Mark Isham is best known for his work as a composer for major films like Blade, Crash, and The Black Dahlia. At this point his film and television credits number well over one hundred, but he’s also carved out a space for himself as a pioneering electronic musician and jazz trumpeter, playing with world-renowned musicians and releasing award-winning albums at an astonishing rate. We had the opportunity to speak with him over phone about his path to success in film and his ever-growing list of unique projects.

It’s kind of funny, we actually just partnered with Output to work on a course for building audio plugins, and then saw your interview with them. You have a synth palace.

Well, thank you very much. It’s been many years in the making.

How do those analog synths play into your scoring work, or your musical life in general?

Well, I became enamored with synthesizers very early on. I actually think Silver Apples of the Moon was the very first synthesized music that I heard. There’s a number of pieces of music that hit you during a lifetime; certain ones just sort of change your whole perspective, and that was definitely one of them.

I heard that and I went, “Oh, there’s that entire universe as well!” I should know something about that. And it sort of became an exploration for me from then on. In those days, there were no plugins or anything so you had to sort of save up your money and buy something small, and then save up some more money and buy something else small, and then trade those in and make a medium size. And slowly grow into it.

I was working in the music store cleaning band instruments as my day gig and I talked to the music store owner and taking that ARP Synthesizer that he’d been approached about and putting it in the window to see what happens. Nobody was interested so I convinced him to sell it to me for a hundred dollars out of my paycheck a month. And there I was, I was in business. I was in analog synthesis and I’ve just stuck with it ever since; it’s just been a real passion of mine and I have a pretty interesting collection of stuff. I use it occasionally in film—I must admit, the film business is so fast and the changes are so ever-present, you have to rewrite things in just half a day.


Because it’s very, very difficult to do that in the analog synth world, I end up using a lot of plugins when I’m actually writing for film scores, especially television. With television, the turnaround time is so fast. But, I do have my entire collection wired and midi-ed and available on the console at any time. When the project is right, I definitely plug them in, turn them on, sync them up and use them.

I also have analog sequencers and tone generating modules amongst the synthesizers, so I can actually compose back there without a computer. Without any sort of DAW, Logic or anything. Just do what I really love. Just let the instruments themselves become the compositional tool, using old analog sequencers, random generators and things like that. I’m working on a record based on all of that, and occasionally when I have the time, we go back there and overdub the real stuff.

You just had a record come out a couple of months ago, right?

I did. I released a jazz cover record. It’s a series I’ve started called Cover Art. And it’s tunes that I’ve just really loved over the years and I’ve done—well, to my mind, a pretty unique way. I’ve sort of put on my remixer hat and came up with these backing tracks for these songs, and then I hired me, as a trumpet player, to come in and play trumpet on top of it.

I guess it’s jazz because a lot of the songs are thought of as jazz: Duke Ellington, Dave Brubeck, songs like that. There’s also a Temptations song. I’m a jazz trumpet player, there’s no getting around that. But it’s very, very modern, all very strange electronic backdrops.

I kept them short, I sort of think of them as EPs. There’s six songs, we’re doing them in vinyls at 45 rpm. The quality of the vinyl is really superb. It’s just our little series because it’s just fun to do.

It’s always great to hear people are getting back into releasing vinyls.

I love it, actually. I’ve been away from vinyl for a long time. I had a massive record collection back in the day. It’s just not as much fun collecting mp3s. I don’t get any joy out of it.

I finally went back and bought a nice turntable and a good preamp, and I’m slowly getting back into the experience. It forces you to sit in a spot, in a room, and listen from the beginning to the end of something, which I think is an activity that’s really gone out the window.

A lot of people these days… you just turn it on, you’re wandering around, one earbud in. I watch my kids in horror. But I think vinyl is coming back. It shows that there’s an interest in the music listening experience as a full, committed experience. Those of us that created the music, we like to think that at some point, someone will make that commitment to just really listen and listen intelligently.

How’d you get your start in film?

Well, the very first film I did was actually a big-time Disney film [Never Cry Wolf]. I had given some music to a dance company once and they put it to one of their films. It was an interesting experience for me but I’d never said, well, this is what I’m going to do. I went back to making records.

Later on a film director heard some music I made, just for records, and said, “I think this would be great for my film.” And basically just offered me, out of the blue, an opportunity to score a picture. I did. It turned out I had an aptitude for it, even though I had no training. I worked really, really hard, I’ve gotta say. I worked four and half months, seven days a week to try and figure out how to do this thing, but it paid off. It was a good score, a good movie, the movie did well, and it launched my career as a composer.

How common do you think stories like that are: just sort of finding yourself in film scoring?

Yeah, I think there is just a certain amount of it. You have people who are the academic group, go to college for it, study it, and they get jobs as assistants and work their way up using that approach. And then there’s others more like Danny Elfman or me, or even Zimmer I think, start off somewhere else and just for some reason decided that what they did would fit picture, and it did.

But you came from more of a classical background, or at least training.

Yes, I did, my training is as a classical trumpet player, and then I discovered jazz. My experience is sort of backwards. I was a classically trained trumpet player and played with the San Francisco Symphony. Popular music was the last area that I delved into.

We also discovered Group 87 while doing a little research.

Ah ha, there you go.

Group 87 was sort of the second generation of the fusion world. We grew up listening to Mahavishnu and Weather Report and Return to Forever. And indeed a lot of that was very influential on us. At the same time, though, we were listening to David Bowie’s Low and Brian Eno and Talking Heads and a lot of this stuff. We were realizing that one thing about fusion that we wanted to see was if we could make our fusion a little… less reliant on thousands of notes. I think that’s the way to describe it. Letting minimalism and a little bit of a pop influence come into it. There’s much more of a compositional simplicity to those records.

That’s something that still carries through to your work today too, right? You go for focus.

I do, I do. If three notes will do it, then use three as opposed to 37. Not that I’m against the 37 notes because I think it has its place. I just don’t think you should have 37 notes all the time.

You’re also very much in the TV world. You’re the composer for Once Upon A Time.

We’re in our seventh season now. The show’s a fun one because it’s just whimsical fantasy, and it allows me to write in a way that I normally don’t write. A big swashbuckling theme, like Prince Charming comes on, you hear his theme. I usually don’t do that in the films that I do. But this just called out for it. It’s just the way that this story and this style of story should be done. So it’s really fun. It just pushes me to do things in a way that I normally wouldn’t.

Since it’s still set in the modern era, I imagine you have a lot of freedom to pull in styles as you please.

Yeah, but I’ve drawn some fairly rigid boundaries. We keep it orchestral. We’re allowed some electric bass and the occasional electric piano just because it seemed to serve one particular strain of the story line. But other than that, it’s reasonably electronic-free. The style of music is not really old-fashioned, but on the other hand, it’s orchestral writing. We write for orchestra. It fits when you have these iconic characters. You want to keep the music connected to the way that these characters have always been.

You also recently worked on the “Arkangel” episode of Black Mirror.

I did, yeah. I’ve worked over the years with Jodie Foster on a number of things. She was directing the episode and she called me and said, “I’d love you to do it with me.” And I said, “I know what a treat this will be.” She is just magnificent. And that’s quite a series. Thought-provoking, sometimes shocking. It was fun. Certainly fun through her eyes and her sensibilities.

You mentioned earlier that you’re working on another record?

Yeah, I’m working on an electronic record that’s basically based on all the electronic synthesizers and the real stuff. I’m gonna get that out in the next three months probably.

You’re going quick!

Well that’s one thing you learn in the film business, you learn how to work quickly and efficiently.

What would you say is your advice to people who are working independently? How to keep the pace up?

Well, I set myself targets. I make plans on what to accomplish in a couple months and in order to make that target what I have to do next week or what I have to do today. Set goals and just insist that you get there.

The truth of the matter is that you have to love the process. I have three sons who are now working on professional careers and they’re making choices as to what direction to head in. I said, “Look, that professional may make more money at the end of the day, but if you don’t jump out of bed wanting to do the doing of it every morning, then forget it.” Of course you wanna be successful at it, of course you wanna make scads of money, of course you wanna get recognition and success but you have to do it first. You have to love doing it first and if you hate doing it, it’s never going to happen.

One of the reasons I keep the electronic stuff going over the years is because the taste, as a fad or something, has come and gone. You couldn’t get arrested with this stuff ten years ago and now of course, it’s back with a vengeance. It’s had waves of being fun and acceptable or silly. I just keep plugging away at it because I love it. I love doing it. I just love patching those things in and… they’re like sculptures. I just tweak a few knobs and something is there, waiting to be discovered.

What else is in your near future?

Well, I’ve done a Marvel television show, Cloak and Dagger. We’ve just wrapped that, and it will start airing in June. It’s all electronic, with a lot of pop songs that we interact with and cut up. It’s pretty unique for Marvel. It’s a different sort of story so I hope it will catch the audience’s fancy and that we’ll have a good run with that. I’m looking forward to that. I have a big animated movie coming out sometime in the spring [Duck Duck Goose]. My first fully animated picture, big orchestral score on that. That was fun.

Thank you so much for your time, it was a pleasure.

It was my pleasure as well. I wish you the best of luck with your mission; I’m all about proper education in the arts.

Learn how to make music like Mark Isham, whether that’s through low-level sound synthesis or recording work in a DAW:

music course Sound Production Using Reaktor

Sound Synthesis Using Reaktor

California Institute of the Arts


Physics-Based Sound Synthesis for Games and Interactive Systems

Physics-Based Sound Synthesis for Games and Interactive Systems

Stanford University


music course Sound Production in Ableton Live

Sound Production in Ableton Live for Musicians and Artists

California Institute of the Arts