Thoughts on the Way

Writings by composer and pianist Mark Isaacs

Category: Music process

Film Music

Liner notes to Robin Hood: The Film Music Mark Isaacs Vol. 1.,
a 2 CD set released May 2020 and available for purchase here.

While my ambition to be a composer for the concert hall struck like lightning at age twelve, inevitably from early childhood I had already felt in me the deeply expressive power inherent in the marriage of screen drama and music (particularly orchestral music).

From age seven to ten (mid-to-late 1960s), my favourite weekly television show was Lost in Space. As well as following all its zany extraterrestrial adventures, I was highly conscious of the brilliant accompanying orchestral score by John Williams (then “Johnny” Williams) and would play themes from it by ear at the piano.

In my early teenage years I happened upon the 1949 British black-and-white romantic film drama The Glass Mountain on weekend television. The central character was a struggling composer and the lavishly romantic score by Nina Rota made quite an impression on me and somewhat influenced a very early piano and orchestra piece I wrote at age fifteen.

When I was twenty I saw the 1978 movie Superman, with its brilliant orchestral score by John Williams. By then I had studied a good deal of the concert orchestral repertoire, and was inspired by the way Williams had so well assimilated this body of work and indeed built upon it, with his vocabulary also subtly drawing from the worlds of jazz and studio music. John Williams became my favourite film composer, and remains so to this day.

My focus on writing for the concert hall was by no means replaced or even diverted by these exposures to film music, but certainly I felt I wanted to do something like this myself, as part of my overall musical journey. And so in my early teens I had acquired and closely studied Earle Hagen’s 1971 seminal tome Scoring for Films, with its accompanying small vinyl records of cross-referenced musical examples.

As an undergraduate music composition major in Sydney, I worked on the side as a gun-for-hire pianist. Part of this was studio session work, where I found myself in considerable demand since I could sight-read a fully-written out and difficult piano part as a classical player but also make up my own part from chord symbols like a jazz player would. In those days all functional music was recorded by live musicians in a studio, unlike today, when one person can and regularly does put it all together in a home computer, minus any performers at all. There was plenty of work around at that time and some of it was playing on film scores.

In 1980 the phone rang and a voice said “My name is Simon Walker and I’m a film composer. I wonder if you’d be available to play the piano on a score of mine this Wednesday?”. This was actually a student film, and Simon was three years younger than me; he was then eighteen. We became good friends. I noted that though we had both written music for orchestra while in high school, Simon’s ambition was from the outset purely to be a “film composer” alone, whereas I saw film composition as a sub-territory of general composing that I would be very happy to visit, rather like the writing of operas being only a part of a composer’s overall output.

In 1982 Simon engaged me to be the orchestrator on his first big professional break, his score for a six-hour television miniseries For the Term of His Natural Life, based on the classic novel of the same name by Marcus Clarke, which went to air on the national Australian Nine TV Network the following year.

Simon was remarkably only nineteen when he signed to do this score. It was a big assignment for me to orchestrate so much music for full symphony orchestra and I was still a composition undergraduate in my early twenties. Later, I orchestrated Simon’s 1983 score for an Australian film adaptation starring Liv Ullmann of Ibsen’s The Wild Duck and also orchestrated some of William Motzing’s score for the feature film The Return of Captain Invincible. Motzing, who had tutored me in big band arranging in my mid-teens, remarked that with all the orchestrating I was doing for film composers, it must be somewhat inevitable for me to do a score of my own before too long. That was indeed the path many film composers before me had taken.

In 1983 I was engaged as pianist on the recording sessions for the score of an animated adaptation of a Charles Dickens novel. In the break, the producer Eddy Graham began to chat to me in the lounge area outside the studio. He’d liked my playing and asked about my musical activities. Without being conscious of making any kind of pitch at all, I inevitably mentioned that I was a composer. “I’d like to hear some of your music”, he said. Eddy was producing for Burbank Films, a large film studio in the Sydney suburb of Paddington. Burbank was making animated films of various Charles Dickens classics for international television distribution, and would soon extend its brief to “animated classics” generally. The films had separate soundtracks for dialogue, and for music plus sound effects, in order to facilitate them being dubbed into any language. This opened them up to a worldwide reach, and they also had the plum platform of being screened on network television in the USA. There was a lot of film production in Australia at the time, due to very favourable “10BA” tax breaks for film investors that the Government had instituted to stimulate the industry.

After hearing some of my tapes, Eddy said “I love your music and I’d love you to score one of my films” (Burbank was using a small stable of composers; the studio with its large team of animators – working in the old-fashioned way entirely by hand in the days before computer-facilitated animation – was turning out several films a year).

My first assignment for Burbank was a full orchestral score for their version of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities which I undertook in the first part of 1984. I was still an undergraduate composition student at the Sydney Conservatorium, and it was all completed just before I went off to the USA to do a Masters degree in composition at the Eastman School of Music in upstate New York.

I relished the assignment to write a lengthy orchestral score (about an hour of music in all) for a film based on a classic story I had already loved. I came up with a suitably dramatic theme that I felt expressed the onerously heroic and tragic personal sacrifice which forms the story’s core. There were sub-themes for various characters and subplots, and I tried to develop all these themes musically throughout the score. Indeed, my approach took its model from opera with its Wagnerian leitmotiv idea.

I enjoyed the process immensely: “spotting” the film with the director to establish where music would go and what it would try to achieve emotionally, and then knuckling down to composing at home to a time-coded Betamax video of the fine cut, working out exact timings and cues, sketching my ideas at the piano (with the B pencil I use to this day, as recommended by Simon Walker, along with bespoke sketch manuscript paper he designed) and finally orchestrating it all at my desk.

I’d written concert pieces for orchestra in my teens, along with chamber music, but film music was different (and in other ways than the obvious points that it accompanied a screen story and was timed out to fractions of a second).

Firstly, there was the production timeline. In concert music, months could go by from completing the work to it being performed. In film music, it was much more last minute with far less time available to do the work; you were composing very speedily and right up to the recording sessions, with copyists working in tandem with you on the orchestral parts. What was being played in the studio might have been written down only 24 hours earlier!

Secondly, on film music sessions the orchestral musicians virtually sight-read. You’d run something once as a quick rehearsal, and then immediately record it. In concert music there are several rehearsals across days and the musicians have the music weeks in advance to practice at home as they might need to. On film sessions the players see the music for the very first time upon their arrival at the studio. It’s a particularly demanding environment, and to some extent doing it to that level of expertise has become rather a lost art as more and more screen music, especially for television – and even that which seems to be orchestral – is layered up in computers using sampled sounds.

One of the most happily ebullient experiences I have had is emerging from the elevator minutes before the start of a film music recording session I am about to conduct of my own music, hearing an orchestra already “practising” what they are about to record. Of course, each player is practising excerpts from their own parts completely uncoordinated with the others, and with the short lead time (and the fact that I always wrote difficult music!) they would tend to go at this really very fervently. It’s a scream to hear music you have been writing days before “deconstructed” in this deliciously cacophonous way as a kind of prelude to the main event!

The third major difference with orchestral film music is that the composer is generally expected to conduct it, which very rarely happens with concert music. When I stood on the podium in front of the large orchestra assembled at the Sydney Opera House to play my A Tale of Two Cities score in early June 1984 I had never conducted a professional orchestra before. I winged it and learned on the job! (Previous to that I had had some conducting training and conducted students). And, as an undergraduate music student, many of the musicians who’d been engaged by the orchestral contractor to play for me were actually faculty members from the very Conservatorium at which I was studying, as well as players from the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and Australian Chamber Orchestra. Film producer Eddy Graham was listening in the control room and he remarked on “all those wonderful melodies!” which was very encouraging (Eddy was a classical music buff; his favourite was Prokoviev).

Everyone was very happy with my A Tale of Two Cities score, and I played it proudly for family and friends at home on my reel-to-reel tape recorder and went along to the launch screening, to which I invited the head of composition at the Sydney Conservatorium where I was studying. I was soon to fly to the USA on scholarship to do my Masters degree in composition, and consequently I presumed that would be it for my relationship with the film company. However Eddy really wanted me to score an upcoming film, Robin Hood, and wondered if we could make it work somehow. I was certainly open to that prospect.

So, while undertaking my Master’s studies in the USA, the videocassettes of Robin Hood were couriered from Sydney over to Rochester, New York and I managed to score the film alongside of doing all my academic work. As suggested by Eddy Graham, I studied Malcolm Arnold’s English Dances which helped inspire a general soundworld for some of the writing. I couriered the scores in stages back to Australia, where the orchestral parts were copied, and then I made a short trip back to Sydney in May 1985, in the middle of the USA college term, to conduct the recording sessions, returning straight back to the States afterwards to continue on with my degree. I couldn’t resist playing the sparkling recording to my rather surprised conducting tutor at the Eastman School of Music, as tangible evidence that might suggest that I had more promise as a conductor than he had earlier believed.

I returned to live in Australia in late 1985 where I would complete my Master’s thesis, and very soon I was also getting on to scoring the next Burbank classic, this time Ivanhoe. It was a very enjoyable score to write, and I continued to employ, as was appropriate, the “epic style” (with a large orchestra) that I had used for A Tale of Two Cities and Robin Hood. The recording sessions for Ivanhoe took place in January 1986 at the Sydney Opera House, just 6 days before my wedding, with post-production duties taking me almost to the big day itself.

In 1987 I wrote the score for Burbank Films’ production of Rob Roy. This was also a rather epic score, but I tried to make it more taut and lean by employing a slightly smaller orchestra. The story’s setting in Scotland was great fun in the sense that I could give my theme a playful Scottish twist.

All in all, from 1984-88 I scored ten telemovies for Burbank Films. Amongst the others not represented on these disks were more whimsical or tender scores for Black Beauty, The Wind in the Willows (influenced by Delius and Grieg), Alice in Wonderland (in which I improvised to screen on 1980s synthesisers and wrote a title song, including my own lyrics, performed by legendary Australian singer Kerrie Biddell) and Don Quixote (influenced by de Falla) as well as further iterations of my more “epic” style in Kidnapped and Black Arrow. These scores were released on videocassette (and later DVD) and I have realised that many amongst a generation of children grew up humming my themes, as evidenced by comments found on YouTube. In 2012 I reused the main theme for The Wind in the Willows as the theme for an extended suite based on that book for chamber ensemble and narrator, and some who heard the theme in that guise recognised it from their childhood Burbank videocassettes or DVDs.

These experiences were musically seminal for me. I learned so much craft regarding composing, orchestrating and conducting from doing these scores, far more – on the purely practical level of actual execution – than I learned as a tertiary composition student. Though producer Eddy Graham attended the recording sessions for my first film, there was never any musical interference, and indeed no-one from Burbank attended the recordings of my subsequent scores, or asked to hear “demos” of what I was writing, which were in any case not practical to produce at that time without the music software that would come later. I learned that I had a real love for the process, and the results, of writing music for the screen.

As to the rest of my screen music career: In 1988 the Australian Broadcasting Corporation commissioned me to write an orchestral theme for their weekend arts magazine TV program Sunday Afternoon with Peter Ross, and I conducted the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra in the recording of it. From 1990-91 I wrote music for 34 episodes of a weekly medical drama G.P on ABC TV, beginning by filling in for Simon Walker, the composer at the time, and eventually taking over the helm when he left the series.

But there were early signs that I was not going to be an ongoing “careerist” film composer. In 1988 I was invited to score a comedy movie for theatrical release, with the score to be played by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, but when the videocassette arrived I disliked the film intensely. I called up the producer and said pompously, but in all honesty, “The film does nothing for me, so I can do nothing for it”. My agent tried to patch things up, but it was clearly a lost cause, and the film Young Einstein went on to be a mega-hit in Australia, without my music. I was temperamentally unsuited because a “careerist” film composer does the next job offered, regardless of whether they like the movie or not. My colleagues who stayed the course tell me of many indignities, where films are in effect already “scored” by directors with “temp tracks” from their own music album collections, with the brief being to “write something like that”. I would not have survived that kind of thing, or have been willing to demo everything I was proposing to do when the software became available to do so, nor have my work musically vetted by a non-musician.

My contract with G.P was not renewed because I chose not to use fashionably generic synthesiser sounds in every episode, but instead kept myself interested in the process by scoring each week’s episode with radically diverse instrumental groupings of real musicians especially chosen for it. One episode would suggest to me a score for flute and harp, and that is what they would get, while next week’s episode might be a rock band sound. It seems this creative diversity was unappreciated at the time.

In 1992 I was invited by the ABC to do a brand new arrangement of my original theme for Sunday Afternoon with Peter Ross, which I conducted with the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra. Then in early 1994 I composed and conducted an orchestral reimagining of a brand’s theme for a TV ad jingle recorded in Sydney for the USA TV market by premier ad agency Ogilvy & Mather, New York. And there my screen music career petered out as I focussed on composing for the concert hall, performing and conducting, and it is now nigh on a quarter-of-a-century since I have written music for the screen.

However, I can truthfully say that I do retain great passion for the medium and would happily rejoin the ranks of screen composers.

I would like to thank Philip Powers of 1M1 Records for lovingly producing these disks of suites that he made from four of my 1980’s Burbank orchestral scores. It is something Philip had talked to me about over many years. I want to also thank Phil’s and my mutual dear friend, the late Simon Walker, from whom I learned much about the craft of film composition and whose living friendship both Phil and I miss. And finally, my wife Jewel was by my side throughout all these film music forays (as she still is), and her tender support and care continue to help make everything possible.

Mark Isaacs, November 2018

On Symphonies and Computers

This article is also published in Resonate magazine 


In the early-to-mid-1990s I became aware that quite a number of my composer colleagues were doing their scores on computers, using Finale. By that time I’d been writing my scores by hand for around 25 years (and there were reams upon reams across numerous concert works and orchestral film scores). I dug my heels in: it wasn’t for me. I liked my tried and true methods.

The days of the hand copyist of earlier decades were gone by the turn of the millennium. For the orchestral commission I received in 2001 (a cor anglais concerto for Peter Duggan and the ASO) the score was entered into Sibelius from my handwritten copy by the team of two full-time music preparation staff (led by the redoubtable Julie Simonds, my high school sweetheart as it happens) that (then) Symphony Australia employed. My 2003 concerto for James Morrison and the MSO was entered by Laura Bishop into Finale. It was a similar situation for chamber works. The Australian Music Centre had a fund that generously payed for the “Copying of Parts” (by this time meaning “computer entry”) for Australia Council funded works, which most commissions were.

I lasted longer than most with my own “hair shirt” austerity in regards to notation software but ultimately recanted.

Given a copy of Sibelius 1.4 by my daughter’s high school music teacher in 2001, I began to use it just to produce simple charts as needed for my jazz groups. I still couldn’t conceive of doing a classical score that way. But in late 2003 I relented once again and prepared my Ave Maria for cello and piano in Sibelius, which I wrote for the fabulous cellist Trish O’Brien and myself to play (we were a touring classical duo at the time).

It was pretty obvious what the advantages were. Younger composers probably can’t conceive of a world without word processor-like score editing facilities. I’m sure sometimes I had avoided making revisions to hard copies as it was just so physically hard to pull off.

I don’t think I used the score playback facilities in Sibelius 1.4. If they were even present then, they would have produced what used to be called “MIDI files”, played back by the generic purely-synthesised imitation instruments that came built into the internal soundcards of computers.

Things started to get more interesting in 2005 with Sibelius 4, which came with Native Instrument’s Kontakt Player Gold featuring much better simulations of real instruments. In 2008 with Sibelius 5 came Sibelius’ own sampled sounds, which were proprietary adaptations of the Garritan Personal Orchestra and other libraries’ sounds. I also bought Garritan Personal Orchestra itself as well as the excellent Garritan Authorised Steinway piano samples. I became a regular on the Sibelius technical forum, initially getting much-needed help, and it’s a place at which I hover to this day, more often now helping out less-experienced users.

During this period I did find some limited uses for score playback. Firstly, it was great for aural proofreading. It is so easy, especially in busy chordal piano writing, to either leave out an accidental or overlook that one carries through the bar that needs to be natural-ised. So I was happy to catch any of these through playback and save on rehearsal time distraction over note corrections.

From 2004 I had become interested in outputting audio demos of my pieces for a small inner group to hear in the interval between a score’s completion and a performance/recording.

Even highly-experienced conductors take a great deal of time to nut out a new piece from score alone. In the old days I’d have to bash it out on the piano, trying to play configurations that don’t readily adapt to a pianist’s hands and singing in a nasal composer’s voice what couldn’t be played, yelling out “Flute!” or “Violins!” along the way.  This had to be a better way. My wife and daughter certainly appreciated it a lot more! I loved to share with them what I had written at the end of the day, and this was so much more intelligible, especially for large ensemble or orchestral pieces. I’d email mp3s to my very musical parents and a couple of my close colleagues. I also began to offer these “demos” to the musicians who would be performing the piece, just so they could get the lay of the land before starting rehearsals. Some were put off in the early days by the then poor simulations of their own instruments, but nowadays many, if not most, musicians, and indeed conductors, request audio simulations.

The one thing I never did (until this year) was conceive of preparing any sort of “finished product” this way. Composers for TV (and even sometimes film) had started producing their final chamber or orchestral scores with samples. Not liking most television drama much, I would prefer to pick out what wasn’t a real orchestra (most wasn’t) along with snorting at the interminable and unimaginative take-offs of the marimba-based American Beauty (2000) music that dominated television scores for a decade.

That’s all changed: I’ve taken the plunge!

On May 10, I released the Digital World Premiere by the NotePerformer Virtual Orchestra of my Symphony No. 2 on the YouTube platform.

The reason to do this was a combination of duty and pragmatism.

My Symphony No. 1, commissioned by Kim Williams AM for the QSO, had a very successful first performance in 2013 by that orchestra conducted by Benjamin Northey. It was given very high praise by many luminaries from Vladimir Ashkenazy down and I co-produced, with video production company CBD, a TV program of the premiere which we licensed for several screenings each on Foxtel Arts TV in Australia and Sky Arts TV in New Zealand. On the strength of that success, plus letters of interest in presenting a new symphony by me from several Australian conductors as well as Richard Wenn, then Director of Artistic Planning at QSO, the Australia Council funded me directly to compose my Symphony No. 2 in early 2016.

With Richard Wenn no longer at QSO, I experienced a quite unexpected level of general inertia regarding programming my new symphony from the many Australian conductors and orchestral artistic administrators who I began to let know about it from the moment it was funded. Those that returned my emails (and several unaccountably didn’t even get that far!) wrote courteously in acknowledgment without any enthusiasm or real interest it seemed, since they did not come back to say they’d investigated the score and basic audio demo which I circulated as soon as the work was completed in early 2017. Though there is one Australian conductor who still maintains a palpable warm interest in the work, nonetheless by early this year it was still not programmed for premiere.

My sense of “duty” was simply this: the Australian public payed for this work (symphonies don’t come cheaply) and after four long years they surely deserved to hear something? My sense of “pragmatism” was along the lines that the public release of a very high level “virtual performance” may itself help finally kindle a real performance.

I knew it had to be as good as it could be if I were to go down this path. I couldn’t afford the top level libraries that sampled the Vienna Philharmonic or BBC Symphony Orchestra, and in any case I’d found out from haunting web forums how difficult these libraries were to integrate seamlessly with notation software. Fortunately, there was NotePerformer, an excellent orchestral sample library from Sweden’s Arne Wallander, which was relatively inexpensive and integrated easily with notation software. I set about creating a “first mix” of my symphony with these sounds, aided by Arne’s same-day answers to email technical questions.

Though NotePerformer is designed to work “inside the box” with Sibelius, there were limitations to what could be achieved there, due to the way Sibelius operates. Basic reverb and EQ settings can be applied on a staff-by-staff basis only. If several instruments share a staff (e.g. percussion staffs or woodwind doublings) you cannot control parameters for each individually. Fine control over balance and the audio soundstage are very difficult to achieve.

I knew that those who were serious about final product (like the TV composers) mixed their output separately in a multi-track DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) like ProTools, Logic, Cubase or Sequoia. This was both beyond my pay grade and a level to which I in any case did not wish to promote myself (mainly because if I were to do it, I’d have to learn to do it properly, it would take over my life and I would end up being a sound engineer too, a bridge too far with the already onerously-variegated skill set I am trying to maintain in music).

Fortunately, last year I had the great pleasure of working with musician and audio producer Lachlan Bramble. A terrific violinist (he is Associate Principal Second Violin in ASO as well as leading the distinguished Benaud piano trio) and an in-demand chamber music mentor, he is also an audio producer. Lachlan produced two solo piano recordings I made in Adelaide last year (one of classical repertoire, the other original music) and so at the beginning of this year I asked him if he would mix the symphony, which he was very keen to do.

Sibelius can export each staff of a score as a separate audio file, and so I exported a set of what is called in the audio trade “stems”, one stereo “stem” for each staff, and Google Drive-d them over to Lachlan. His starting point was thus my onboard first mix, which we called the “Reference Mix”, though I gave him the audio “dry” without the in-house reverb from NotePerformer I had been using so that he was free to stretch his wings in any direction.

From there we collaborated back and forth by stages, with the final product being ‘Mix Version 5’. As well as all the niceties of balance and EQ, Lachlan’s great achievement was in the soundstage, both left to right, and front to back. An orchestra is a large 3-dimensional object, and being such an experienced orchestral player himself, Lachlan knew how to work toward a sense of realism. For example, the stereo renditions of each string section already had spatial width, but Lachlan widened them so that the strings covered the entire sound stage from the centre to both the left and right flanks as they do in real life.

Once I had the finished audio, I made a basic video with title cards to go with it, and at the end of  the symphony included a short excerpt from QSO/Northey performing the previous symphony along with some testimonials about it (rather like the back cover of a book, I thought).

From there it was simply an upload to YouTube for its premiere, which was, as it happened, on Mother’s Day. I felt the use of the term “premiere” was justified. TV shows premiere at a particular date/time, then hang around to be streamed on iview and suchlike. Similarly, in the COVID-19 crisis there have been a number of YouTube or Facebook premieres that also go out at a specific day/time and then stay online for streaming. Without intending it, the timing of this online premiere seemed to fit the lockdown zeitgeist whereby these web platforms are the only public place for new music.

Another decision was to clearly signal that this was not a real orchestra by crediting it as being played by the “NotePerformer Virtual Orchestra”. Often it can sound deceptively real, at other moments not so much. Without a frank disclosure to the listener at the outset, I felt that there could potentially be a kind of “Is it? Isn’t it?” distraction from the music, rather like my aforementioned musings over TV drama background music. I hope that the listener will accept the premise and then put it to one side.

Though this remains a “duty/pragmatism” solution to the programming travails of a symphony that was indubitably written for a real orchestra – and does not replace it – I now feel that at some point I might go a step further. That step would be to write a future symphony in my ongoing cycle specifically for a virtual orchestra. The reason would be to write things that would be unplayable by a real life orchestra (particularly rhythmically, an area where computers are wholly undaunted), or if not absolutely unplayable, would fall over to a greater or lesser extent given the limited rehearsal time allotted to new works. And further to the “sound stage” matter, think of the 19th/20th century precedents for placing sub-ensembles around the auditorium space, such as Mahler’s offstage and gallery brass, or indeed its apotheosis in Stockhausen’s Gruppen. A virtual soundstage would allow for the wildest things: a woodwind section flying around the auditorium while playing, anyone?

© Mark Isaacs, May 2020

Singing in Symphony

This article is also published in Limelight Magazine

My new Chamber Symphony came about through a process of instigation and collaboration.

It was made possible by Harry and Julie Johnson, avid music-lovers and concertgoers, who generously wished to commission a new work from me, without a specific idea of the forces to premiere it. I always need to know the destination of my writing, so I considered to whom I could put their proposal.

Some years ago, David Rowden, artistic director and clarinettist of the Omega Ensemble, had floated the idea of a collaboration. When I told David of the opportunity, he seized upon it immediately, telling me of a concert in July 2015 in which the Omega Ensemble would be performing a large chamber arrangement of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, with guest artist soprano Jane Sheldon. Would I like to write the new work for the same concert?

I jumped at the idea, and this meant I had the opportunity to use the large chamber ensemble already engaged. Since Jane Sheldon was performing in the concert, I also was able to include her voice in the score, an opportunity impossible to resist.

The forces having been decided upon, I needed some further direction. Last year I had heard a wonderful Omega Ensemble concert that featured two chamber symphonies (by Arnold Schoenberg and John Adams). I myself had written my first (orchestral) symphony in 2013. These factors made the penny drop: I would write a chamber symphony!

My orchestral symphony was very traditional in structure, so the chamber symphony was a chance to look at the medium anew, as a “compression” of symphonic form: in length – only 16 minutes; in number of movements – only three; in instrumentation – 12 instruments, from which I strive to get something of the sound of a romantic orchestra; and in structure – the customary recapitulation of the opening theme is skipped over in the first movement and postponed until the finale, amongst other ways I found to knit things tightly together.

Some might say all this leanness makes it a divertimento, but given the cyclic recall of themes and the use of the voice in one movement – amongst other symphonic hallmarks – I consider it a symphony that structurally has as its kernel that “compression” idea – it really “gets on with it” and doesn’t hang about much at all!

I decided to eschew text and just use Jane’s wordless voice as a special feature in the middle movement, a Berceuse (cradle song).

I find a lot of my material as my fingers improvise at the piano, and I always strive for my music to be lyrically melodic, surprising, rhythmically interesting, colourfully orchestrated and contained within a satisfying formal structure. I happily stand on the shoulders of what I have learned from the giants of classical composition, but when my jazz experience pokes through in some way, I don’t resist it. I think all that is there, and more, in the Chamber Symphony.

Due to illness, Jane Sheldon was unable to sing at the work’s premiere, and she was replaced by Lee Abrahmsen. You can see and hear the premiere here.

Vocalise for soprano and mixed chamber ensemble (2014)

This article is also published in Limelight Magazine

Though I live in Sydney, I’ve had a string of Brisbane-based projects over some years and that suits me just fine. Late last year, a few days after the premiere of my first symphony by the QSO, I attended a lovely meeting at the cafe of Queensland Performing Arts Centre with Tania Frazer, oboist and creative director with Southern Cross Soloists, and manager Jodie Rottle.

I was very happy to be commissioned to write for this distinguished ensemble, and the inclusion of soprano Margaret Schindler was an added dimension after eight years of writing purely instrumental works.

We settled on a short piece of 7 minutes duration (a good contrast after a thirty-minute symphony!). The world of concert commissions (unlike film/TV and theatre composition) involves being handed a blank canvas, the length of the work and its instrumentation being the only dictated elements. The music’s style, mood, texture, structure and a million other components are entirely at the discretion of the composer. It’s always a luxuriously generous invitation (if rather daunting when the going is tough!) to be asked to do something hopefully beautiful and inspiring in whatever manner you want. What a blessing!

There were some things to be immediately decided. First was what to do with the voice regarding text. One common approach is to hunt for poetry to set. I bypassed that completely in being inspired to write a “vocalise” – a work that uses wordless singing, the most famous example being by Rachmaninov. As a kind of homage, I titled my piece generically as “Vocalise”, just as he had.

Perhaps with such a model as Rachmaninov it was inevitable that I would write an unashamedly lyrical work, with long, expressive lines and very poignant harmonies. The continuous vocal melody is supported at the core by the piano while the wind and stringed instruments decorate the texture with countermelodies and reinforcing colours. In many ways chamber music is more challenging to arrange than orchestral as everything tends to be a solo and exposed; one does not have the “meat and potatoes” padding of a sectional sound to rest upon. Though cor anglais was an available doubling for oboist Tania Frazer, I decided to use cor anglais exclusively. Its poignancy and range were perfect for my purposes.

It was my vision that this work should be a luscious and haunting embroidery. It was a delight to construct it.

Clock time, imaginary time and the Resurgence Band

This article is also published in Resonate magazine in an earlier 2010 form. This version is updated to 2013.

In December 2010 Mark Isaacs released the CD/DVD Aurora by his Resurgence Band. This was the third release in the “Resurgence” series which has defined his jazz output over the last five years and received international critical acclaim along with major awards or nominations. The Resurgence Band has toured extensively in Australia and Asia, including performing at the Tokyo Jazz Festival and recording a TV special for South Korean national television. Mark continues his career-long parallel involvement with composing music for the concert hall – he’s just completed a cello concerto for Julian Smiles and the Queensland Symphony Orchestra will be premiering another of his pieces early next year. He’s also recorded classical piano repertoire for ABC Classic FM. In this article he explains that the Resurgence project is a summation of all the varied things he does in music.

I’ve come to realise that my different activities in music – ostensibly revolving around the intersecting dichotomies of classical/jazz and composer/pianist  – at their fundament lie on a spectrum defined by their deployment of clock time versus imaginary time.

When composing, the imaginary time I inhabit means that I can write the third movement of my cello concerto before the first, I can take three weeks to compose three minutes of music and I can reverse the arrow of time and watch the music de-compose before my eyes as I screw up rejected pages. Being in imaginary time rather than clock time benefits particular areas of music-making: counterpoint, formal design and concoctions of instrumental colour come to mind. Creating music in real time as a performer – where that kind of non-linearity doesn’t apply – has its own strong cards, for example rhythmic and pitch subtleties that can’t be readily notated and all the opportunities arising from a much-sought-after reflective sensitivity to the present moment and space.  The role of improvisation in performance is simply a matter of degree –  all performers make decisions in real time so in that sense all are improvisers in some way and certainly the primary part of what they do unfolds in clock time, unlike composers. This kind of virtual time/clock time dynamic is similarly played out in terms of emphasis across the classical/jazz divide as well the composer/performer one.

There are other areas of focus in music-making where this clock distinction is borne out too. It’s inherent in the difference between a live and a studio recording. And it’s germane to the whole business of preparing music through practice and rehearsal and to the process of programming repertoire. In the recording studio, rehearsal studio, practice room – and when deciding on repertoire or drawing up a set list – the performer too can work within something like the imaginary time of the composer, honing a musical object (or objects) while outside the time-flow of their ultimate realisation.

A lot of my projects are at the extremes of this clock time/imaginary time spectrum. When I compose an orchestral work I have maximal imaginary time. When I perform an entirely extemporised solo piano recital the music’s realisation maps to the clock as fully as it ever could. These extremes can in turn be moderated: a studio recording of a series of solo piano extemporisations allows more imaginary time than the recital since takes can be discarded or re-ordered.

I enjoy all these polarities and increments for their own sake. I like going to the extremes or having a lopsided bias toward one end or the other at different times in my work. All the models instantly create a framework that has its own characteristic ethos and that’s a very liberating place to begin. The thing about the Resurgence project is that it seems to sit exactly at the centre and from there encompass the whole spectrum. Through-composition and free improvisation. The freest rubato and the tightest of pulse. Studio recording and live recording. Touring band and studio band. Intensely-rehearsed passages and unrehearsed passages. It’s all over the clock. Concomitantly it’s also my most varied project in terms of subsumed genres, containing elements of jazz, classical, R&B, soul, gospel, Latin, blues. ambient and rock. It’s simultaneously an acoustic and electric band both in instrumentation and soundworld. Its dynamic range is singularly wide, from passages revolving around nothing more than isolated monophonic high ppp solo piano notes to densely drawn electric guitar-driven rock.

The reason why the Resurgence project is so flexible is the skill-set of the players I chose – all able to improvise freely in a wide range of genres but also capable of executing and interpreting complex notated music  – and the nature of the instrumentation itself. Piano-based solos, duos and trios in jazz are great for spontaneous combustions in clock time but I have never been that interested in preparing the way by composing much for them. There’s the lack of instrumental variety and the fact that the piano is generally always the main voice. Part of my joy in composing is hearing other instrumentalists play my melodies and therefore in my solo piano jazz spots and the trios I have either improvised freely or interpreted the melodies of others.

In 1997 I formed a quartet and began to compose more seriously for it. The quartet recorded a CD On Reflection with guitarist James Muller as guest artist on one track only. I soon realised that the quintet format opened up many more possibilities by having both guitar and saxophone out the front. James Muller himself encapsulated the sort of freedom I was after: a consummate improviser who could also interpret a written melody or passage-work beautifully (all making for an enduring collaboration between us of nearly fifteen years and five recordings to date). In 2000 I released the quintet recording Closer internationally on Naxos with the On Reflection quartet plus James Muller. This quintet was really the forerunner to the Resurgence project, obviously in instrumentation but also in aesthetic. I realised that five players was the perfect fulcrum on the axis. Not only were smaller groups less conducive to imaginary-time pre-composition, but larger ensembles than five reduced opportunities for clock-time improvisational flexibility. The quintet was the sweet spot.

The first Resurgence release was a studio recording by a non-working band tackling the repertoire for the first time. James Muller and I travelled to Los Angeles and recorded Resurgence after one rehearsal with some heavyweight American players that we’d never played with before in that configuration. I formed the all-Australian Mark Isaacs Resurgence Band to tour in the wake of that release and immediately wrote a new repertoire for it so the Australian players wouldn’t feel they were substituting for the Americans on the same material. As this was a working band the material evolved on the road in the light of the performances.  I’d often make changes to the arrangements on the fly (sometimes literally, bringing these ideas up when our aeroplane seatbelts clicked in before takeoff). The second release Tell It Like It Is was diametrically different to Resurgence. A live concert recording by a working band tackling repertoire frequently performed previously. The third and most recent recording Aurora was yet another permutation. It was a studio recording by a working band playing frequently performed repertoire (and I also included a DVD of Tell It Like It Is with the release enabling instant comparisons of the live/studio dynamic).  To go something of the full circle I hope to take the Resurgence Band back into the recording studio but this time to tackle never-performed repertoire (in other words replicating the modus operandi of the original Australian-American recording but with a working band). [This subsequently occurred in December 2012 and the resulting CD Duende was released in 2013].

All of these permutations have their own characteristics and advantages both in what they offer and in indeed what they lack. Studio recordings go right out of clock time: on two tracks of Aurora James Muller recorded both acoustic and electric guitar tracks and on another track Matt Keegan overdubbed shaker against his saxophone. Touring the material can refine the arrangement and energise the performance but there’s something special about bringing unperformed new material into the studio – the restraint and concentration involved brings its own rewards. (Similarly, at times I’ve thought the very best rendition I’ve given of a particular classical piece was when I sight-read it for the first time, with all my antennae by necessity out for its every twist and turn and no chance of any kind of glibly familiar moves). The energy of a live recording is hard to replicate in a sustained way in a recording studio (though there can be very many glimpses of it) and releasing a studio recording after a live one (or indeed, together with it as I have done) can mean some critics and fans familiar with the live release hold it against you, apparently not feeling as I do that the extra polish and restraint of the studio has its own balancing beauty .

I think I have eschewed the traditional swing feel of jazz in the Resurgence project because the weight of tradition it carries did not serve my purpose in this instance. Similarly, in terms of the compositional frameworks I use in Resurgence (which in turn mandate passages of improvisation within them) I have strenuously found ways to vary – and indeed avoid – the traditional head-solos-head formal design that tends to accompany swing. I’ve also worked on the macro level of programming – both in recordings and performances – so that the individual pieces fit together as suites (and I even pay attention to how the key centres of each piece progress).

Between the Shores, Night Song: Part 1 and Good Tidings are wholly through-composed pieces that contain no improvised solos. The music that the saxophone and guitar play is entirely notated from beginning to end. The figurations of the accompaniments played by the piano, double bass and drumset are mostly improvised from a lead sheet containing the melody lines and chord symbols. This is analogous to a Baroque instrumentalist improvising accompanying figurations from a figured bass line. It’s an important distinction, not all improvisations are “solos” and the absence of the latter in these two pieces by Resurgence is very unusual in jazz.

I have also avoided solos per se by having a collective improvisation, as takes place in the coda of Bagatelle where concurrent solo lines are tossed around between the performers. In Emergence I experimented with having James Muller and Matt Keegan trading improvised solos of only 8-bars each (this is more customary in jazz when it involves trading with the drums).

I don’t avoid solos however, far from it, but I sometimes find other ways to break the paradigm. In Tell It Like It Is and For the Road all five members of the band solo but not in turn. An interlude consisting of a restatement of the head is interspersed between each solo in almost all cases. Call it my jazz take on rondo form if you will.

Another idea was to have three statements of the melody in turn, each by a different lead instrument adding its own colouration and dynamic posture to the mix. I did this in You Never Forget Love and Aurora. For some reason there seems to be an unwritten rule in jazz that you generally only get to hear a melody twice in a row. In Aurora the three melody statements are in different keys too, each a major third apart (and the solos are based a pedal tones also a major third apart). It’s surprising how little modulation is used in jazz, particularly instances of presenting the same material in a different key.

In the area of counterpoint I often use written counter-melodies and in Night Song: Part 1 and Walk a Golden Mile I used canons between the guitar and saxophone. In the former case the canon is at the unison and the half-beat, a device I learned from the Goldberg Variations.

Another device I have used is to create effectively a three-movement work proceeding attacca (without a break). I did this with Night Song: Part 1/Night Song: Part 2/Angel and Good Tidings/Emergence/Threnody. Within these triptychs I like to introduce a bridging passage of freely extemporised solo piano (in the second set when it’s a live performance). I see the solo piano free improvisations as running the spectrum from the through-composed pieces, or from passages like the piano opening theme statement of Will-o’-the-wisp which is fully written out for both hands of the piano and indeed has a separate life as a classical piano solo.

My approach to writing the band’s material and rehearsing it has been a hybrid of my classical and jazz experiences. In terms of notation sometimes dynamics are on the page or otherwise the band’s use of dynamics arises spontaneously or might be subtly directed by me from the piano (as are the rubato passages). There are two areas in the relationship between a composer and an improvising jazz musician that have proved sensitive in the past. One is the ways in which one as composer provides a preset framework for improvised solos and the other is the question of verbal versus written direction of solos. Neither of these is contentious in classical music: you can write what you like and conductors, ensemble leaders and others give or share verbal directions as needed.

In the past I’ve found it odd that a jazz soloist will accept from me a highly complex harmonic structure to solo on without complaint and spend many hours practising how to negotiate the changes. That same musician may however think it an impingement of soloistic freedom to actually have total licence over the harmonic area throughout the solo via a pedal point but to be asked to follow a dynamic curve as the only given in the solo.  It seems incongruous as the former case of a harmonic minefield is in reality much more restrictive. However there is in jazz a firm tradition of soloists following the harmonic templates of others but not really any for dictates regarding dynamics (other than in written passages). In the Resurgence Band we worked that kind of thing out just fine. In Aurora Tim Firth’s drum solo ends with a pianissimo entry by guitar and sax and it was necessary for me to ask that his solo end softly to accommodate this (despite the drummer tradition of ending a solo by going out with a bang!).

Similarly, nobody in the Resurgence Band seems to take issue with verbal direction in place of written direction in rehearsal. In a previous band I had charted the bass player as doing an introductory solo based over C for a piece in C minor. He played in the Dorian mode and upon hearing it I realised that something based around the blues scale would set up the melody better. So I asked him to use the blues scale and he replied “I thought it was my solo!”. I know for a fact that had I written in the first place “Solo – C blues scale” on his part there would have been no issue at all. The problem was with the same instruction regarding a solo being issued verbally rather than in writing.  These apparent anomalies arise from different performance practice traditions.

There’s certainly an intersection of performance practice traditions in the Resurgence project along with all the other intersections arising from the compositions, modes of recording, ways of deploying material and band formation. It’s been I think one of the central achievements of my musical output and certainly my most substantial and concentrated opus in jazz to date.

Resurgence Discography 2007-2013

Mark Isaacs Resurgence (2007, ABC/Universal 476 6160)
Mark Isaacs, piano  James Muller, electric & acoustic guitar  Bob Sheppard or Steve Tavaglione, soprano, alto & tenor saxophones   Jay Anderson, bass  Vinnie Colaiuta, drums
Walk a Golden MileWaltz for MelanieThree Days of RainAffectionately YoursChaconneResurgencePentimentoHeal Thyself

Mark Isaacs Resurgence Band Tell It Like It Is (2009, ABC/Universal 270 3869)
Mark Isaacs, piano  James Muller, guitar  Matt Keegan, soprano & tenor saxophones  Brett Hirst, bass  Tim Firth, drums
MinskYou Never Forget Love Homecoming Night Song: Part 1Night Song: Part 2Angel Tell It Like It IsBetween the Shores

Mark Isaacs Resurgence Band Aurora (2010, Gracemusic/MGM GR003, includes Bonus DVD of Tell It Like It Is)
Mark Isaacs, piano  James Muller, electric & acoustic guitars  Matt Keegan, soprano & tenor saxophones, shaker  Brett Hirst, bass  Tim Firth, drums
Will-o’-the-wispGood TidingsEmergenceThrenodyFor the RoadBagatelleAurora

Resurgence Duende (2013, Gracemusic/MGM GR004)
Mark Isaacs, piano  James Muller, guitar  Matt Keegan, soprano & tenor saxophones  Brett Hirst, bass  Tim Firth, drums  Briana Cowlishaw, vocal
First Light – You Never Forget Love Duende The Beloved – Dolce – New Lives Gnosis – Duende (solo reprise) – You Never Forget Love (extended mix)