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Mark Isham: Reaching for the "Bright Idea"

Mark Isham: Reaching for the "Bright Idea"
M-Powered composer Mark Isham goes back to the basics to score Crash with M-Audio BX monitors and the Keystation Pro 88

Grammy and Emmy Award-winner Mark Isham is one of the best-known talents working in film and television today. Since his 1983 film-composing debut, Disney’s critically acclaimed “Never Cry Wolf,” Isham has worked on over 50 films, including “October Sky,” “A River Runs Through It,” and this year’s indie hit Crash. Lauded for its emotional potency, articulate dialogue, and poignant message, this low-budget film quickly won over the hearts and minds of critics and defied box office expectations with strong returns.

Isham’s understated yet powerful score plays a vital role in conveying the film’s unique message. M-Audio caught up with Isham to discuss his cost-effective “bright idea,” the M-Audio gear he relies on to get the job done, and the ways he beats writer’s block.

You’ve written so many great soundtracks, I know it must be hard to quantify what makes one stand out over another. But if you could, please try to explain what makes the soundtrack for Crash special.

Filmmaking is a true collaborative art form. Yes, there is a person with a vision who has to captain the ship. But there is also such a wide variety of departments—from cinematography to acting to writing to music—the entire spectrum of the arts enter in to make the final product.

For those of us who join a group in progress—especially those of us in post-production—we have a lot of questions. ‘How's it going?’ ‘Is it a good script?’ ‘Is it a good cast?’ ‘How are the people all getting along?’ ‘Is the message being told well?’ ‘Is the studio in agreement with the filmmaker?’ ‘Is there a war going on here in the making of this film?’

A film like Crash has a very proud, ambitious and powerful vision behind it, which comes from the writer and director. And they also had all of the questions that I just brought up answered in a positive way. Everyone involved with this film really got it, from the money guys on down. And that is rare in Hollywood. Consequently, I think there is a very cohesive group making a very cohesive statement. And the statement itself is so powerfully conceived and so good that it just works.

Did director Paul Haggis come to you with a certain sound or approach in mind, or did he basically set you loose?

Most independent films don't have any money so they rely upon on a “bright idea.” Filmmaking can cost a lot of money if you just go by the standard way of doing things. If you're in the independent world, you have to come up with a cost-effective bright idea to get it done. What I shoot for in the creation of this bright idea is something that having all the money in the world couldn’t improve upon.

In this case, Paul had in the temp score a wide variety of things from some very ambient music—I think some Michael Brook was in there—all the way up to a beautiful piece called “A Prayer Cycle”—a very ambitious modern classical work for orchestra and choir. And I was in there also. So, I asked Paul, ‘What is it about that piece that you like? I hope it isn't the fact that it's for a hundred-piece orchestra and two-hundred-piece choir.’ And he said ‘no, though I like the idea of a voice.’ I said that we could work with that idea. This opened the door to true discussion about what this film is about and therefore what the music needs to help with.

As I look back over the film, the film is about redemption. Awful things are done by people in this film—things that you can barely stand to watch. And yet 20 minutes later they'll be offered an opportunity in the story to redeem themselves. And the question is, ‘can they and will they?’ Paul's message is that people can redeem themselves. They can rise above the evil that they’ve allowed to take over their nature and come to the realization that evil is not their true nature—they can rise above it, become better people. And in doing so, they help all of us to do better in life. So Paul was attracted to music that could enhance that message.

Part of my bright idea was to go back into a style of scoring that is electronic—the way I used to score 20 years ago. When I came into this business, I was influenced by Brian Eno, Steve Reich and Joe Zawinul. So I decided to go back to that, but now I have the benefit of close to 20 years of writing and film scoring experience that I can add to it. I can come up with a palette and an in-house produced genre of music that’s affordable, but that I honestly feel will be the best choice for this even if there were several million dollars to spend.

There’s something about music that's willing to take its time—that doesn't have to immediately reveal exactly what it means—that is very powerful for this film. The film is saying so much to you constantly. It is just overflowing with emotion of all kinds, from grief all the way up to exaltation. And the music has to be able to let that come through—there's no reason to have to just continually underline, underline, underline as it will overwhelm the audience. That was my instinct at the time.

A friend of mine who did a quick interview with me for an NPR station right when this film first came out observed that the soundtrack felt like a guardian angel that was watching over the audience as they went through the score. And that is exactly the poetic image that I was striving for, although I couldn’t voice it nearly as articulately as she did. It really just floats above the movie, touches, caresses it just as needed, and sits on the shoulder of the audience to help them through—give them more insight and a more heartfelt experience with the movie.

There are a lot of musicians who feel constrained by not having access to either a lot of gear or a big budget. But the story that you're telling here is “less is more” and that you can actually accomplish the greatest heights of musical expression with very modest means.

This was all done on one computer, with one piece of software. It was mixed on another computer and a different piece of software for film when we went to 5.1 surround. I don't believe there was a single recording made through a microphone on this score. Everything was generated; it was all virtual. My god, have I succumbed that much? (laugh)

The computer is the central part of my creative process. It took the place of the mixing board and the pen and paper many, many years ago. In fact, it has taken the place of the mixing console, outboard gear, and the collection of instruments at this point. And on a score like this, it even took the place of any other performers. Everything was either performed by me in a keyboard style or manipulated in a remix style.

A few years ago, this score would not have happened in a single computer. I use Logic and Logic has a freeze track function, which is designed to take some of the strain off the CPU when you're using lots of virtual instruments. I only had to use freeze tracks on one cue on this project. So that also speaks to the fact that the score itself doesn't have to be so complex that it's going to overwhelm a single G5. Actually, it wasn't even today's G5— this was done last year, so this score was done on a G4.

If the budget constraints hadn't been there for this project, do you think you still would have created the same score?

I hope I would have—I’d like to think I would have. The money issue is going to be an interesting one all the way down the line. What if you had 40 million dollars to spread across the eight or nine actors in an ensemble as opposed to the scale that they got? How would that have affected things? I think what you get on a film like this is people who are willing to do it because they just want to.

The reason I chose this genre was I knew I could get the impact of an orchestral score without having to make a fake orchestra, which to me will never have the impact of a real orchestra. So why go there? Why not create a different genre that can stand on its own two feet, to be judged on its own merits? There's more honesty somehow to the music done in that genre then a fake orchestral recording. Trying to be something you’re not is just the wrong way to make a really great artistic statement.

So you’re using M-Audio reference monitors in your studio?

Yes, this score was written entirely on those speakers. The surround mixing was done on a combination of M-Audio and Wallin, and the stereos were M-Audio.

Please tell us a little bit about why you like them.

They're true, and most important for a writer, they're easy on the ears. If you're spending 12 hours working on something you're going to need to change your perspective from time to time. You need to crank it up and move ten feet back. You need to turn it way down and put your head between the two speakers. They have a friendly long-range listening quality to them. And by that I mean long-term, long-time listening ability.

Not to take anything away from Steve Krause who did the film mix and record mix, but part of the compositional process is actually getting a good mix started because I am not just writing notes on a paper, I'm performing the parts as I write. If a part needs to be compressed or a part needs to be EQ,’d, or if another part needs a certain type of reverb, I've already made a lot of these decisions. The fact that if I can deliver something in pretty good shape and Steve can listen to it and get exactly what I'm after says a lot for the environment that I'm working in. And that is an M-Audio environment.

I understand you’re also using M-Audio’s Keystation Pro 88, our hammer-action USB controller. How do you integrate it into your system?

For a person who grew up with the original Moogs and ARPs, it's not a synthesizer unless you can tweak a knob. On a project like this, where all the instruments are in the computer, to be able to actually have the knobs right in front of you is a huge deal. We have little templates worked out for the instruments and where the knobs on the keyboard show up and control parameters. You know, a synthesizer can be a fairly expressive performance instrument if you're allowed to express it and perform on it!

That's one of the issues that comes up when you go virtual—everything is controlled by a mouse or keystrokes, and these are not exactly the most performance-based things. So to get pedals, knobs, and controllers back into the picture is a very powerful idea.

Do you have any secrets for breaking through writer's block that you can share with us?

I have a couple of things. The more traditional answer is to go take a walk around the block and look at things. Go outside and look at things in the distance, things up close, and just get your attention outwards. When writing at the computer, all your attention in the physical universe is 18 inches in front of you in the middle of all these pixels. It can get a bit ridiculous at times.

One of the great things about electronic music is that you can get it to do things for you without having to make a decision. I've actually turned the sound off, pushed record and just banged on the keys without looking at them. And then I turned the sound back up and played it back. Maybe on that pass everything will be garbage. But then maybe on the third time you do it you'll have a combination of five notes, and you’ll say, ‘now that's pretty interesting, what's that? Let's go with that.’ And maybe you'll never keep those five notes at the end of the day, but at least it got you going.

I think that the creative process involves two different sides of you, “two different people” so to speak. There's the person who has the ideas, and just sort of regurgitates them without thought about what they are. And then standing right there before they really even hit the fresh air, you have the editor who says ‘No, that sucks. Oh no, you wouldn't use…you're going to do that? No, don't play that.’ If the editor gets to be too much in control of the situation, that's writer's block, right? You basically just have to turn the editor off.

The editor is very important. The editor is your arbiter of taste and ultimately your taste is going to define the quality of your expression. So you can't just tell the editor to go home completely. But if the editor gets too much in control and hates everything—is having a bad day—then nothing is going to come out. So, there are times when you need to say to hell with good taste, to hell with your style, to hell with everything. Just get something out. Get the flow going. Get something coming out, cross the door into the physical universe. Then you can ask the editor to step back into the equation.

M-Audio would like to thank Mark Isham for taking the time out of his busy schedule to participate in this interview. To read more about Mark Isham’s diverse career, http://www.Isham.com.