During the 1980s my musical tastes were expanding from a core of pure electronic and space music into the “New Age” genre. Some of my favorite electronic and instrumental-only artists were also exploring this new branch of meditative type of music as well. Among those were Kitaro, David Lanz, Klaus Schulze, Shadowfax, David Arkenstone, Isao Tomita, Tangerine Dream, Jean-Michel Jarre, Wendy Carlos, Philip Aaberg, and James Asher. Some newly emerging talent came bubbling up into my field of attention, too. Some of the most compelling music was headlined by Mark Isham.
The New Age classification is one of those that is deeply loved. The New Age genre features a long roster of very talented and open minded musicians. The category also suffers ridicule because of its plethora of mediocre and bad “tinkly” music.
New Age music grew up around, but was not directly connected to the New Age spiritual movement. Like the spiritual movement, the musical roots were centered around the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles. From those bases, it then expanded eastward.
As a marketing category, New Age music was first pigeon-holed in Mountain View, California. As a media phenomenon, numerous radio stations adopted a New Age/Light Jazz format. Beginning the trend was L.A. rock station KMET. In February of 1987, the station shifted gears to full-on New Age. They premiered their new call letters, KTWV and the slogan “The Wave”. Special market New Age programs also helped push the new genre, too. Noteworthy were “Music From The Hearts Of Space”, on NPR; “Musical Starstreams” by Forest; and “Echoes” by John Dilberto.
New Age’s golden age was the late 1980s into the early 1990s. New Age and “Adult-Alternative” radio became a worldwide force and at least 150 independent record labels fueled the movement. It was in this heady environment that emerging artists had to really stand out.
The birth of New Age also intersected with the growing popularity of the Compact Disc. While I was feverishly adding to my personal collection of Compact Discs, New Age music had become my genre of choice.
It was in 1985 that I discovered a Mark Isham CD on Windham Hill. “Film Music” wowed me over for two reasons. The music itself was masterful and some of its tracks included music from the movie, “The Times of Harvey Milk”.
Fellow New Age music fans were also buying Isham’s CDs and his titles continued to receive airplay on radio and the specialty programs. One, in particular, seemed to get airplay. It was Isham’s soundtrack music for the movie, “Tibet”. I consider this album as a high water mark for the New Age genre.
Mark Ware Isham was born in New York City on September 7, 1941 to violinist Patricia and professor Howard Isham. His website states that the young Mark was exposed to a wide variety of music through his musician parents. He began formal lessons in piano and violin, but the trumpet soon became his favorite instrument.
When Mark was 15, the Isham family relocated to San Francisco. Soon he was booked in jazz venues. At the same time he performed with the San Francisco and Oakland Symphony Orchestras. In 1978, he formed a short-lived combo called “Group 87”. His prolific musical talent next found expression in electronic music. Isham’s debut solo record, “Vapor Drawings”, garnered critical praise.
Isham’s talent and connections next impressed film director Carroll Ballard. Ballard inked Mark Isham to compose soundtrack music for the Disney film, “Never Cry Wolf”. Some of the movie’s music is also included in Isham’s “Film Music” album.
Ever since his first movie contract, Isham’s career has never slowed down. The list of his many film works includes several popular movies. A few of them are: “Made in Heaven”, “A River Runs Through It”, “Made In America”, “Home For The Holidays”, “Breakfast Of Champions”, “Rules of Engagement”, “Save The Last Dance”, “Twisted”, “The Mist”, “Fame”, “The Lucky One”, and “42”. In addition to film, you have probably heard Mark Isham music on television and didn’t know it.
His efforts have earned Isham a Clio, an Emmy, and Grammy awards. Because of his compositions and performances, Isham has garnered multiple Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations. He was also recognized with ASCAP’s “Henry Mancini Award for Lifetime Achievement.
These days, it’s difficult to pin down Mark Isham’s genre. He has collaborated with such talents as Chick Corea, Robert Redford, Sting, Mick Jagger, Robert Altman, Bruce Springsteen, Willie Nelson, Chris Isaak, and Joni Mitchell.
In short, Mark Isham’s music is some of the most pure, original, and expansive ever. He might be one of the most famous, prolific musicians you never heard of, until now.