Mark Isham – Part 1 (English)
It’s always a total pleasure to take refuge in the music of one of the greatest musical legends that are still active (and continues going strong) writing his name louder than ever.
Mark Isham is a musician, a genius capable of surprising us with a brillant score for the world of cinema and works away of this medium, like a jazz album (a tribute to Miles Davis) or a album of new age of his early career.
He is a man who lives for music, that feels within himself, and has the gift to convey that passion to the surrounding environment, allowing his fans to enjoy as much as he.
My connection with the universe Isham (if I remember correctly) began with Nell. I remembered when his music appeared in spanish television like a kind of videoclip with the music of the film (this happened with some works like Nell and The Shadow).
That film (a mayor glory of a great Jodie Foster) offered me a wonderful musical universe, with a marvellous leitmotiv completely folk song (for me remains in my memory as one of the best motives of folk I’ve heard in my life), and a beautiful musical tapestry completely ethereal and surround, very beautiful and with a touch of mysterious for the story of Nell living in the forest (all accompanied by a wonderful aura of magic).
That was the beginning of my passion for Isham’s music, followed by great works such as The Net and his violent score for Timecop, or the masterly Fly Away Home (one of his best works) and the terrific and fantastic score for Blade.
And by the way, I discovered not only a great composer but a great trumpet player. He is an excellent musician with all sorts of musical interests for all types of genres, with albums like Vapor Drawings, Blue Sun and Castalia.
Over time Mark Isham became one of my favorite composers, practically a fixture to buy every edition of his music, a composer whose work I follow with expectation (something similar happens to me with few people, like Christopher Young, celebrating each of their new assignments, because I know they’re always ok, a minimum of quality).
For this reason (and many more), at Asturscore we have decided to homage this musician’s career, making a broad overview of all his work, from his beginnings to the present, pausing particularly in some of his more interesting works (some of them show his musical evolution) and offering a series of additional reviews to analyze in more detail some of his compositions.
So grab your ticket, sit back and get ready for this intense rollercoaster ride, courtesy of Mark Isham, a musical road that does not seem to have peaked, full o brillant musical ideas and surprise to come.
Intro Bio: Influences and style (looking for the Isham’s touch)
Mark Isham was born into a family of musicians in New York (1951), so music has always run for his blood since he was conceived, where his parents played an important role in the interest for music young Isham showed.
Isham studied classical music (especially trumpet, piano and violin), although it would be the trumpet that became his favorite musical instrument, the leap and sign of the author.
This fascination came from Isham´s mother concert rehearsals, where he was sitting behind the horn section, falling in love with the sound of that instrument, the trumpet.
At the age of 15 years, Isham traveled to San Francisco (Bay Area), where he began playing the trumpet in jazz clubs (intervening in several jam sessions and garage bands), along with the Oakland and San Francisco simphonies, always interested in Jazz, Pop and Rock.
The year 1966 will be a defining moment in his career, as he quoted in the booklet of his disk Miles Remembered: The Silent Way Project, where Isham pays homage to the great Miles Davis, through which he discovered jazz, falling in love with his music while he heard on the radio the theme of 74 Miles Away.
This passion was consolidated in 1968 with the album’s release Files of Kilimanjaro by his new idol Miles Davis, even claiming that probably the biggest musical influence in his life was the jazz music of Miles (which influenced his film works like his jazz scores for Little Man Tate, Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle or Quiz Show).
Over the 70, he discovered the world of synthesizers and electronics, which also will also become one of the touches for their next works Isham (The Hitcher, The Beast, The Crazies, The Mist).
Mark Isham: Collaborations with groups and artists
Those who love Mark Isham’s music in all his aspects and styles, we know that Mark Isham is not only a composer of film music: he’s a big musician, from the feet to the head (like Lalo Schifrin or Dave Grusin).
Both at the beginning of his career (before his foray into the world of cinema) as during the same, Isham has held numerous collaborations with artists and groups devoted, (even to start their own band, Group 87).
At the end of the 70, he worked with pianist Art Lande, forming a quartet called Rubisa Patrol, whose members were Art Lande, Mark Isham and two names whose worked later with Isham in several films and albums: Bill Douglass and Kurt Wortman (which would work with Isham in works like the movie The Hitcher or the storytelling of The Emperor and the Nightingale).
These collaborations would result to the edition of three discs called Rubisa Patrol (1976), Desert Marauders (1977) and The Story of Ba-ku (1979), where Isham was immersed in a musical adventure of contemporary jazz, as you can hear in these two links (Link 1 and Link 2).
At finally, at 1987, Isham and Lande worked together in the album We Begin, a completely experimental work, where both authors provide a range of styles from the ethereal to jazz, with some touches of minimalism, where we can observe the mastery of Lande at the piano (like in the motive of Sweet Circle) or the mastery of Isham to the trumpet and electronics (like The Melancholy of Departure or the experimental motive of Fanfare).
Moreover, since the late 70, the career of Mark Isham will live also marked by collaborations in many different bands and artists of great prestige.
Among them are the great Van Morrison, with whom he collaborated on several albums and concerts from 1979 to 1983 (five albums, like Into the Music in 1979 or the Live at the Belfast Opera House in 1983), the rock band Rolling Stones (Voodoo Lounge 1994), the incredible Bruce Springsteen (with his classic album Human Touch, in 1992), or with singers like Kenny Loggins (with Conviction of the Heart in 1992) and Tanita Tikaram (several works like Ancient Heart in 1988 or The Sweet Keeper in 1990).
As a curiosity, citing his collaboration with Kyle Eastwood, son of famed director, on the album From There to Here in 1998, or with the composer David Torn in the album Cloud About Mercury in 1987 (the composer who would work for Isham in Reversal of Fortune playing the electric guitar).
Group 87 – Mark Isham’s band
In 1980 he founded his own band, Group 87, where Isham fuses elements of New Age with touches of jazz, pop rhythms and even some rock elements.
The group consists of three musicians: Mark Isham, who is in charge of the trumpet (and other instruments of the same family, as the flugelhorn) and synthesizers, Peter Maunu (who is primarily responsible for the guitar) and Patrick O ‘Hearn (who handled the bass), with other collaborators such as percussionist Terry Bozzio, or the drummer Peter Van Hooke.
They recorded two albums, called Group 87 (1980) and A Career in Dada Processing (1984), where some musical patterns of the future style of Isham are detected, like the minimalist feel and new age in the theme While the City Sleeps (musical advance of works like Vapor Drawings) or the characteristic sound of the Isham’s trumpet, as in the fantastic and rhythmic theme called The Mask Maker, of the second album, and, of course, onr of myy favourite themes, the brilliant and powerful rhythms of The Apple Bites Back.
Although the band only recorded two albums, the three musicians continued to see each other in different jobs, as the case of Peter Maunu, who lent his guitar sound to the soundtracks of The Moderns, Trouble in Mind or Love at Large, or composer Patrick O’Hearn, who did the same with the bass for The Moderns (who also composed several works for television series as Falcon Crest, or movies as Crying Freeman and White Sands).
Likewise, Patrick O’Hearn work with Isham in various albums, such as Indigo (1991), El Dorado (1989), River Gonna Rise (1988) or Ancient Dream (1988).
At that time, before starting his career with films as a composer, he would participate, in 1982, in the detective film An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, based on a novel by PD James, where Isham is responsible for a solo soprano sax (whose score was handled by Chaz Jankel).
MARK ISHAM: Films, Albums and Collaborations
(1983 – 1984) The Legend Begins
In that year, 1983, Isham edited a new age music album called Vapor Drawings, where you can distinguish, again, one of the many touches of the style of Isham; ethereal and evocative melodies, well-topped and surround sounds, with highlights likes Men Before the Mirror (with a Tangerine Dream flair) or the masterful On the Threshold of Liberty, a heroic and patriotic theme, which fell in love to the director William Friedkin, until the point of hiring Mark Isham to score his film Rules of Engangement based on this motive (where Isham played trumpet brilliantly, with his personal touch, his own trademark).
The disc includes a theme called Many Chinas which Isham had already presented in partnership with the quartet Rubisa Patrol in the disc of the same name in 1976, recovered in 1983 for his first solo album.
Isham is responsible for the entire wind section that appears on the album (trumpets, flugelhorn, soprano sax), plus all the piano and electronic sounds on the disc (keyboards and percussion), accompanying Peter Van Hooke (who previously collaborated with Isham in Group 87), supporting Isham in electronics and playing the snare drum, which is particularly relevant in the theme On the Threshold of Liberty.
Vapor Drawings was also the beginning of a fruitful collaboration with the Windham Hill label, repeating in works such as Castalia or Tibet.
This wonderful compendium of electronic music, the style that will underpin the future of some works that come on the road (The Hitcher, The Beast) enjoyed of a great success among the public and the critics, being used by the composer as a means of promotion and advertising, searching new musical projects.
And it was thanks to the promotion of his disc the reason for how Vapor Drawings came into the hands of director Carol Ballard, who was looking for a different sound for her film Never Cry Wolf, produced by Disney (years later, Isham and Ballard were going to work together in one of the best works of Isham, Fly Away Home), and this meant the beginning of the fruitful and successful career of Mark Isham as a film composer.
The film tells the story of an expert biologist named Tyler who is sent to northern Canada (on an arctic region called Keewatin, completely desolate and uninhabited) to study the behavior of wolves and discover if the wolves are the reason of the possible extinction of the caribou (similar to the reindeer).
Tyler’s role was assigned to the actor Charles Martin Smith (who at that time was involved in Starman, and some years later in The Untouchables), and he made a brilliant performance, which is compounded by Brian Dennhey (First Blood, Cocoon), with a brief but excellent role for the pilot of plane who leads Tyler to his fate.
At the end of the film, Tyler ends up empathizing more with the wolves and the environment than the human race he belongs to (with a beautiful picture, really mesmerizing, and an outstanding sound editing for which the film was nominated the Oscars).
Never Cry Wolf was the big kick-off of Mark Isham, resulting in a critical and commercial success, where the composer continued to explore the musical universe of Vapor Drawings, adding dramatic musical textures, with some excellent action fare, and without losing the ethereal surround of his album.
For this work, Isham introduced a number of orchestral elements, such as bamboo flutes, harp, percussion and bassoon, highlighting the presence of Mark Adler as the manager of the string arrangements and the director and conductor of orchestral elements (this compositor would win the Emmy in 1998 for the television movie The Rat Pack, and has taken on such films as The Unbearable Lightness of Being or as a music editor on Milos Forman’s Amadeus).
Windham Hill released this work in a CD where he picked up his brilliant work for this movie in a 25-minute suite (omitting much material, but the summary contained herein works well as a synthesis), accompanied by two of his works in 1984, the film Mrs. Soffel and the documentary The Times of Harvey Milk.
Highlights the Main Title of the film (which in turn is End Title), the last theme of the suite, with a hypnotic, ethereal tone, describing perfectly the solitude and vastness of the Arctic region (about transmitting even intense cold), and the magnificent sequence of the caribou hunting, where it almost seems that we are witnessing one of those scenes typical of some documentaries from National Geographic, where the music of Isham added musical touch of action and drama to the scene, providing it, in its final part, of a mystical and dreamlike sense.
At finally, Highlight the final climax of the film, with a brilliant theme that accompanies the epilogue of the film (a motif that appeared in Tyler’s first trip with the native Ootek to the tundra where the hunt takes place), and appears in the suite just before the final theme (End Title), where the music becomes almost religious and liturgical, with the emergence of a sort of church organ synth, whose mystical and dreamlike sound accompanies the experience that Tyler has lived in the Artic, which has been influenced for the presence of Ootek and his stories.
In 1984, Isham intervene in Mrs. Soffel, a period drama based on real events placed in Pittsburg (1901), where Diane Keaton plays the rol of Mrs. Soffel, the wife of a prison warden (performed by a good Edward Herrmann), a prison where two brothers are being held (a youngs Mel Gibson and Matthew Modine) who have been sentenced to death for a crime he have not commit.
Mrs. Soffel visit them to bring the word of God and trying to comfort them, forming a strong emotional bond with one of the brothers, Ed (Mel Gibson). Mrs. Soffel help them to escape, leaving his family and going over with them, while all police are on their trail, where we find the presence of Detective Buck, played by Terry O’Quinn (the great John Locke from Lost).
Isham offers a beautiful and melancholy piano theme that opens the brief suite of the CD (14 minutes), which enhances the dramatic element of the story, a theme associated to the character of Mrs. Soffel (who plays piano in various moments of the film).
This beautiful and delicate piano theme that opens the film brilliantly, it’s the only music we heard until after nearly an hour of movie (only two or three times we heard a few seconds of music, but nothing noteworthy).
Then, Isham introduces electronic textures and strings, which are the root of the following motive, where an Irish flute adds a celtic sound (penny whistle), while accompanies the getaway of the brothers with Mrs. Soffel.
The Irish flute appear at other times of the suite, accompanied by some truly brilliant musical passages, particularly one in which the penny whistle and violin get a minimalist motif, with a repeated ostinato forming of piano and electronic music, involving the whole theme (a musical passage typical of future works of Isham, like Nell, Fly Away Home, Of Mice and Men and A River Runs Through It), reappearing more melancholy in the final stretch, in a more leisurely and broken form (the epilogue).
Again, we find Mark Adler as the manager of the string arrangements and as director and conductor of orchestral elements.
In that year, he composed the music of the documentary The Times of Harvey Milk, which tells the story of the famous Mayor Harvey Milk, the first gay mayor came to power in the U.S., which ended up being killed.
Isham used just electronics and trumpet to put music to this piece of American history, which would rise with the Oscar for best documentary in 1984 (an excellent brooch to the career of Mark Isham).
8 minutes and a half have been included in the CD of Windham Hill, a short but interesting musical journey of Mark Isham, in the line of his new age music (Vapor Drawings), ethereal and surround (becoming a truly relaxing musical experience) and where the emergence of the trumpet (the touch Isham) adds a sense of melancholy and lonely (even patriotic at times) to this short suite, which again returns to strengthen the talent of the composer in a new medium, the documentary.
Finally, highlight the participation of Mark Isham in the score of Country (1984) by composer Charles Gross, edited by Windham Hill, where Isham serves Gross in the theme Chants, where he used synthesizers, piano, trumpet and flugelhorn, for this rural drama produced by Disney, starring Jessica Lange.