Vangelis trades synthesizers for piano and finds life after the film score
Vangelis, the Oscar-winning composer of “Chariots of Fire” and “Blade Runner” lives in Paris — unless he lives in London, or his native Athens. He won’t say exactly.
As nebulous as the clouds of electronic notes for which he’s known, Vangelis is also elusive when it comes to romantic relationships or anything else to do with his personal life.
“I don’t give interviews, because I have to try to say things that I don’t need to say,” he said by phone from Paris, in an exclusive interview with The Times. “The only thing I need to do is just to make music — and that’s it.”
The occasion for the conversation was the release of his album “Nocturne,” a departure from the bank of synthesizers that normally surrounds the composer. It’s a collection of new works for mostly solo piano, with a little synthy accompaniment here and there.
“Maybe it’s a little bit strange,” he said of the stripped-down approach. “But almost every day I play my piano. See, mainly my life is quite simple. I jump from one thing to another. We say that [there are] too many styles and differences in music — but, for me, music is one.”
Vangelis leaves the impression that he would be content never releasing another record but that he’s coaxed into doing so by the industry, which he doesn’t hold in the highest regard.
“I always said to the record companies, for years, ‘One day you’re going to be in big crisis, because the way you do it is wrong,’” he said, noting what he sees as insatiable greed. “They say, ‘Oh, you are an artist; you understand nothing.’ ”
“Nocturne” was released by Decca, and Vangelis said it was the label that pushed him to include several of his classic themes on the album. In between ethereal meditations with titles like “Moonlight Reflections” and “Through the Night Mist” are new arrangements of the “Chariots of Fire” theme, the love theme from “Blade Runner” and others.
“Personally, I didn’t really so much want to use those familiar tunes,” he said. “But on the other hand, you know, sometimes I feel kind and I say ‘OK,’ ” he added with a hearty laugh.
Contrary to the public image of a gruff recluse, Vangelis is actually quick to laugh. Those who know him paint him as “one of the boys,” in the words of “Blade Runner” director Ridley Scott.
“He’d always ask about food first, because he liked food,” Scott said in a 2017 interview, recalling late nights in Vangelis’ studio. “You want a cigar? ‘Yeah, yeah.’ You want some wine? ‘Yeah.’ And then I wouldn’t go home till 1 o’clock in the morning. It was always fun — never pretentious. And he’s inordinately approachable. Really nice man.”
Born Evangelos Odysseas Papathanassiou, Vangelis grew up in the Greek town of Agria. He started playing the piano at 4 and never took a formal lesson. He had early success with the progressive rock band Aphrodite’s Child, but he quickly found his signature voice with the synthesizer.
He released solo albums that pulsed with space-age heartbeats and glacial chords, soaked in cathedral-like reverb. They got shelved in the New Age crates. (“I hate that term,” Scott said. “It’s just music, you know?”) He turned down an invitation to join the band Yes in 1974 but still collaborated with their lead singer, Jon Anderson, on several albums.
Vangelis brought his cinematic, sweeping sound to the movies and won an Oscar for the 1981 film “Chariots of Fire” — beating John Williams’ symphonic “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” “Blade Runner” was a flop when it came out in 1982, and not long after, synth scores went out of fashion. Scott again hired Vangelis for the 1992 Christopher Columbus saga, “1492: Conquest of Paradise,” continuing a lifetime theme of venturing into the unknown.
“My instruction to him was: It’s like the first astronaut,” Scott said. “He’s crossing space, i.e. the sea, to go to the edge of the world where at that time they believed you fell off the edge, and he will find a new planet, which is called the West Indies. So this is astronautical. From that, he gave me this series of massive anthem tracks, which sold like a pop record.”
Vangelis didn’t score another Hollywood film until 2004, when Oliver Stone engaged the composer for his epic about a similarly larger-than-life Greek, “Alexander.” The director once described Vangelis as having a certain warmth in his soul: “It’s just like he squeezes the orange and it comes out.”
That would be the composer’s last major film score.
It was always fun — never pretentious. And he’s inordinately approachable. Really nice man.
— Film director Ridley Scott on working with Vangelis
Since then, Vangelis has composed music for ballet, theater and several projects for NASA. His 2016 album tied to the “Rosetta” space probe mission was nominated for a Grammy.
He’s at work on another called “Juno,” inspired by the mission to Jupiter. NASA converted Jupiter’s electromagnetic waves into sound waves, so Vangelis could incorporate “music” emitted by the planet.
“Each planet sings,” Vangelis said. “We don’t hear it, of course, because it’s a vacuum. But when we capture things like that, it’s stunning. And it transports you to things that you don’t believe — and at the same time, you know. These are implanted as well, because we’re coming from there.”
He echoed the famous sentiment by Carl Sagan, whose PBS series “Cosmos” used Vangelis’ music, that “We are made of starstuff.” The composer has always gravitated toward scientists like Sagan and Stephen Hawking, who probed the mysteries of the cosmos. For Hawking’s funeral last year, Vangelis composed a synth piece that featured the professor’s words and that the European Space Agency broadcast into space.
His latest project: “The Thread,” a new dance work choreographed by Russell Maliphant that premiered at Sadler’s Wells in London on March 15. It’s a meditation on Greek mythology, inspired by ancient Hellenic dances, and Vangelis wrote a new score rooted in various strains of ethnic music.
“Since I was very young, I was very interested in ethnic music of the world,” he said. “There’s so much richness there, and there’s so much power and truth that you don’t find in the dance music of everyday today.”
He described “The Thread” as “a kind of excavation into the past and to the future. So, it could be something nice, could be something terrible.”
These days, he’s most encouraged by what we discover in outer space, but he’s worried that humans will muck up the rest of the universe like we have our home planet.
He recalled “Blade Runner,” which, incidentally, is set in Los Angeles in the year 2019. Nobody liked the film when it came out, he said, “but immediately, when I saw some footage, I understood that this is the future. Not a nice future, of course. But this is where we’re going.”
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