Rachel Portman Steps Away From The Screen With 'Ask The River'

May 21, 2020
Originally published on May 21, 2020 7:42 pm

Rachel Portman has been scoring films since the 1980s, and in 1997 became the first woman ever to win an Oscar for best original score for her work on Douglas McGrath's Emma. Since then, Portman has scored dozens more films and TV shows, but is now stepping away from the screen with ask the river, her first album of music not written for a movie, TV show or stage production.

"There were hardly any female film composers," Portman says of winning an Oscar at that time.

"And even though I never paid any attention to people who said, 'Gosh, but you're a woman,' " she says, "I think, having won that Oscar, it really helped me in terms of getting over people who might have been a bit more reticent about hiring me."

YouTube

Emma's director Douglas McGrath had heard her work in a British miniseries, and he was impressed.

"She writes character music," McGrath says. "She's not just writing theme music that you can kind of pour all over a movie."

After Emma, Rachel Portman earned two more Oscar nominations, for The Cider House Rules (1999) and Chocolat (2000), and became in demand for period dramas and literary adaptations. She says that sometimes the reputation she developed from those dramas has made it difficult for her to convince directors to allow her to branch out.

"And of course, I love it when I haven't been pigeonholed. But on big films, there's always a lot riding on it. Naturally, they want to make sure that they've got someone whose voice resonates, they think, with the film," she says, which "can sometimes be frustrating."

"If I'm working on a film that, say, needs a very 'masculine' sounding music, I have to work harder to convince directors that I'm perfectly capable of having my own response to the same thing."

YouTube

McGrath himself discovered just how versatile Rachel Portman is when they reunited for the 2006 film Infamous, about Truman Capote and the murders that sparked his book, In Cold Blood.

"You wouldn't think, necessarily, that she would have music in her to underscore, for instance, a murder scene," he remembers. "I never imagined she would go as deep and as dark as she did. I knew she would come up with something very feeling and intelligent. But I was just kind of thunderstruck. She just presents as such a gracious, lovely person — but there's stuff going on in there."

Rachel Portman grew up in the southern part of England and started playing piano as a young girl. She scored her first film in college at Oxford, and the cassette found its way to producer David Puttnam, who gave Portman her first professional scoring job on the movie Experience Prefered ... But Not Essential when she was 22.

"I'm always fascinated by the alchemy of putting music against the moving image," Portman says. "There's a big part of me that enjoys dramatizing, and is interested in defining emotions, and then being able to express them — but very specific ones. I feel like I'm like a storyteller, but in music."

Portman has written music away from the screen before, including an opera, a musical and an oratorio for children's choir in response to climate change. And that concern led her to ask the river: a collection of intimate pieces for violin, cello, and piano.

YouTube

"The first piece I wrote, I think, was 'leaves and trees,' which was really a challenge to myself, to write the connection I felt standing underneath a big tree full of leaves in the breeze and wanting to communicate that," she says. "And before I knew it, I wanted to write more."

Unlike her work for film, these pieces don't have a narrative.

"It's a bit like having a sounding board to bounce ideas off, having a text or having a film," Portman says. "And I didn't have that. I just had to fall back on myself."

That means this is some of the most personal music Portman has written. She even played the piano herself, which she's never done on a recording. The album has a slightly melancholy hue, although Portman herself disputes that description.

"I tend to gravitate towards minor keys, just because that's... where I find my voice in music," she says. "I wonder if it's reflective. But I hope, in no way, that that makes the listener feel melancholic."

When he weighs in on the subject, Douglas McGrath, her frequent collaborator, quotes a line about Truman Capote from the movie Infamous.

" 'When you look at a candle, at its bright flame, at the center there's always that little touch of blue,' " he says. "And I think that's true in Rachel's music."

Portman does acknowledge that she has a style, but she hopes it will be different for every project.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The first woman ever to win an Oscar for best original score was Rachel Portman in 1997. Since then, there have only been two more. Portman has been scoring films since the 1980s, but only now has she released an album of her own. Tim Greiving has the story.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "69TH ACADEMY AWARDS")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: And the Oscar goes to Rachel Portman for "Emma."

TIM GREIVING, BYLINE: It was an historic moment.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "69TH ACADEMY AWARDS")

RACHEL PORTMAN: I'd like to thank Doug McGrath. He's a wonderful person to work with. The producers of "Emma" - Harvey Weinstein and everyone at Miramax.

GREIVING: Some of those words have aged better than others. But then Weinstein has come to symbolize the sexism that has long plagued Hollywood, and Portman had to deal with her share.

PORTMAN: There were hardly any - well, virtually, none - female film composers. And even though I never paid any attention to people who said, gosh, you know, but you you're a woman, I think having won that Oscar, it really helped me in terms of getting over, you know, people who might have been a bit more reticent about hiring me.

GREIVING: "Emma's" director, Douglas McGrath, had heard her work in a British miniseries, and he was impressed.

DOUGLAS MCGRATH: She writes character music. She's not just writing theme music that you can kind of pour all over a movie.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREIVING: After "Emma," Rachel Portman earned two more Oscar nominations for The Cider House Rules and "Chocolat" and became in demand for period dramas and literary adaptations.

PORTMAN: And of course, I love it when I haven't been pigeonholed. But on big films, you know, there's always a lot riding on it. Naturally, they want to make sure that they've got someone whose voice resonates, they think, with the film.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

PORTMAN: Which can sometimes be frustrating if I'm working on a film that, say, needs a very masculine kind of sounding music, if one can say that. Yeah, I have to work harder to convince directors that, really, from my writing, I'm perfectly capable of having my own response to the same thing.

MCGRATH: You wouldn't think necessarily that she would have music in her to underscore, for instance, a murder scene.

GREIVING: Director Douglas McGrath discovered just how versatile Rachel Portman is when they reunited for the 2006 film "Infamous" about Truman Capote and the murders that sparked his book "In Cold Blood."

MCGRATH: I never imagined she would go as deep and as dark as she did. I knew she would come up with something very feeling and intelligent. But I was just kind of thunderstruck. She just presents as such a gracious, lovely person, but there's stuff going on in there.

(SOUNDBITE OF RACHEL PORTMAN'S "TRUMAN DECIDES TO OPEN UP/THE KILLINGS")

GREIVING: Rachel Portman grew up in the southern part of England and started playing piano as a young girl. She scored her first film in college at Oxford, and the cassette found its way to producer David Puttnam, who gave Portman her first professional scoring job when she was 22.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

PORTMAN: I'm always fascinated by the alchemy of putting music against the moving image. There's a big part of me that enjoys dramatizing and is interested in defining emotions and then being able to express them, but very specific ones. I feel like I'm like a storyteller but in music.

(SOUNDBITE OF RACHEL PORTMAN'S "LEAVES AND TREES")

GREIVING: She's written music away from the screen before, including an opera, a musical and an oratorio for children's choir in response to climate change. And that concern led her to her new album, a collection of intimate pieces for violin, cello and piano.

(SOUNDBITE OF RACHEL PORTMAN'S "LEAVES AND TREES")

PORTMAN: The first piece I wrote, I think, was "Leaves And Trees," which was really a challenge to myself to write the connection I felt standing underneath a big tree full of leaves in the breeze and wanting to communicate that. And before I knew it, I wanted to write more.

(SOUNDBITE OF RACHEL PORTMAN'S "LEAVES AND TREES")

GREIVING: Unlike her work for film, these pieces don't have a narrative.

PORTMAN: It's a bit like having a sounding board to bounce ideas off, having a text or having a film. And I didn't have that. I just had to fall back on myself.

GREIVING: Which means this is some of the most personal music Portman has written.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREIVING: She even played the piano herself, which she's never done on a recording. The album has a slightly melancholy hue, a description she disputes.

PORTMAN: I tend to gravitate towards minor modal keys and - just because that's where I find my voice in music. I wonder if it's reflective. But I hope, in no way, that that makes the listener feel melancholic.

GREIVING: Her frequent collaborator Douglas McGrath quotes a line about Truman Capote from the movie "Infamous."

MCGRATH: When you look at a candle, at its bright flame, at the center there's always that little touch of blue. And I think that's true in Rachel's music.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREIVING: Composer Rachel Portman acknowledges that she has a style, but she hopes it's different for every project.

For NPR News, I'm Tim Greiving in Los Angeles

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.