Mark Isaacs – Serving the Melody

by John Shand
Mark Isaacs will be performing with his trio at Wangaratta Festival of Jazz and Blues

Birth of a Composer

Mark Isaacs | Photo supplied
Mark Isaacs | Photo supplied

Mark Isaacs was bored stupid. Aged 12, he was sitting in a music class in his first year of high school, listening to information that was already absurdly elementary to him. ‘I’d been a complete pain in the arse to the music teacher,’ he recalls, ‘showing off my perfect pitch and all this stuff.’ He remembers the music teacher saying, ‘Isaacs, don’t just sit there looking bored. Why don’t you write something?’

Isaacs, who had never composed anything beyond ‘silly songs’ with his brother, promptly wrote a sarabande: ‘I spent the next half hour sitting at a desk writing it on manuscript paper. At the end of the class the music teacher said, “What did you do?” And he played it on the piano, and said, “It’s really, really good.” And that was it for me. That was the moment.’

This was a genuine epiphany in the sense that Isaacs instantly knew that composing would be central to his life. He had already been improvising on jazz standards since the age of about eight, having jazz musicians in his family. But music had been more playful than serious until that moment when he heard his Saraband.

‘The reason it was an epiphany,’ Isaacs continues, ‘was that I was impressed by the piece when he played it. But that’s part of it for any artist. I thought, “Oh, shit, I wrote that!” And I suppose I’d never been impressed by anything I’d done before then. It sounds silly.’

In fact it does not sound silly at all, especially given the substantial body of work that was to follow, culminating in Isaacs’ Symphony No 1 being performed by the Queensland Symphony Orchestra last year, and his current engagement in writing a second one. ‘I instantly wanted to write a symphony.’ he says. ‘That was the first thing I wanted to do in music. That was all I wanted to do. I didn’t want to play the piano. I was going to be a composer. I was devouring orchestration books at 13, and I’d written two miniature piano concertos by about the age of 14 or 15.’

His first jazz composition came along at about 15, while studying big-band arranging with the late Bill Motzing at Sydney Conservatorium. Among his earliest pieces for small ensemble was ‘Indian Hemp’, performed by Compared To What, the band of the late jazz singer Kerrie Biddell – a band Isaacs would later join. The urge to perform began when, in his mid-teens, he sought relief from the loneliness of composing. Playing, by contrast, attracted listeners, attracted people. ‘I started to like the extrovert side of playing,’ he says. ‘I realised that it was a sort of a social bridge for me. Then I started to take my playing very seriously from about the age of 15, and in my later teens I did a lot of heavy classical study.’

Twin Careers

So by the time he turned 20 his palm was etched with a future as both player and composer, as jazz artist and classical. This puts Isaacs in a very select company – Don Banks, Bruce Cale, Phil Treloar, Mike Nock and Paul Grabowksy come to mind – of Australian artists whose work has been taken seriously in both idioms, and he sees the twin careers as being mutually beneficial.

‘I think that’s ended up being my sound,’ he says of the duality. ‘In my late 30s and 40s I was much more ambitious as a jazz player. I never actually stopped writing classical pieces, but I didn’t do quite as many, and I find in my 50s I’m much more focused on larger works, and don’t really mind too much if my jazz career and performing career isn’t that active… But it all probably averages out to about 50/50. I think that is the making of what I am as a musician: I’m equally a classical and jazz musician…

‘What I do with my classical writing is take in a lot of things that I’ve learned from jazz, particularly rhythmic and harmonic devices that are indigenous to the art-form. So in some ways I can be an agent of cross-fertilisation there. In some ways the best thing about my jazz playing is that I learn something that I can apply to my classical playing. I will think that when I feel either the least happy about my jazz playing, or morose about my non-existent jazz career! I will think it doesn’t matter, because the primary goal is this [composing].’

Isaacs is fascinated by the relationships between improvising and composing. ‘The constraint of improvisation,’ he explains, ‘is that it must unfold in real time, and it’s nice to be free of it sometimes… What I love about not improvising is that my ideas are allowed to unfold in however long they take. I can go back, I can retract, I can throw away… But there are cameos of improvisation within that.’ He concedes that composing too, has its restraints, and that ‘there’s a whole bunch of things that improvisation does really well that you can’t notate.’

The Composer at Work

Isaacs never wakes up with a new melody in his head, and is not one to wait for inspiration. ‘I’m the sort of person who turns the faucets,’ he says. ‘Nothing happens before then. I’ve got a life to live… I never compose when I’m walking or doing anything else. I only compose when I’m composing.’
He sketches at the piano and then orchestrates within a computer notation program, the two stages being quite distinct. ‘I work at the piano,’ he explains, ‘because some momentary improvisatory gestures are embedded in the writing, but… I might be writing an orchestral piece and I might realise that are going to be little woodwind flurries overlaying this primary material. There’s no need to work out the details of the woodwind flurries at that point, however. I can do it at the next stage.’

Queensland Symphony Orchestra | photo supplied
Queensland Symphony Orchestra | photo supplied

He disagrees that form is in any way more intellectual or less emotional than melody. ‘Structure supports melody,’ he suggests. ‘The whole emotional impact of a symphony turns on how it’s structured, I would argue. Of course it turns on the material, but they’re equal partners… You build towards a climax and you let it fall away, and create an anticlimax. It’s a structural device, but the effect is emotional.’

This also applies to the material he wrote for the Resurgence Band, his main jazz project from 2006 until about 18 months ago. ‘One of the interesting things I notice about jazz is that material is rarely presented in a different key,’ he observes. ‘The songs have modulations within the melody. It goes through various keys, and it comes back to the home key, so it’s a big circle. What’s interesting is you might have a 17- or 18-minute piece that stays fundamentally in the same home. Whereas in classical writing you present the same material in different keys. That’s one of the things I did in the Resurgence Band, too. [Guitarist] James [Muller] would play the melody, then [saxophonist] Matt [Keegan] would play the melody, but in a different key, afterwards. That’s a structural device, but the melody is lit in a whole different way when you do that. So everything serves melody, I think.’

He says that he does not write melodies for specific players, but he does create solo spaces that are specific to them in terms of placement and length. ‘In other words I’m writing for the players most when I’m not writing for them: their decisions about embedding their improvisations, and the functions of their improvisations relate much more to their individuality than the melodies I write for them.’


His current band has singer Briana Cowlishaw, bassist Brett Hirst and drummer Tim Firth. Rather than original material the essence of the repertoire is re-imagined versions of songs by the likes of the Beatles, Stevie Wonder or Joni Mitchell, which they will perform at the Wangaratta Festival’s Cup Eve Concert.


Mark Isaacs on the web
Wangaratta Festival of Jazz and Blues