Beyond the Screen - Film Works on Piano

Beyond the Screen - Film Works on Piano

“I’m interested in literature,” says the Academy Award-winning film composer Rachel Portman. “I’m interested in stories and storytelling, in human stories and drama.” This all-piano album of Portman’s film themes is full of signs of her natural affinity with the literary world. Music from Lasse Hallström’s adaptations of John Irving’s The Cider House Rules and Joanne Harris’s novel Chocolat feature alongside her music for film versions of Jane Austen’s Emma and Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, with David Nicholls’s love story One Day included in the mix. “I’ll be saying ‘yes’ to that project and ‘no’ to something else that I’m less interested in—so this body of work reflects my taste,” she says. Above all, Beyond the Screen reflects Portman’s affinity with the piano, the instrument that was central to her music education and which resonates with her the most. “I write all my music at the piano, and I’m a pianist first and foremost,” she says. The album is Portman’s follow-up to her 2020 debut piano-performer album, ask the river, and is a chance for Portman to showcase some of her best-known tunes, such as the Oscar-winning Emma, alongside lesser-heard works: her early theme from Mike Leigh’s kooky Life Is Sweet rubs shoulders with music for more recent comedies such as the Lone Scherfig rom-com Their Finest. “The piano is a real friend—without it I’d be sitting there in silence,” says Portman. “It’s an enabler.” Read on as Rachel Portman guides us through a selection of highlights from Beyond the Screen. The Cider House Rules: Piano Suite “The film is based on John Irving’s book, which is huge. After I’d finished the score and recorded it, the director Lasse Hallström said: ‘I don’t think there are enough themes in there, how would you feel about expanding it?’ I took one idea that he really liked, a phrase from a four-bar theme, and worked with it so that it became the main theme heard here.” Chocolat: Piano Suite “I usually write the opening titles for a film right at the end of a project, once I know exactly what everything else is going to be. I often work from the inside out and do several drafts but never work chronologically. So you’re hinting at a world and introducing something. Lasse Hallström said this film is like a soufflé. And that really helped me. It has a little French feel to it, but it’s not overtly French.” The Pier “I love the original book on which this film is based, and I love Kazuo Ishiguro’s writing. The music could have been cold and dystopian because of the subject matter but instead I felt it needed a beating heart and should be full of longing and love. I’ve included that because this meant so much to me. Cellist Raphaela Gromes completely got the melody—it’s so lyrical and moving.” One Day: Piano Suite “The music is inspired by David Nicholls’ love story—it’s funny-happy-sad. When you start a film, you have to come up with themes and ideas. After 10 days of working really hard I showed the director, Lone Scherfig, and she said: ‘Oh, I really like it but is it the best it can be?’ So, I went away again and spent another week on it and changed the melody a little (but not a huge amount). When she asked me again, ‘Is it the best it can be?’, I was silent for a minute and then said, ‘Yes, it is.’” Good Night You Kings “This is the line in the film of John Irving’s novel The Cider House Rules: ‘Goodnight you princes of Maine, you kings of New England.’ Michael Caine says it before he turns off the light and says goodnight to all the boys and girls in the orphanage. This little tune is the most simple little New England folk tune—to go under that scene, it needed to be simple, almost childlike.” The Duchess: Piano Suite “There’s a bit of grandeur in this theme because it was played over the front titles, where we see Keira Knightley with horse and carriage. The actual melody is more about yearning, and it morphs into a love theme because she falls in love—it’s outside her marriage and terrible things happen because of that. It’s a story of unhappiness and cruelty, and women having to behave in a certain way, so the music has real emotion to it.” Still Life: Piano Suite “This piece goes round and round in a way that’s mesmeric. I was in Edinburgh and there was a guy on the street playing a hang drum. I thought it was the most beautiful thing and decided to write a motive that can be played on something similar. It works very naturally on the piano—it’s also really fun to play.” Vianne Sets Up Shop “I had very little time to write the score for Chocolat but it was a complete joy because the film resonated with me. I loved the twists and turns of the story, the humor and the frustration—and the chocolate! In this scene Vianne, played by Juliette Binoche, is stirring great big vats of chocolate. I had to keep going to the corner shop to buy some to keep me going.” Emma: Piano Suite “I had been in LA working on films already but winning an Academy Award for Emma when I was in my thirties gave me that seal of approval that I was a safe pair of hands. It opened doors to a huge range of projects to work on. The theme—a melody and accompaniment that sits nicely under the fingers—translates so easily to the piano.” Snow Story “‘Snow Story’ is from a film called Smoke directed by Wayne Wang and written by Paul Auster, and it’s a bit different. Unlike most of my music, it doesn’t really have a melody; it’s just a gently propulsive idea. When I wrote it, I felt the music needed to be something like a happening: not so much telling a story but something more layered.” Life Is Sweet: Piano Suite “One of the earliest pieces on this album, I wrote it for Mike Leigh. A lot of the film takes place with people sitting around in their front rooms chatting, and I found it really hard to come up with a theme. Mike Leigh used to come to my little flat in London. I would go to my piano room with him and play a melody. He would sit on the floor and be like: ‘Nope, nope, nope.’ I wanted to include it because it’s quirky and it’s got humor in it. It’s something a bit different.”

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