It may be either liberating or frustrating for a budding composer to hear that Rachel Portman has ‘never been particularly interested in the ‘technical’ side of music. Her declaration that ‘she’s largely unaware’ of key or time signatures, or even that she is ‘rubbish at theory’ has certainly never stood in the way of her becoming one of the UK’s most successful composers, with a string of accolades and seminal achievements to her name. In 1997 she became the first female composer to win an Academy Award for her score for ‘Emma’. In 2015, she also became the first female composer to win a Primetime Emmy Award, which she received for the film, ‘Bessie’. She received two further Academy Nominations for ‘The Cider House Rules’ and ‘Chocolat’. In 2010 she was awarded an OBE.
But perhaps, above all this, she has drawn of a legion of devoted fans who listen to her work independently of the films she composes for, and celebrate her music for the pure and raw emotion it elicits. Rachel’s heart-soaring score for the film ‘One Day’, (based on David Nicholls’ bestselling novel) captures sadness, regret and secret yearning. Although it’s become synonymous with the narrative of the ill-fated couple Dexter Mayhew and Emma Morley – played by Anne Hathaway and Jim Sturgess – the music has also taken on a life of its own that’s equally as moving as the story itself.
Her unique musical voice has opened up many other opportunities, aside from film composing, throughout her career – her opera ‘The Little Prince’ was premiered by Houston Grand Opera in 2003, and her choral work, ‘The Water Diviner’s Tale’ premiered at the BBC Proms in 2007.
Although she doesn’t describe her family as musical, it was her mother’s love of music that sparked her curiosity and encouraged her to experiment – as well as other positive influences in her childhood that included the composer Ben Mason, her older sister’s boyfriend at the time. She still expresses gratitude for her early opportunities – she attended Charterhouse, where a composer in residence took an interest in Rachel’s compositions, providing a ‘real injection of musical education at a critical time’.
It was her time studying music at the University of Oxford, with Robert Sherlaw Johnson that she found more ‘difficult’. She felt somewhat held back by his preference for a more ‘atonal’ style, which jarred with her melodic style.
But it was here she started writing music for her friends in the theatre and wrote the score for a short crowd-funded film called ‘Privileged’ featuring Hugh Grant, who was one of her contemporaries. Most importantly, this cemented her love for writing film music and she made up her mind to pursue this as a career.
However, Rachel had no specific qualifications to back up this experience and at the time there didn’t exist the film music composition courses there are today. But opportunities were opening up with the advent of innovative programming – it was the early ‘80s and Channel 4 was pioneering unconventional and challenging high quality drama. It was here she got her first break.
At Oxford, she’d met Alan Parker (director of ‘Bugsy Malone’ and ‘The Wall’) while attending one of his talks at a pub in the city. At that point, he was the only person she knew in film. She took a chance and passed him a cassette tape of her music for ‘Privileged’. He passed it on to David Puttnam, famous for producing Chariots of Fire. In a fortunate twist of fate for Rachel, he was having problems with the film, ‘Experience Preferred But Not Essential’, one of the films to be launched on Channel 4. He asked her for ideas. She returned a couple of days later with piano composition on a cassette. He loved what he heard and gave her two and a half weeks to complete a score. She looks back on this as a ‘generous and wonderful thing to do’, reflecting that it was a ‘remarkable chance to take’, not least because she knew nothing at the time about time codes, clicks, or how to put together a small orchestra.
It was the first of many television commissions that included ‘Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit’ before she went to Hollywood in the early ‘90s to write the music for her first feature ‘Used People’, directed by Beeban Kidron, who’d also directed ‘Oranges’. This opened up yet more opportunities and she went on to write the music for the quirky comedy romantic comedy ‘Benny and Joon’ and the film ‘Where Angels Fear to Tread’ based on the EM Forster novel.
She celebrates ‘incredible’ directors such as Jonathan Demme who provide ‘exciting new challenges’. She worked with him on the film ‘Beloved’, based on Toni Morrison’s novel exploring the slave trade in America. From the start, Jonathan asked her to write music without using any European or Western instruments. She says: “I was pushed out of my comfort zone and forced to do something completely different.” Jonathan’s request meant that she had to work within certain restrictions that impacted her scope for writing melodies. She says: “I used African instruments that only played in one key or mode but it meant I experimented more with vocals.”
She advocates that composers must ’fight for what you know is right in your music and be true to yourself’ but maintains that ultimately, it’s better to foster a collaborative spirit in the business – “It’s very important that you’re easy to get along with.”
For the majority of her projects, Rachel receives the work print for the film with an embedded time code before she begins experimenting. She prefers not to start on a film too early as there are so many changes in the edit process. And rather than working chronologically, she prefers to begin work with the scenes that speak to her.
As many composers agree, a composer needs to put their own ego aside to serve the needs of the film and help the director fulfil their creative vision. But Rachel also says: “It’s vital that a composer is attuned to a project.”
This was the case for the film ‘Never Let me Go’, which has become one of her most favourite films and scores. She says: “The mood of the film is driven by a tension and an inability to let go or resolve conflict within relationships.” It was these themes that resonated most with her and inspired the slightly jilted, constricted and unsettled-sounding melody, which underpins the score’s main theme,
Although technology continues to have a huge influence on how composers write, Rachel’s approach has changed little since her early days of composing.
She prefers to approach the exploration of themes ‘almost like a meditation and a place of stillness’. She says: “I like to relax into a state where I can ask the right questions.”
If there’s been one trusted source for the answers throughout her career it’s the piano. It remains the ‘purest form in which to communicate ideas’. She says: “I record music in piano writing form without click, then write a short form score on six staves.”
Diversity is important for Rachel because she always appreciates new challenges. In 2016 she wrote the music for Marks and Spencer’s Christmas advert, starring Janet McTeer as Mrs Claus. She describes the project as a ‘joy to work on’ – she had three weeks to complete but within ten minutes had written the theme for the young boy character because he spoke to her the most.
It’s also important for Rachel to follow causes that are close to her heart. In 2012 she wrote the symphony ‘Endangered’ for World Environment Day concert, which was commissioned by the National Centre for the Performing Arts and performed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra.
She says: “I enjoy seeking out my own projects that fulfil and nourish me creatively.”
Watch the video of the interview at BASCA’s recent Media Composer Conference
This interview is taken from the The Works #56. You can read the whole magazine here.