Born in New York, NY; son of professional violin players; married Margaret Johnstone. Addresses: Management--Vector Management, P.O. Box 128037, Nashville, TN 37212.

It is not surprising that versatile composer and recording artist Mark Isham, born into a family of musicians in New York City, chose to pursue a career in music. Both of his parents played violin professionally, and Isham began studying classical piano, violin, and trumpet as a child. By the age of 12, he performed his debut as a professional trumpet player with a small symphony orchestra.

When Isham started high school, he expanded his musical interests into jazz. While he was in his late teens, he and his family moved to the San Francisco Bay area, where Isham played trumpet with the Oakland Symphony Orchestra, San Francisco Symphony, San Francisco Opera, and a diverse range of contemporary jazz and rock bands. He performed with the Beach Boys, Esther Phillips, Charles Lloyd, Horace Silver, Pharoah Sanders, and Dave Liebman, then recorded and toured with the Sons of Champlin. Before long, Isham discovered yet another area of music--electronics. "It was about '74 or '75," the musician recalled in Billboard. "I had joined the Sons of Champlin, and it was there that I found the impetus to go out and buy one of the first ARP Odysseys [music equipment]."

In 1976 Isham joined pianist Art Lande to form an acoustic ensemble called Rubisa Patrol, and they released a self-titled album on ECM Records. Two years later, Rubisa Patrol recorded Desert Marauders on ECM. "That became the first really exciting learning experience for me," Isham remarked in Down Beat about working with Rubisa Patrol. "The whole way that band worked together was at a much higher level than anything else I had done before."

Isham performed with Van Morrison as a member of the musician's stage and studio bands on the 1979 album Into the Music. Along with guitarist Peter Maunu, synthesist Patrick O'Hearn, and drummer Terry Bozzio, Isham formed the fusion band Group 87 that same year. The band released their self-titled debut on Columbia Records in 1980, on which they explored strict composition and veered away from improvisation.

Van Morrison asked Isham to make return appearances on his subsequent releases Common One and Beautiful Vision in 1980 and 1982, respectively. But in 1983, Isham made the move from sideman to leader with debuts in two genres. He released his first solo LP on Windham Hill Records, Vapor Drawings, then received his first credit as a film composer for the music in Caroll Ballard's film Never Cry Wolf.

Isham next joined Van Morrison on two more albums--Inarticulate Speech of the Heart and Live at the Belfast Opera House. This time, however, Isham collaborated with Morrison on some of the songwriting. Though Isham had garnered a fair amount of writing and performing credits, financial success had yet to hit. At the time, the musician lived in a leaky, two-bedroom basement apartment in Sausalito, California, working as hard as he could to make things happen.

Group 87 released their second album in 1984, A Career in Dada Processing, on Capitol Records. Isham also scored music for the films Mrs. Soffel and The Life and Times of Harvey Milk, which won an Academy Award for best documentary. He also created a new partnership with Japanese singer David Sylvian on the album Brilliant Trees.

By 1985 Isham had done enough film scoring that Windham Hill Records decided to release some of his compositions on the compilation Film Music. A year later, Island released his score for the movie Trouble in Mind on a soundtrack. Isham also provided music for The Hitcher.

After Isham had produced two solo albums for Art Lande, the two decided to renew their performing partnership on a duo recording called We Begin in 1987. Isham also composed the music for Made in Heaven, released as a soundtrack on Elektra Records. Then, adding more work to his already active year, he teamed up with David Sylvian once again for the album Secrets of the Beehive and collaborated with David Torn on Cloud About Mercury.

Moving to a record company with bigger distribution, Isham came out with his next solo LP on Virgin Records, Castalia, which received a Grammy Award nomination in 1988. Success had finally arrived, but Isham didn't slow down. "I don't suffer from these new diseases they're dreaming up about yuppie workaholism," Isham told Chris Morris in Billboard. "I just enjoy it. For a long time, I didn't [make] any inroads into the mainstream or even [earn enough money] to pay the rent on time. In the last five or six years, that has changed. And I'm relishing the fact that it's changed."

Isham scored the music for the film The Moderns, which was released by Virgin Records and won the 1988 Los Angeles Critics Award for best score. Working continually as always, Isham also scored The Beast, a movie based on the former Soviet Union's incursion into Afghanistan. A review of the album in Keyboard noted, "The Beast aches with the sorrow of war, tempered by Asian vocal modalities and instrumentation. Yet, Isham blends these disparate elements into a linear flow, suggesting that the emotions underlying all the musics of the world are deeper than the stylistic differences his vision so easily absorbs."

Isham continued his collaborations, working with Patrick O'Hearn on Ancient Dream, Rivers Gonna Rise, and Eldorado, and with Was (Not Was) on their What' Up Dog? album. Also in 1989, Isham worked with XTC on Oranges and Lemons.

Isham released his next solo album on Windham Hill, Tibet, which earned the musician a Grammy Award nomination. In 1990 he returned with another album on Virgin Records, called simply Mark Isham, which included guest performances from Tanita Tikaram and Chick Corea. With the songs on his self-titled LP, Isham strove to close the gap between popular music and alternative progressive music.

Isham continued his film scoring with the composition for Reversal of Fortune, and in 1990, the American Film Critics named him, along with Ennio Morricone and John Williams, one of their three choices for the best film music of the 1980s. "It's something that seemed very natural to me," Isham commented in Billboard, referring to his film work, "and the way I think about music--what I ask the musical experience to be, what I ask myself to put into music and ask music to then pass on to the audience. There's a relationship to size and space and scope and depth and color."

Isham returned to the group format when he launched the Mark Isham Jazz Band to provide him with an outlet to play acoustic jazz again. Then, in 1991--the same year he earned a Grammy Award for best new age artist--he released another solo album on Windham Hill Records, Songs My Children Taught Me. Isham had originally written the four suites that make up the LP for a series of children's audio and video recordings based on classic children's stories. He assembled different groups to invoke different periods and cultures from ancient China to Renaissance England.

Throughout the early to mid-1990s, Isham focused mainly on film scoring. He wrote the music for the motion pictures Point Break, Crooked Hearts, Mortal Thoughts, Freejack, Billy Bathgate, Little Man Tate, Fire in the Sky, and Made in America and received a 1993 Academy Award nomination for the music to A River Runs Through It. Traversing genres and mediums, Isham continued generating music at a startling rate. His love for music has seen him through tireless work in the industry and myriad experiments with sound and direction.

by Sonya Shelton

Mark Isham's Career

Made debut as professional trumpet player at the age of 12; moved to San Francisco as a teenager and performed with the Oakland Symphony Orchestra, San Francisco Symphony, San Francisco Opera, and area bands; performed with artists Rubisa Patrol, 1976-78; Group 87, 1979-84; and Van Morrison, 1980-1983; signed with Windham Hill Records, recorded first solo LP, Vapor Drawings, and scored first film, Never Cry Wolf, 1983.

Mark Isham's Awards

Grammy Award nomination for Castalia and Los Angeles Critics Award for best score for The Moderns, both 1988; Grammy Award nomination for Tibet; Grammy Award, 1991, for best New Age artist; Academy Award nomination for best film score, 1993, for A River Runs Through It.

Famous Works

Recent Updates

June 7, 2005: The soundtrack for the film Crash, which includes compositions by Isham, was released. Source:,, June 7, 2005.

Further Reading


Visitor Comments Add a comment…

about 16 years ago

I have been trying to locate an album / song that Mark wrote for an IMAX movie back in the early 90's. I can't remember the name of the movie, something about "Man", but there was a song that played during that movie that I haven't been able to locate. I beleive the name of the song was "Clouds in the Sky" but am not for certain if that was the name of the album or the song. I've been looking for years and have had no luck. Today I thought about looking for it online and found your sight. If you can help me locate this album, I would truly love to hear that song again. That movie had so many beautiful songs on it but this one in particular was very moving. Thank you for your help, Marcia Haske Oak Harbor WA