Rachel Portman OBE, composer

Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music?

I come from a large family that’s not particularly musical, so I owe a great deal to my mum who recognised a musical flame in me and sought out good local music teachers and opportunities for me to develop my music. I started focussing on composing at my school where I received encouragement from Roger Steptoe, who as a young composer had been given a period as composer in residence there.

Who or what have been the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?

The most significant influence on my writing is  J.S.Bach whose music has been a touchstone in my life. I had a record of Yehudi Menuhin playing his violin concertos which I must have listened to a thousand times as a child. The other influence would be Maurice Ravel, whose music I discovered when I was 18 and I was bowled over by. I felt a strong desire to create music that could have such an effect. 

What have been the greatest challenges/frustrations of your career so far and how have you overcome them?

The greatest challenge in writing film music is managing the difficulties with constant picture changes, interpreting direction from directors who aren’t sure how to communicate what they want musically (!), and scary looming deadlines with too much music to write. Writing for the concert hall also has its challenges – wrestling with an idea, waiting for ideas to coalesce into something I’m happy with. 

How do you work? What methods do you use and how do ideas come to you?

I write and orchestrate at the piano with pencil and paper. It’s a mystery how ideas come to me. From the start I work hard and try out ideas while nothing seems quite right, but then at a certain point something good happens and I have an idea and I feel, ah that’s it. It usually happens when I get out of the way. 

How would you characterise your compositional language/musical style?

I find other people are much better at characterising my music than me! All I can say is my language is lyrical, tonal and often orchestral characterised by shifting harmonies. I like to write music that touches people. 

Of which works are you most proud?

In my film works , Never Let Me Go

In my concert works , First Morning of the World

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Having written something that people enjoy listening to over and over, that touches them. 

What advice would you give to young or aspiring composers?

Follow your creative passion with determination; no creative endeavour is ever wasted. 

What’s the one thing we’re not talking about in the music industry which you really feel we should be?

I think music for film and TV is undervalued. At this time music budgets are often outrageously small and don’t reflect the huge significance the score from a skilled composer can bring to a project. 

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Walking amongst trees listening to birdsong at dawn in May. 

What is your most treasured possession?

My Bosendorfer grand piano.

Rachel Portman’s new album Beyond the Screen – Film Works on Piano is released on 3 March 2023 on the Sony Classical label