The first woman to win an Oscar for Best Original Score (for “Emma” in 1997), Rachel Portman has recently been working on a musical of “Little House on the Prairie”. She tells Rebecca Willis about the seven wonders of her world
From INTELLIGENT LIFE Magazine, Autumn 2009
JOURNEY: INTO THE DESERT FROM ZAGORA, MOROCCO
I persuaded a friend to come with me on a four-day camel trek from Zagora to the dunes (above). Apart from our guide, there was no one else around, and we slept under the stars. I thought we’d never get there, it was far too hot, and very uncomfortable. But it was worth it for the magnificent, honey dunes when we did reach them—we walked along the crest where no one had yet walked. I wanted to experience the emptiness of the desert and hear what it sounded like, because I was writing an opera based on “The Little Prince” by Saint-Exupéry, which takes place in the desert. I was writing in my head as I loped along on my camel. I wrote the little prince’s main aria, and I knew what the desert sounded like when I came back—the emptiness and the sound of the air hanging around me. It is a sort of sad emptiness, a hanging stillness unlike any I’d ever felt.
BEACH: COWRIE BAY, CORNWALL
This is a tiny beach near Polzeath. You can get to it by walking along the cliffs but it’s more fun to scramble over rocks and rock pools with mussels and limpets to get to it at low tide. I’ve spent hours looking for tiny cowries and bits of polished-by-the-sea glass. The view out to sea is wonderful, because it is framed by the rocks; you can swim in the icy water and it’s very clear. I’ve been going there since I was a child and I go with my children now. It’s very difficult to find the shells; I usually only find about three.
BUILDING: ROYAL ALBERT HALL
Not because of its beauty, but because of what it houses: it’s a building alive with the music that is performed in it. Having gone to the Proms over the years, I then had a piece performed there a couple of years ago [“The Water Diviner’s Tale”]. It was particularly exciting rehearsing and running around all the corridors which are like rabbit warrens that go round the sides and underneath the building. They get the players to their dressing rooms, and have entrances to the stage, the place where the orchestra plays, the bit where people promenade. It’s an extraordinary building. The backstage area of theatres and concert halls is always the most exciting.
HOTEL: CASTLE MANDAWA, RAJASTHAN
This is an extraordinary castle that has been made into a hotel. It’s huge and full of corridors and stairways leading to different parts; your room could be anywhere and it’ll be different from all the other rooms. Our bathroom was tiled with old turquoise tiles. There is a wonderful dining room where a very strange, very old couple come and serenade you with bells and horrible singing and you have to give them money, but it’s all in traditional dress and adds to the very eccentric atmosphere. It’s in the Shekhawati region, which is known for its painted houses or havelis.
WORK OF ART: ALLEMANDE (PARTITA NO 4) BY J.S. BACH
I could choose almost any of Bach’s works, particularly his solo piano music, but I’m particularly fond of the Allemande from this Partita (BWV 828). It is a work of perfect beauty. There is something so serene about his Partitas; my spirits lift and I feel calm and balanced when I listen to them. I learnt this one for my Grade 8 piano exam when I was about 17 and I loved it so much that I’ve never forgotten how to play it, even though I don’t really play the piano for pleasure any more, I just use it for writing. Bach touches my soul unlike any other composer and—I know it sounds ridiculous—he can connect me back to reality when I’m stressed or pulled around by the busy world we live in. You can listen to the Partitas hundreds of times and never get sick of them—I always find something new, and you can listen to them on many levels—I can do yoga to them or really concentrate on them.
VIEW: FROM LYNCHMERE CHURCHYARD, WEST SUSSEX
This has been my favourite view since I was a child, and I used to climb on the tombstones. A sloping valley of fields leads to rising woods and hills beyond. It’s where I used to ride. We would go up there bareback and ride all over the countryside, without roads or worries or grown-ups. I was christened in the church and so were my children, and the ashes of my father, who died a few months ago, are buried there.
CITY: NEW YORK
I love the feeling I get as I travel into Manhattan and see the skyline, and I love the feeling of possibilities it has. I’ve spent so much time there; I lived there for a year and have lots of friends there. It’s too noisy for me to live there now, but that’s what makes it so exciting. So I like going for short amounts of time. Central Park is my favourite bit (I’m most definitely a country person) but I do love the city that surrounds it.
(Rebecca Willis is associate editor of Intelligent Life.)