Scoring For TV & Film With Mark Isham

By Claris Sayadian-Dodge
April 2021 for studioexpresso

Mark Isham’s collective contributions to the film music community was recognized by the highest honor for a composer by ASCAP, the prestigious Henry Mancini Career Achievement Award for musical excellence. The sought-after composer continues to demonstrate his diverse musical voice in over one-hundred film and TV scores including Eight Below, The Cooler, Blade, Nell, and The Secret Life of Bees resulting in Grammy nominations. Isham has worked with legendary Robert Redford on four features--Quiz Show, A River Runs Through It, Lions for Lambs and The Conspirator. His inimitable musical voice is evident in his memorable scores for award-winning features including the Oscar-winning Crash and A River Runs Through It, along with Golden Globe winning Bobby, and The Black Dahlia. For The Black Dahlia, Isham was awarded “Best Score” by the International Film Music Critics Association.
Last year Mark was asked to open the Cannes 2020 online festival along side fellow composers Alexandre Desplat and John Powell.
Isham’s jazz releases have received critical-acclaim: Blue Sun was included in Downbeat’s “Top 100 Jazz Albums of the Decade;” and The London Times named Miles Remembered: The Silent Way Project “Best Jazz Album.″
The Ishams moved from NYC to San Francisco, and by the age 15 Mark was playing in jazz clubs, simultaneously performing with Oakland and San Francisco symphonies.
Isham works on the new TV series, Godfather of Harlem, in its second season. The series explores the collision of the criminal underworld and civil rights in the colorful, tumultuous year of 1964. It tells the story of a syndicate that includes black crime bosses from other major US cities.

studioexpresso met up with Isham in April to learn about the music for Godfather of Harlem, how he picks projects, where he finds musical inspiration and what's the best or worst advise he has received in his illustrious career and more...
SE You were a jazz musician first with some acting and directing stints. How did you get into film/TV soundtrack space?
MI I got into the TV and film space quite a number of years ago. I had made a demo of music for synthesizers and classical Chinese instrument shopping to get a record deal, which I did not get. But that music fell into the hands of a film director who really enjoyed it and wanted to explore using music like it for his film. He tracked me down and offered me the opportunity to demo some music for the film. I demoed and was offered the job for Disney’s film Never Cry Wolf, directed by Carroll Ballard.

SE What do you look for when you decide to take on a project?
MI There are a lot of factors that help me decided whether or not to take on a project. It can be something like Godfather of Harlem or The Nevers that I truly believe in and would enjoy watching myself. Or it can be a job that I simply need, to pay the kid’s school tuition that month.

SE In the new TV series Godfather of Harlem (GOH), is there a main theme? How much work is each show?
MI Godfather of Harlem has several themes, but in television it’s easier sometimes to use motifs–smaller musical statements. Scenes tend to not be so long and the music tends to move more quickly through various emotions than perhaps a single theme would allow. The main Bumpy theme, however, is stated in the opening shot of the very first episode and reoccurs. There are themes for Bumpy’s antagonism with the Italians. There was a theme for Teddy and Stella and various other themes to accentuate different story lines. The themes are arrived at by simply understanding the emotion that you’re trying to convey. In the case of Teddy and Stella, it’s romance but troubled romance. So you want it to be slightly of another world, slightly a bit of fantasy attached to it but also rooted in the time and place. Bumpy’s theme is about his heroism and his rise towards becoming more than what he thinks he can actually be. Each show has anywhere from 20-30 minutes of music and we’re fortunate to have as much as 10 days (sometimes more, but usually less) to produce the music for a given episode. It’s often a quick turnaround.

SE Where do you look for inspiration for each project? For GOH, was it the era (1964), the director notes/requests, or driving characters like Bumpy (played by Forrest Whitaker)? How would you describe the "sound" for GOH?
MI The time and place are definitely an inspiration for the music. Certainly in the case of Godfather of Harlem we try to keep the score rooted in that time period and place but also in the emotion. I don’t feel the score should be a slave simply to the time and place as the emotions in a story like this transcend time and place. Especially in Godfather of Harlem, the emotions are as relevant today, perhaps more relevant today, than even then. So the score has to have a certain ability to transcend time and go directly to one’s heart. The sound has a few instruments from the urban culture of Harlem and from the church –piano, organ, electric bass, electric guitar–but we also rely a lot on chamber orchestra. Chamber string orchestras have long shown to be capable of expressing such great emotion. It’s a small group because the intimacy of this group seems to work so well. It was something we tried in season 1 and was very successful, so we’ve stuck with it for season 2.

SE You have your studio in Calabasas. what's your "go to gear" for writing, editing? Do you get involved in post-production?
MI I work in Logic as my main writing tool. I have large sample libraries that I rely on and use Pro Tools for picture and editing. I usually don’t get directly involved in post-production, if you mean the dubbing stage. We deliver things pretty much fully ready for the dub and seldom to we have to come in and fix anything.
SE Do you record/conduct your music. what's the smallest or the largest ensembles you've done. Do you always use musicians or also work "in the box"?
MI I produce all the music, therefore, I do all the tracks that are “in the box.” We do quite a bit of work that is “in the box.” I produce all the acoustic recording sessions. I’ve worked with orchestras of up to 100 people which is quite exciting. And I’ve also recorded scores for 1 person, run pretty much the entire gamut.

SE You opened the Cannes 2020 online festival. How has the Pandemic era changed the way you play, work? what has been the silver lining from this period?
MI The pandemic has had quite an interesting impact on the business and ultimately I think it will be for the better. We’ve discovered that a lot of things can be done remotely which in a city like Los Angeles saves tremendous amounts of wasted time sitting in a car trying to get around town. It has, however, deprived us from recording musicians all together in the same room, which, of course, is not to anyone’s advantage. It has been sorely missed and will be lovely to get back to that, but has been nice to learn that it can be done under these circumstances and great music can still be produced.The Cannes festival was great fun to do. I worked out and rehearsed my solo show using my studio, my trumpet, pre-records, synthesizers and sequencers to emulate large ensembles around me. Rehearsed it rigorously and performed.

SE Where does the Isham music "source" come from?
MI The Isham music source.....well....that’s hard to say. Perhaps I should just refer to Johannes Brahms who said it’s 99% hard work. I do believe in the spiritual nature of man and creativity comes from that source but the real truth is if you don’t put in the hours, you’re not going to get the product.

SE Anyone you would love to work with that you haven't already or on any special projects-what would it be?
MI I’ve done some work in animation which I really enjoyed. So animation and the Pixar group would be someone I would love to work with.

SE Best and worst advise you've gotten?
MI The best advice I’ve ever gotten was to work hard and keep your eye on your dreams and your goals–plan pathways to get there–and you will eventually arrive where you are striving to be. The worst advice I ever got was as a trumpet player where I was told to stretch my lip out to make a thinner buzzing surface which was a disaster and catastrophe as I completely sprained my lip and had to start all over again. So, a message to trumpet players, don’t ever do that! But just to reiterate the best advice–to dream big dreams, dream as big as you possibly can and work as hard as you can to get there.