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