Blowing Technology's Horn
Mark Prendergast talks with trumpeter, composer, and synthesist Mark Isham about new technology, David Sylvian, Van Morrison, Windham Hill, and his solo career as one of Hollywood's more interesting film soundtrack composers.
Mark Isham could be termed the archetypal modern musician. In looks, he is strikingly European. In temperament, he conveys the cool reserve and insight of a Renaissance man. I have yet to meet an American with such discerningly good taste; both in the music he plays flawlessly on wind instruments and keyboards, and in his choice of collaborators. Moreover, he has a fundamental grasp of how the new musical technology should be used without losing sight of the important acoustic advances of the past.
Most people in Europe will be familiar with Isham's name (pronounced eye-sham) from his recent stint with David Sylvian, both on last year's Secrets Of The Beehive album and this year's 80-day 'In Praise Of Shamans' world tour. This union was without doubt made in heaven for Isham's breathy synthesized trumpet lines have become a Sylvian trademark. But he has much more to his credit than that...
Starting out with cult San Francisco band The Sons of Champlin in the Sixties, he went on to become a notable Van Morrison sideman. He has also carved out a career as one of Hollywood's more interesting film soundtrack composers, and is a leading Windham Hill recording artist. In fact, along with wizard guitarist Michael Hedges, his is a name that gives the pre eminent New Age label real musical credibility in the market place.
This year saw the release of Isham's first Virgin 'popular music' album, Castalia, to impressive critical acclaim. With success in so many areas one would expect Isham to want to pull back and rest. Not a chance! He seems to enjoy his work too much. In England recently to create yet another movie soundtrack, I was fortunate enough to catch up with him in his West London hotel, dapper, relaxed and willing to spend hours discussing a fascinating career and a continually evolving interest in musical technology.
Q: Tell us about your background and your early musical direction.
"I was born in New York City and lived there until I was 11 or 12. My mother was a professional musician and music was in our house all the time. I was given piano and violin lessons at an early age. When I was 12, I decided that I would play the trumpet and was influenced by classical trumpet music, baroque music mostly - particularly the trumpet music of Bach. I didn't know anything about any other kind of music until I was about 15. My family had moved to California and one of my hobbies was exploring short wave radio. I came across this jazz station and I thought it was amazing. For me it was a whole new vocabulary that was specific to the trumpet and, as you never had that much going on in classical trumpet repertoire, I just got more and more into it."
Even though he had seen serious electronic musicians like John Cage and David Tudor perform at the University of New York in his youth, it was to be his Californian experience that turned Isham on to electric sounds. As he matured through high school and into music college, it was the music of Jefferson Airplane, Grateful Dead, Santana and other San Francisco groups that really burned his ears. One band, The Sons Of Champlin, were particularly impressive to young Isham, and that was because of their brass-based blend of folk, blues, raga and rock. Eventually he would join them for the 1975 album The Sons Of Champlin. After only six months at music college he quit in order to play live and enjoy the vibrancy of his cultural environment.
"My personal interest was modern jazz. I was getting interested in electronic music as well but I was still working as a classical trumpet player to support myself. Then I decided to stop working in the classical world and start a band with Art Lande. He's an American pianist who records for ECM Records. He's done a lot with Jan Garbarek and his style is somewhere in the Keith Jarrett/Chick Corea mould. We had a quartet called the Rubisa Patrol and we made several records for ECM and toured all over. This started in 1973, and around the same time I joined The Sons Of Champlin, which paid the bills. I stayed with them for just two years, but I've always been with Art. It's an unknown part of my career."
Isham credits Lande with being his main musical light and teacher. Then he met Terry Bozzio, Peter Mounu and Patrick O'Hearn - musicians interested in jazz/rock fusion. Both Bozzio and O'Hearn had been with the effervescent Frank Zappa. "It was taking what Miles Davis and Weather Report were doing and working on it from a non-traditional jazz background. We made a record in the late 1970s titled Group '87 and that was the first chance I had to be in a band of my own, structuring the music exactly as I saw it within the group."
The next phase of Isham's career was to make him internationally known. While working as a studio trumpet player in California in 1978, he was hired by Van Morrison to play on the album Into The Music. Morrison was so impressed, especially with his contribution to the track 'Troubadours', that he took him on the road. The partnership stuck for six years.
A more detailed enquiry revealed valuable new information about a recording artist whose behind the scenes activities are, to say the least, shrouded in mystery. I start the ball rolling with the recording of that mercurial six-track set Common One, which was laid down in only nine days in the unusual location of Super Bear Studios in the South of France in 1980.
"There's always an attraction in going to a live-in studio with a group to make a record, because you can isolate yourself and put your mind in an environment where all you think about is the music. A lot of studios have been built in scenic places to attract people, and I suppose it caught Van's fancy to record in the South of France. I remember him talking about the Miles Davis album In A Silent Way before we went out. He had just discovered it and really loved that music. You can see its influence on the music of Common One, where things are very contained but still quite intense. There's a softness to the drum strokes, which were all played with brushes in fact. A lot of the music is also out of time, which is what In A Silent Way is all about.
To gain a rare view of the private relationship between Morrison and his musicians, the following story should be noted.
"Around the time of Common One, Van was very interested in the New Age music movement which was just starting to appear in California. He knew that I was also involved in other sorts of instrumental music, working with synthesizers etc. One day he called me up and invited me over to his house. I went there and he said (puts on a hoarse Irish/American accent): 'I've been checking out this New Age stuff, you know.' What do think of it, I said. He pointed towards these two boxes of cassettes and said: 'It's all shit. I think it's all a piece of shit!' You see, Van has a voracious appetite to find out about things once he's interested, and he's never satisfied until he knows. Anyhow, we talked and found that we liked similar things.
He was listening to a lot of classical music and to a lot of the work of Brian Eno. I'm a big fan of Eno, and at that time the first Ambient series was appearing. The Laraaji album (Ambient 3 Day Of Radiance) had just come out."
The upshot of all this was that Isham started to incorporate the atmospheric ideas of Eno into Van Morrison's music by utilising synthesizers with flute and voice. The lush sound of Beautiful Vision (1982) and Inarticulate Speech Of The Heart (1983) are indicative of "this common interest in Ambient music." Isham remembers the one-week recording sessions for the latter album, which took place at the Townhouse in London, as being nothing short of "superb".
"The keyboards I played on that were a Prophet 5 and an old Oberheim 4-voice. I think that was it. In fact, I've never amassed a lot of keyboards. I still use my Prophet 5. I've switched to an Oberheim Xpander as my main keyboard, because it's smaller, and I now have a sampler. I pick instruments that I feel have a pretty wide range and I learn them. In a way, I suppose I've had the same basic equipment set-up for 10 years."
"The upshot of all this was that Isham started to incorporate the atmospheric ideas of Eno into Van Morrison's music by utilising synthesizers with flute and voice."
Q: You play synths, trumpet, flugel horn, piano, soprano sax, electronic percussion and the Steiner EVI. How did you build up such a range?
"Well, I studied piano and like most composers or musicians who grew up with any sort of basic training - or even musicians who don't have the training but who are still interested in writing - a knowledge of the keyboard is essential, because one can create harmony. I am a pianist in the sense that I've used it to develop my harmonic vocabulary, for the different styles of music that I work in. I've always been attracted to the saxophone. I studied it closely during the '60s, especially the music of John Coltrane. The EVI I use is the original Steiner electronic valve instrument (not the Akai version) with three buttons and a strange little canister that you twist to reproduce the overtones. It's like an electronic trumpet."
The above instruments made up Isham's cache for his impressive first Windham Hall album Vapor Drawings. Recorded in London between April and May 1983, it reflected the full range of his 'classical style' and knowledge of sound sculpting. On 'Sympathy And Acknowledgement' he applied Eno's maxim of 'repetition as a form of change' to its fullest degree, as the circular synth lines are diffused and infused over eight mesmeric minutes. None of the tracks could be titled 'rock', but neither could they be classed as 'new age'. In the shifting contours of massed military brass and effusive keyboards, one could discern an intelligence that could imbue any piece with a strong emotive drive. The final cut, 'In The Blue Distance', was to formulate an epic stylisation that would later be developed in Isham's film music and in the music of David Sylvian.
Q: How much did the sound of 'Vapor Drawings' reflect the changes in technology that had occurred since the 1970s?
"If you compare that with my previous album, Group '87, recorded in 1979, the technological differences were quite extreme. Vapor Drawings was done on a Roland MC8, which was one of the first dedicated sequencers. Before that you had to make click tracks, do overdubs and splice out choruses etc. On Vapor Drawings everything was done off code, I sequenced everything. All the drums were machines or they were being played off Simmons pads. I found that electronics helped me explore the minimalist aesthetic to a much greater degree of complexity without having to write for a large ensemble of musicians. Before then, if you had lots of parts, they'd have to be all overdubbed and bounced together. I remember in the late Seventies when the Prophet 5 synth came out. It was amazing because you could carry it around, it was polyphonic - meaning you could play more than one note at a time - and you could programme it. But then jump to 1983 and I was using the whole PPG rack - a digital/analogue hybrid unit from Germany, which was a combination of analogue and digital synthesis. The technological revolution of the first few years of the 1980s was tremendous."
Isham got involved with the Windham Hill label through an old friend, Steven Miller, who was a house producer for the company. He asked Isham to work with him on an album and only after it was finished was label boss Will Ackerman presented with a finished copy. He loved it. Recorded in Chaz Jankel's studio in Eastcote, London, it involved a lot more musical technology. Isham again used the Prophet 5 and a lot of Oberheim gear, and older stuff like ARP and Moog synths were patched up to the newer hardware. For Isham it was "a little more contained and a little more compositional" than anything he'd done before.
In 1985 Mark Isham's second Windham Hill LP appeared, entitled Film Music. It contained three excerpts from the films 'Mrs Soffel', 'The Times Of Harvey Milk' and 'Never Cry Wolf'. As an album, it's of mixed quality, since the 'Never Cry Wolf' track takes up all of Side Two and is much too formless to be put on a record intended for audio only. 'Harvey Milk' is better. Eight minutes long and a good combination of texture and acoustic playing. The strong point is 'Mrs Soffel', a breathtaking amalgam of jazz/classical piano (courtesy of Pat Metheny sideman, Lyle Mays), Celtic airs (Isham's penny whistle) and a sumptuous string section. I would risk my reputation by saying that this is Mark Isham at his very best, indeed one of Windham Hill's finest recordings!
The bulk of Film Music was done at Russian Hill Recorders in San Francisco, a studio that totally re-modified its structure in order to accommodate Isham's growing volume of work as a film-scorer. I asked him to explain the specific differences between writing for film and 'ordinary' music creation.
"You have a specific time restriction with film music. If they want 2 mins 17½ seconds of music, you have to give it to them. You have to write a piece that makes sense with the fact that, for instance, the girl is crying here and happy here - you have to follow an emotional path. It's a collaborative art form, you have to know what your role is. There is room for lots of things, you could do counterpoint to a scene. If something is extremely sad, you might get away with putting something happy against it to make an interesting emotional counterpoint. But you've got to be responsible for making that work. You could put up a Sousa march against a death scene if it's a Fellini film; it might work. But if it was a Robert Brooks film you'd probably get laughed out of town. There's little room for artistic self-indulgence. 'Never Cry Wolf' took four and a half months. 'Mrs Soffel' took seven weeks; 'Harvey Milk' a little less. One film I did took 18 months, it was called 'Made In Heaven'. It can be extremely hard work and frustrating sometimes, especially when the studios start getting involved."
In 1983 Isham was asked by David Sylvian to contribute to the fascinating Brilliant Trees album, his first solo outing. On the recent 80-day world tour Isham was the featured trumpeter. His sound on guitar, piano, organ, trumpet, flugel horn and synths made Sylvian's Secrets Of The Beehive a standout '87 release.
Q: How did you work with David Sylvian in the studio? Was it more Zen than nuts and bolts?
"He knows equipment, he knows how to use it. David knows what he wants and he communicates it quite well. Yes, he is a very philosophical guy. He thinks about things and looks around in order to incorporate a lot of ideas into his music. On both albums, I've come in at the end when it's almost completely finished and just acted basically as a soloist. I'm given the track and I just play until there's a performance that they like and I like. David is always so well prepared. On Secrets, which was partly done at Angel Studios, it was very relaxed and well balanced. Steve Nye was there, he produces all of David's work. We did some things using some technological ideas that I'd been experimenting with - the usual modernist ideas of, say, using longer loops or long delay repeat lines or harmoniser things."
Q: The 80-day world tour with Sylvian seemed very punishing, with little or no time off. How did it work out?
"That was very interesting because we covered a lot of material from all of his solo work. Each concert lasted 2hrs and 15 minutes. For me, personally, it was a big challenge, because I was taking the work of probably the two most interesting trumpet players of the '80s - Jon Hassell and Kenny Wheeler - and interpreting their performances.
"One important thing about the tour were the effects I was using live. You see, in the mid-seventies I used to use a lot of effects on the trumpet and at times played exceedingly loud through big amps and wah-wah pedals. With Van Morrison I employed some digital delay lines but then stepped back into straight acoustic trumpet playing. From working with David Torn (an American guitarist who records for ECM and who has also worked with Sylvian), who is a master of effects processing, I've become re-interested in electronic trumpet. On the tour I used a TC Electronics 2290, which is a computer-controlled digital delay line. It is very expensive and utilises the natural expressiveness of the instrument. It has 32 seconds worth of delay and you can also sample in real-time live. I've just gotten into it and haven't yet learned all the possibilities or the more higher advanced uses of it. It can do more things than just delay though."
"I'm not a fan of digital. I mixed the Windham Hill records digitally because it's part of the whole Windham Hill sound and philosophy."
Mention of David Torn brings to mind an obscure but brilliant album that Isham recorded with him in London in 1986. Titled Cloud About Mercury, it featured one-time King Crimson members Tony Levin (on Chapman Stick/synth bass) and Bill Bruford (on Simmons drums/synth drums/percussion). Over six tracks we are treated to 'state of the art' instrumental passages of dazzling virtuosity. Torn's guitar is indescribably succulent and uses great held chords through blocks of effects. Isham's contribution is to make everything seem mellifluously out of reach. There are folksy-cum-ethnic elements, Fripp/Eno 'systems' chunks, plus some hard shoulder rhythmic slabs. In my opinion, it is Isham's only bonafide jazz/rock release of recent times.
Other releases bearing Isham's moniker of late are the soundtrack album The Moderns and a 'popular music' title Castalia. Both are on Virgin Records, and both appeared this year. The Moderns features some fine 1920s style music to fit the film's Paris 1926 theme. It's quite jazzy but borrows elements from Erik Satie. Isham has worked with the director Alan Rudolph before, notably on Trouble In Mind, where he had the pleasure of collaborating with Marianne Faithfull.
The Moderns music was recorded in a traditional click-track ensemble way. Isham's involvement with the project and some of the record's titles, 'Cafe Selavy', 'Dada Je Suis' reflect his own interest in Dada and early 20th century Surrealism. Castalia was a different kettle of fish entirely. Laid down in Los Angeles, San Francisco and London, it features people like Peter Maunu, Terry Bozzio and Patrick O'Hearn from his Group '87 days; Mick Karn and David Torn, who he met through his collaboration with David Sylvian, and famed Oregon bass clarinet/English horn/soprano sax player, Paul McCandless. A complex work, it sounds like a career statement of Isham's many avenues of exploration. Classical, ethnic, jazz and Ambient elements jostle together in a lofty mix. It doesn't always gell but when it does, like on 'Tales From The Maiden', the feeling is heavenly.
Q: You seem to travel a lot between Britain and America, and since you mostly produce yourself and know exactly what you want, who do you feel has the better studios?
"There isn't really a consistent difference between the countries. I think it's more in the engineering styles. Engineering is incredibly competitive here in Britain. They start very young here and a lot of young engineers are exceedingly good. The quality in Britain, particularly in the pop style, is extraordinarily high. Probably because you have institutions like the BBC and a lot of these older studios, with years of experience of symphonic recording. Also, because London is a sort of microcosm, everything is more squashed together than in America and therefore you come across more things. But you do have the same levels of studios in both countries. You've got Air Studios in Oxford Street, which has probably got every device known to man, then there are studios that you can get for £10 a day. You've got the same situation in America. The main thing is to find a studio where you get what you need - enough of a pleasant environment so you're relaxed and don't feel bad about spending 14 hours a day there, plus good equipment that is consistently run so that there's little down-time and work gets done."
Q: Do you like digital recording? I note that Film Music was mixed to an EIAJ 16-bit digital format. Did this better the quality of the recording?
"I'm not a fan of digital. I mixed the Windham Hill records digitally because it's part of the whole Windham Hill sound and philosophy. The last three records I've made were recorded on analogue machines, and I prefer them. I prefer the sound but mostly the cost and convenience. Digital is much more expensive, more time-consuming, and still doesn't work a lot in my experience. I've never used a digital multitrack console, that's far too expensive. Obviously I've mixed digitally but I now use half-inch Dolby analogue and like the way it sounds."
Despite his preference for analogue recording, Mark Isham is a fan of Compact Disc, the controversial listening format that has recently come under attack from the media.
"CD is working. In my market (instrumental music), CD accounts for over 50% of sales. Both Windham Hill and ECM are around that figure. My Virgin CD sales figures are better than my vinyl sales. And the cassettes are sort of out-front now, obviously because of the convenience factor. The crux of the matter with CD versus vinyl is that you can buy a $3000 dollar turntable which will outplay a $3000 dollar CD player, but you will not find a $200 dollar turntable that can outplay a $200 dollar CD player. CD has the value it does because it brings a higher quality of sound to a wider audience at a reduced price."
Mark Isham has that rare quality in interview of being able to concentrate in detail on any part of his career. He will elaborate on any point and give you as much information as you require. He has, for instance, played with Pink Floyd. The occasion was a session in 1978 for The Wall album, done in the then hi-tech Producers Workshop in Hollywood Boulevard. But the track was never used. Most musicians would rather forget such an experience but Isham is never fazed.
He rates Miles Davis and Wayne Shorter as the strongest stylistic influences on his trumpet technique, and on a broader level it's the guitar playing of David Torn - "the finest modern guitar player around" boasts Isham. He admires the contribution of Jimi Hendrix to modern music and lists Peter Gabriel, Kate Bush and Sting as contemporary favourites. Brian Eno and Peter Gabriel are down on his list of people he would love to collaborate with.
On the work front Isham has just completed a new soundtrack for a movie titled 'The Beast' ("the story of an incident in the Russian Afghan war!"). He's starting work on the new Robert De Niro film, 'Jack Knife', and preparing another Windham Hill album to be called Tibet - an ethnic flavoured music, coupled with a video that's due for release in January 1989. Isham is a highly successful craftsman whose film music career allows him to live in Hollywood with his manager wife, Margaret Johnstone. Within his home he has built a studio that can allow him to comfortably negotiate an ever-increasing volume of music projects.
"About two years ago I decided that I had more than 50% of the gear necessary to make up a good professional studio. I used to take all my stuff somewhere else in order to do a project, simply because they had a tape machine. So, two years ago, I invested in an Otari 24-track and console and hired a guy to do the wirings and design for the entire system. It's all professional quality - hooked up to Tannoy speakers and locked to video, which is the main thing. I have a video deck and Adams-Smith synchroniser, which allows me to do all of my film work at home, which is great because now I can increase my income by charging studio time from my house. I can now work in a studio environment all the time, whereas before I'd have to tear everything apart and move it. And that was total hassle.
"I've been investing in the studio as I go along. I have a Sony F1 digital 2-track, which is quite inexpensive, although I would prefer to have a high quality analogue 2-track. I don't mix at home, though, since my mixes tend to be very complicated. I used to mix at Producers Workshop, which is just 10 minutes down the road, but because of management changes I haven't been as happy there recently, so I'm now looking around. I've done some things at Chick Corea's place - he's got a beautiful studio in Hollywood. I did my last soundtrack record at The Sound Chamber in Pasadena, which has an SSL computerised console that I liked. At home, though, I've got things like the Apple Macintosh computer, and David Torn and Peter Maunu come to record things. Anything that can be recorded direct can be done there."
After reading this one gets the impression that Isham is a well-heeled Hollywood music employee who spends most of his time cushioned in his own privileged world. Not so.
"I really want to get my record career strong and functioning. I love to perform and I haven't been doing as much of that as I'd like to. With electronic music people don't now need the traditional technique, and that's a good thing for composition and creativity. But it's not a good thing if it puts you in the frame of mind where you don't value technique. In other words, you'll never be able to replace the ability of a human being to perform in an inspired or spontaneous way with a computer."
Mark Isham will be performing the Castalia album live in "every major market in America and Canada." Both Mick Karn (bass) and David Torn (guitar) will be featured. "The tour'll go straight across America and Canada. If things continue to go well then I'd hope to bring the band to Europe and Japan next Spring."
Interview by Mark Prendergast