Isham, Abbey & Jackie: The Old-School Score for ‘42’

Jun 1, 2013 9:00 AM, Mix, By Matt Hurwitz

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The movie '42'

When Jackie Robinson took the field as the first African-American baseball player in the major leagues in 1947, it was a momentous event in baseball—and American—history. Moviegoers reliving that moment in director Brian Helgeland’s April release, 42 (Warner Bros.), will get a little extra push from composer Mark Isham into how they perceive Robinson’s experience.

“I never like to overplay anything or manipulate an audience with music,” the composer tells Mix. “I like to feel the audience is with me, maybe ahead of me. I’m just supporting what they’re feeling, goosing them just a touch, so that they never even realize it.”

For the film, Isham created a near-minimal score (appropriately, 42 minutes’ worth) based on, and recorded with, an old-school approach. “I was looking for an old-fashioned score, certainly orchestral, with a recurring theme,” Helgeland says. “I’ve always found Mark’s music both masculine and very romantic, in the larger sense of the word. We punctuate the action and play the suspense here and there, but I wanted a score that followed Jack Roosevelt Robinson’s journey in the larger sense, and Mark absolutely achieved this.”

Composer Mark Isham

Composer Mark Isham

“It became very clear that the score needed to be old-time filmmaking,” Isham adds. “One that could be very small and very intimate, but then, at the end, rise up to the momentous quality of the way Brian shot the ending.”

Themes for Robinson feature French horns, accented for special moments by a solo trumpet, while those for his wife, Rachel, are based around piano, sometimes augmented by clarinets. The score was recorded in late January by veteran engineer Peter Cobbin at Abbey Road Studios’ Studio One in London. Five sessions were held over two-and-a-half days, mostly with a 50-piece orchestra but sometimes with a 65-piece group brought in for bigger cues. It was mixed shortly thereafter at Studio Santa Barbara in Southern California by mixer Dennis Sands, a longtime Isham collaborator.

While Isham had recorded scores for The Black Dahlia and Rules of Engagement at Abbey Road, he had never worked with Cobbin prior to 42. Isham established early on that he wanted to stick with a traditional live recording, instead of recording in separate groups—something Cobbin welcomed and Sands endorsed.

Peter Cobbin, Mark Isham and orchestrator Brad Dechter

Peter Cobbin, Mark Isham and orchestrator Brad Dechter

“If you want that really beautiful orchestral sound that gives you size and dimension, you need to record the room,” Sands says. “And in order to do that, you have to be really cognizant of the dynamics of the room. Pete’s been working in Studio One for a very long time—he knows that room. He did a beautiful job.”

Studio One has two qualities that are unique to the studio and help give the space its signature sound, Cobbin says. “There is an immediate sound that feels very generous, along with an after-sound which is incredibly warm. It’s a sound that works well for both a solo instrument, as well as a large ensemble, like an orchestra. Even though it’s not the biggest stage in the world, it gives the music a unique, cinematic quality.”

Recording live requires particular skill in balancing the orchestra during the recording. “Once upon a time, at Abbey Road, we were called ‘balance engineers,’” Cobbin explains. “Before technology got too involved, balancing was really what happened in the room—you balanced the musicians to achieve a sound. You ask the musicians to change their level, instead of reaching for a fader. So, in a sense, you’re mixing as you record. And the goal, for an all-up live recording, is to try and get it to sound as if you were listening in a great spot in the room itself.”






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