Film Composer Rachel Portman Uses First Solo Album, ‘Ask the River,’ to Speak Up for the Environment, Instrumentally

Her first release as a pianist comes after 38 years of behind-the-scenes film scoring work.

film composer
Valya Korabelnikova

English composer Rachel Portman today releases her first solo album. Titled “Ask the River,” it’s a collection of original pieces for piano, violin and cello that reflect her feelings about our fragile environment.

That the release happens to come in the middle of a global pandemic is coincidental, but it also couldn’t be more timely. Portman’s music conjures up images of a pastoral English countryside: warm and breezy, cool and contemplative, green fields and babbling brooks.

“I had spent a lot of time immersed in nature, and I wanted to try and express that,” she says from her country home 50 miles outside of London, “and express the beauty of what I see as many, many different aspects of nature around us. We’re increasingly unconnected to the natural world. We don’t seem to be part of the land; we seem to use it as a resource instead.”

Portman — a three-time Oscar nominee and the first woman to win in the scoring categories, for 1996’s “Emma” — has made the environment the subject of several past non-film works: “The Water Diviner’s Tale,” an oratorio about climate change performed at the BBC Proms in 2007; “Endangered,” an orchestral piece commissioned for World Environmental Day in 2013; and “Earth Song,” a choral work based on a poem by Nick Drake that quotes young activist Greta Thunberg’s headline-making address in 2019.

“Ask the River,” however, is more personal. The 13 pieces, essentially songs without words, “were written sitting on the grass, looking up at trees and down at water,” Portman confesses. And with titles like “Apple Tree,” “Juniper,” “Longing for Spring” and “The Summer Day,” the listener can relate, and imagine.

Portman plays her beloved Bosendorfer piano (“my greatest friend and greatest companion”) for her first outing as a performer after 38 years working behind the scenes on such films as “The Cider House Rules,” “Chocolat” and “A Dog’s Purpose.” She says friends and family convinced her that she “would be the right person to express these, because I would really understand them from the inside.”

She is joined on seven of the tracks by two of London’s top recording musicians, cellist Caroline Dale and violinist Clio Gould, chosen for being “very natural, intuitive performers who really understand feelings.”

“It was always going to be a collection of mainly piano instrumentals,” she adds. “Often the piano leads, and they come in and chatter along with it. There are a few tracks where everyone’s sort of dancing around each other and interleaving the same ideas. But I wanted to keep it small, intimate and thoughtful.”

The opening piece, “Leaves and Trees,” is both haunting and profound in its evocation of a peaceful wood. Portman acknowledges that some titles (“A Gift,” “Still Here,” “Way Home”) may be enigmatic. Asked about the meaning of the album title, “Ask the River,” she says, “It’s to do with really paying attention, listening to the river or the trees. It’s not an answered question.”

Portman spent most of the past 18 months on the project. “It’s very different (than a film score), writing something that comes from within you,” she says. “You are your own judge and you’re shaping everything.” She first recorded her piano, then invited her collaborators in to add their voices.

Asked about her hopes for the album, Portman responds, “My hope would be, in this time, comfort. Reflection. If it could bring a bit of what inspired me, nature, the earth, into someone’s home. In these particular circumstances, if they’re having a hard time, shut indoors, I hope that it could take them to a different place.”