Rachel Portman has been writing music for movies since the early eighties. While she’s written for a variety of genres, she seems to be most interested in stories that focus on characters, stories that explore relationships. Her scores are both subtle and complex, and she has a gift for drawing us closer to the people we see on the screen.
John Duigan’s sensuous comedy Sirens tells the story of an Australian pastor and his wife going to call on an iconoclastic painter, who lives in the country with his three female models. The conflict is between upright morality and free-thinking hedonism, and Portman uses these two poles as the basis for her approach. While the thematic material is fairly consistent throughout, the score is based on a shifting back and forth between two textures. The orderly world of the pastor and his wife is represented by a crisp rhythmic figure that occupies the string section while a clarinet plays short, resolute lines above. But then the strings relax into a sultry, sensual shifting of harmonies, and instead of the clarinet we hear a flute floating lazily overhead. Portman also weaves harp and glockenspiel into these sections, giving them an otherworldly feel. At times the strings swell up to give us the feeling that we’re falling helplessly into the seductive beauty of the natural world. While the score includes other elements, folk songs, jigs, and even a piece by Ralph Vaughan-Williams, it’s this simple movement from one texture to another that expresses the basic conflict in the film.
Portman also uses this approach of creating contrasting textures in Beeban Kidron’s Great Moments in Aviation. There’s a jazzy blues theme which appears in various forms, the melody being played first by a sauntering clarinet, then a wistful flute, and finally by a brash cornet. But there is also a soaring gospel theme that takes us outside of the real world. Portman does a deft balancing act here, incorporating swift, surprising shifts in tone. I’d love to listen to the whole score some time, but unfortunately the film isn’t available on DVD. I’ve only heard the selections included on a CD compilation of Portman’s work.* Sadly, soundtracks generally don’t get released unless someone considers them marketable.
Ostensibly The Manchurian Candidate is a thriller, but the end result is something far different from the standard Hollywood suspense flick. To start with, Richard Condon’s novel exploits our fear that our lives are controlled by forces we can’t even imagine. Jonathan Demme’s adaptation immerses the viewer in a world of unrelieved paranoia. Instead of pumping the suspense as many composers would, Portman creates a dissonant, oppressive score that heightens the sense of dread and anxiety. A dense string section gives us a background of vague, shifting harmonies that never seem to achieve a resolution. There are no melodies to hang on to. No recognizable themes. This score is all about texture. At times an ethereal chorus rises through the mix, giving a drugged-out sense of drifting through fog. Even at the end, after the main character has found the answers he was looking for, the sense of anxiety is not dispelled completely. The story comes to a close, but the music still gives us the feeling that all is not right with the world.
As a filmmaker Demme seems willing to take risks, to try different things, and Portman’s films with the director have offered her the chance to do the same. The movie version of Toni Morrison’s Beloved is well outside the boundaries that usually define commercial filmmaking. Portman rises to the challenge and delivers a score that is completely unconventional. Instead of using a traditional orchestra, she selects a narrow range of instruments and couples them with voices to create an unusual sound landscape. Beloved is a ghost story, and the music seems to emerge from a darkness filled with mystery. Oumou Sangare’s solo vocals float in a space surrounded by silence. The feeling of deep sadness lingers in sparse passages featuring percussion and the occasional flute. But the darkness seems to lift when a shimmering gospel chorus shines through. At the end of the story the main character has found her way to the light.
In order to write music for any film, the composer has to figure out what the film is about. They have to find its core. What sets Portman apart is that she doesn’t just settle for expressing what lies at the heart of a movie. Ultimately she tries to express what lies in the human heart.
* A Pyromaniac’s Love Story, Varese Sarabande, 1995