EXCLUSIVE: Mark Isham has been scoring film and television since the 1980s, ringing of a stack of interesting credits that includes Reversal of Fortune, Point Break, From the Earth to the Moon, Crash, The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, among many others. His haunting score for the second season of ABC’s John Ridley-created drama American Crime is one of the season’s big stand outs, a continuation of the chamber-music style he brought to season one with hints of brass marching bands and dark undercurrents accompanying the season’s challenging and highly topical look at the way people react to accusations of sexual assault.
Isham recently debuted a concert suite arrangement of his season 2 score, which world premiered June 6 at the Kirk Douglas Theater. (You can see an exclusive excerpt from that performance above.) With that suite set to play concert venues around the country and as the show vies for Emmys consideration, we had the chance to talk to him about his approach to composing for television and film, how the season’s plot affected his score, and more.
DEADLINE: How did you come to decide on the chamber music style for American Crime? And does that differ from your approach to film composition, as opposed to television?
ISHAM: I approach composition for television and film similarly. In fact when I went back into television five years ago, I decided I’m just going to do it the same way as long as my schedule and patience would allow. Part of that creatively is just really looking at the story and finding the best way of telling the story. I don’t have any set rules about that, whether it has to be any set genre or set of instruments, it really respects the story to find what that is.
When I met with John for the first time, he had actually heard a Max Richter piece for chamber orchestra and violin. He told me “I’ve never heard television music in this style – what do you think?” And I told him he’d come to the right guy, I actually love the tradition from which Max Richter comes, and it’s a fairly large part of my work which I feel comes from the same influences.
DEADLINE: Did that make impact the concert suite premiere you held earlier this month?
ISHAM: That concert reflected that. We played some Max Richter, we played some Steven Rice, these are the main influences for this type of music, and it has a mournful, introspective but highly tinged core as well.
DEADLINE: How did the stories of both seasons of the show affect your approach to the music, and when did you know where the story was going?
ISHAM: Once I got the job with John he did outline the story, and I realized this was a great approach because the music really sits above the story, and contributes to the universality of it. It doesn’t really get too specific, we’re not looking at a guy in Modesto in the first season, or a guy in the midwest in the last one. [The music] is about the overall humanity, our reaction and experience when something terrible happens, and the tremendous emotional curve that can happen to a person going through circumstances such as these.
DEADLINE: What do you mean when you say it’s not being too specific and standing above the story? Would the same melodies but done in a more contemporary style create disconnect for the audience in a story like this?
ISHAM: Organic acoustic ensemble of musicians playing instruments that have hundreds of years of traditions. To be honest with you, I have a fantastic synthesizer collection, I am a die-hard synth nut, but there’s not anyone that could ever convince me that a Minimoog can get the same quality of emotion that a Stradivarius in the hands of a master can. There’s that many hundreds of years of tradition, and schooling, and experiments and practice, and rigorous exploration. Get ten people in a room with that sort of background and give them well crafted music and there’s something that’s going to happen that can’t be replicated.
And that’s coming from someone who probably spends more times tweaking synth knobs than anything else. But that tradition has so much to offer, and it makes the emotions rise up above the story and become more universal. There is synth in this soundtrack, but I thought that it was very sympathetic with the chamber approach.
That’s how John approached the story. It might take place in Modesto or the Midwest, but these are stories that are relevant everywhere, and I think this choice of genre for the score really helps bring that home.
DEADLINE: Do you find that knowing in advance what the story is going to be is more helpful to you as a composer?
ISHAM: I definitely feel that the more you know, the better you can get at what you have to do. Having said that there are incidences where I don’t know at all, and sometimes that lack of information allows you to think outside the box. But in television where the deadlines are so tight and the approval process tends to be quick, I find that the more you know, the more quickly I can react, and not do things that are going to waste my time.
DEADLINE: How did this affect the themes or motifs in your score?
ISHAM: The spotting and music is very minimal, and I discussed this with John, that two of the most important things you can do with music is you can start and you can stop. I think John really took that to heart in his spotting and he really waits for just that moment for when the music is really going to make an impact. And because of that, I wanted to make sure – connecting the dots is another thing that music can do for you, and connect them in not a literal way. The beauty of music is it’s such a subjective language. A motif can mean something different to you as it does to someone else, and the placement of it in a certain way provokes emotional responses that are equally profound from two different listeners.
DEADLINE: American Crime’s second season delves into some very difficult topics, particularly sexual assault. How did the gravity of that topic affect how you wrote for this season?
ISHAM: I made most of the decisions about changing the musical vocabulary for this season based just on the synopsis for where things were going to go. Again keeping with the chamber vocabulary, the first season was a string chamber group. The second season I went to string quartet and brass quintet. And as the season progressed, we had a good sized chamber orchestra to accompany those two smaller groups. My reasoning for adding the brass, I think the fact that one side of the story was Basketball, sort of an all American, energetic, masculine, forceful, but hints of the beauty of that, of teamwork, team morale and group dynamic and the friendships. The beautiful things about those sorts of endeavors. So I want the vocabulary to speak to those slightly more substantial moments, and at the same time, when things go south you have to be able to pull back and let things deteriorate.
I only had two scripts in front of me to go on (laughs). And of course as the season goes on and the murder happens, things intensify, but the choice held, and provided all the emotion we needed.