a ton of Zero-G synthesisers – all of those little menus of sounds and there’s always something to throw in [laughs] and make things interesting. 

How have the virtual instruments available today changed the way you compose music compared to 10 years ago?

I think the biggest impact that virtual instruments have had is that things are so much quicker, and yet more sophisticated, there is so much more available to simply try and experiment with. It opens up the door for unique sounds in a much quicker environment.

10 yrs ago we were still using a lot of outboard instruments and processing, it would always take time to get them patched up and work through what you were going to do. Now it’s in one very quick and easy environment. Of course, the other thing is, at least in my profession, we have to emulate sounds, acoustic sounds, sounds that you’re familiar with. The plug-ins that are geared towards that, again, are much quicker, much easier. Each plug-in can be designed for a specific task. You get a piano plug-in and it’s really designed to get the piano sounding just right.

In terms of the virtual instruments of the future, is there anything you´d like to see which, as far as you´re aware, hasn´t been done already?

Oh boy, that’s an interesting question. I think the instruments themselves are evolving tremendously. The fact that there are entire mixing consoles with effects and routing built into a lot of instruments these days is extraordinary.

Ultimately, any instrument is more expressive and more capable of creating an emotional effect the more control you have over it. Sometimes just being tied to a keyboard even though you’ve got pedals and knobs and things, feels a little limiting to me. I have a brass controller, which I use from time to time. Interfacing to that is sometimes rough or time-consuming. So I don’t know if it’s necessarily a question for virtual instrument designers as much as the world of controllers being explored. I think that’s the final frontier in electronic music.

So, going back to your work, what´s been your biggest music-related achievement to date?

[laughs] That’s a hard one, I can’t say that I have one in particular. I once played for 25,000 people at a large festival in Southern India – that was quite an experience. I’ve received the ASCAP Lifetime Achievement Award for film, that was a wonderful moment. To me, it’s still the moment where I’ve written something and I’m happy with it. That’s one of the main reasons that I get up every morning and still want to do this, want to do this more than ever in fact. For that sensation of “Wow, I’ve just done that” and that makes me smile. Those moments are pretty much my greatest achievements in music.

Finally, what projects do you have coming up for the rest of the year?

A little while back I finished Robert Redford’s latest movie, The Conspirator, which was an orchestral score that we recorded with the Czech National Symphony Orchestra in Prague. Then I went right into Warrior, a wonderful project directed by Gavin O’Connor, starring Tom Hardy and Nick Nolte – fantastic film. Now I’m just finishing up the Mechanic for Simon West, starring Jason Statham – a lot of dead bad guys and blowing stuff up.

Thanks Mark!