Rachel Portman, Academy Award-Winning Composer, Releases 'Ask The River' The first woman composer to win an Oscar for best original score is releasing her first album of music not written for a film or stage production.

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

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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.


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

TIM GREIVING, BYLINE: It was an historic moment.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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


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