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Jul 16, 2009

For nearly three decades, composer Mark Isham has been the go-to guy for making music for movies.

By Mark Wasserman

As far back as he can remember, Mark Isham has surrounded himself with music. As a boy, he played violin and piano before switching to trumpet, which he played in several Bay Area psychedelic bands. In the early 1970s, he began experimenting with electronic music and subsequently was asked to record with icons like Van Morrison, Marianne Faithful and Sting.

By the 1980s, Isham had begun composing for motion pictures and, to date, has scored films in every genre and sub-genre imaginable, including drama (Reservation Road), comedy (What Women Want), animation (Thumbelina) and horror (The Mist). Along the way, he has racked up numerous Grammy, Oscar and Emmy awards and nominations.

According to Isham, when it comes to scoring films, there are no boundries, and it’s often the unexpected choice that works best. Whether he selects music that is acoustic or electronic, hollow or full, modest or expansive, he remains open to whatever best enhances the images on the screen.

It is this attitude of exploration that has attracted the attention of so many high-profile directors, including Robert Altman, Robert Redford and Brian De Palma.

Regardless of the project, Isham’s objective is to expand the story of the film by providing an undercurrent of emotion that helps drive the action.

Consider a haunting scene from Crash, in which a racist white cop finds himself pulling a black woman from a burning car—the same woman he molested in an earlier scene.

The moment is complex: salvation is at hand for both characters if they can push through their mutual revulsion.

But instead of heart-pounding notes of suspense, Isham chose to use an eerily angelic female voice singing over the flames. The scene becomes less about overt action than about the miraculous connection the characters forge.

The ensemble film is one genre in which Isham has had arguably more experience than any other contemporary composer. In addition to Crash, he has scored Short Cuts, Bobby, and most recently, Crossing Over.

Unlike traditional films that feature a single protagonist, ensemble films require audiences to follow multiple major characters through numerous, often overlapping storylines.

For this type of film, Isham says “there’s no point in scoring each character. What there is a big value in doing is scoring the emotional issues that are shared by them. That way you have a single theme that crosses between three different scenes and three sets of characters.”

In Crossing Over, which dramatizes illegal immigrants struggling for citizenship, the orchestration represents the clash between the characters’ native cultures and life in Los Angeles.

“It’s a modern world, so we have a contemporary backdrop, electronic drums, the sort of vocabulary we’re used to in pop music. But then we have a beautiful, traditional South American guitar, some Iranian singing and a few disparate elements superimposed against this backdrop to give the music the cultural richness expressed by the film.”

Asked about current trends in film scoring, Isham points to a growing emphasis on minimalism. He also notes that electronic scores, which were once viewed as “the poor bastard child,” have now become hip.

As for Isham, he remains most comfortable with a “hybrid score,” which blends electronic and analog instruments.

Whatever music is required, Isham always asks himself what the picture seems to be asking.

“You have no idea what the right answer will be. You just have to go out and find it.”

Be sure to experience FLYP’s story on another film composer, Patricia Stotter.

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