Vangelis — to infinity and beyond with his music

Vangelis — to infinity and beyond with his music
Greek composer Vangelis at a press conference in Athens, Greece, 27 June 2001. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Simela Pantzartzi)

Greek composer Vangelis, known for shimmering, ethereal film scores and a musician who helped make the synthesiser much more than an engineer’s plaything has died, at the age of 79.

Vangelis, the Greek musical genius whose output ranged from progressive and avant-garde rock music to memorable film scores, was also an early adopter of the synthesiser as a serious musical instrument (and alive to its many possibilities). He had a lifelong fascination and engagement with music connected to space exploration and astronomy. He died at the age of 79, on 17 May.

Describing his early years, the Los Angeles Times said, “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.


Composer, musician, arranger and producer Vangelis records a track for an album with 25 children from Orleans Infants School in Twickenham, London. (Photo: Fred Mott / Getty Images)f

“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,’ [film director Ridley] 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.” Then it was on to much bigger achievements than being a member of Greek rock groups.

Known worldwide as Vangelis, the composer/musician began tinkering on the family piano as a small child (his mother had studied music as a soprano singer although did not perform professionally) but the child barely had any formal musical education, and throughout his composing life he could neither read nor write musical scores. For some, that is not the hindrance it might otherwise have been. After all, songwriter Irving Berlin couldn’t do either as well and the extent of his oeuvre includes hundreds of hits and a clutch of Broadway shows. Clearly, a lack of formal music training never was much of a handicap for Vangelis either.

Along his musical pathway, Vangelis was a serious exponent of using the still-new technology of the analogue synthesiser, the instrument first created in 1964 by the American electronics engineer, Robert Moog. Earlier synthesisers had been created by other engineers, but they were pre-programmed with inputs entered via those once-ubiquitous Hollerith punch cards. They were essentially designed to deliver squeaks and squeals that could be tweaked by an operator — but that was not exactly music. 

Moog’s big idea had been to marry an electronic synthesiser with a real-time, analogue input capability, something otherwise known as an electric keyboard. In this way, a composer/musician could play melodies and harmonies as they wished, and then, in real time, alter the resulting sound outputs, exploiting the synthesiser’s presets and variable settings to produce all manner of tonal qualities. This effectively turned an engineer’s plaything that made weird sounds into a new way of composing and performing for musicians. 

Well, almost, that is. There actually is a fascinating lineage that goes back for hundreds of years. The Yamaha company (makers of the synthesisers favoured by Vangelis) explains that the modern synthesiser was a kind of rebirth of the extensive capabilities of the pipe organ, an instrument most effectively and originally exploited by Johann Sebastian Bach, nearly three hundred years ago. 

As Yamaha’s own website notes, “The title [for the organ] as ‘father of the synthesizer’ is real and fitting, because sound design on the organ front panel interface is like a course in the math and science behind the synthesizer. The organ is not only one of the first keyboards (period) it is unique in how the sound can morph into various shapes during the performance. While the pianoforte (also known as the ‘piano’ to close friends), as a more recent invention, borrowed heavily on the key layout, but did not have the same types of controls or ability to change timbre so radically at the whim of the performer. The organ is all about real time access and real time control over the tone of the instrument.” [Italics added]

Composer/performers like the Japanese musician, Kitaro (perhaps best known outside of Japan for his score for the multi-part television series, Silk Road), quickly began to exploit the possibilities of the synthesiser as well, along with many other artists, including musicians taking advantage of the synthesiser’s capabilities to produce immensely popular recordings like Switched on Bach by Wendy Carlos in 1968. 

Meanwhile, by 1980, Vangelis had scored the music for a memorable commercial for Ridley Scott, a director who was soon to move on to his most extraordinary film, Blade Runner. Scott had called on Vangelis to do that score based on their relationship from the commercial, and Vangelis provided a score that — almost as much as the plot and the astonishing cinematography of the film — created the eerie, alienated world of Los Angeles some forty years into the future.

Vangelis’ nearly hypnotic but discordant melodies, and all his unworldly sonic landscapes made the soundtrack a cult classic, years before the film had achieved a similar status. Amazingly, this was true even though the soundtrack was not commercially available as a recording until a decade after the film had been released.

Soon enough, lightning was about to strike again for Vangelis with the success of his Oscar-winning soundtrack for a British period film, Chariots of Fire. But he also did other film work such as for the Japanese film Nankyoku Monogatari (Antarctica), about a disastrous Japanese Antarctic scientific expedition that had been forced to abandon its sled dogs, only returning the following year to find a few of the dogs had actually survived. (The story was later Disney-fied in different version of the story, “Eight Below,” with its rather better outcome for the dogs, but that one was without Vangelis’ music.) Once again, Vangelis’ sonic landscapes seemed perfect for the harsh, frozen world of the film.

Chariots of Fire propelled the composer into the film music stratosphere. The synthesiser music, seemingly anachronistic in the extreme for a story about British athletes overcoming religious intolerance in their medals hunt in the 1924 Olympics, proved to be a remarkable match with the sensibility of the film. The main theme has gone on to be a musical scene-setter for actual athletic competitions everywhere, including being put to work in the opening ceremony for the 2012 London Olympics. The instantly recognisable main theme somehow seemed a perfect match to a scene of young men running barefoot on the beach as part of an exhausting training regimen.

vangelis blade runner

Greek composer Vangelis greets fans at the end of his historic concert, taking place at ancient Athens’ Temple of Zeus, in Athens, Greece, 28 June 2001. Greek Oscar-winning composer Vangelis Papathanassiou passed away on 17 May 2022 at the age of 79, at a hospital in Paris, where he was being treated for Covid-19, the law firm representing him confirmed on 19 May 2022. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Simela Pantzartzi)

Adam Sweeting in The Guardian explained it this way. “His theme for Chariots of Fire, mixing a formal classicism with the rhythmic and tonal possibilities of synthesisers and electronic percussion, reached No 12 in the UK and became a No 1 hit in the US in 1982, while the soundtrack album topped the Billboard chart. Vangelis, who played all the soundtrack instruments himself, won the 1982 Academy Award for best original score, and the fact that Chariots of Fire won the best picture Oscar probably owed much to the impact of Vangelis’s music.

“ ‘My main inspiration was definitely the story itself,’ he [Vangelis] reflected. ‘The rest I did instinctively, without thinking about anything else other than to express my feelings, using the technological means that were available at the time.’

“The film world became his oyster. His score for Costa-Gavras’s Missing (1982) won him the Palme d’Or at the Cannes film festival, and other notable works included scores for The Bounty (1984), Scott’s 1492: Conquest of Paradise (1992) — the soundtrack album would sell 4m copies — and Oliver Stone’s Alexander (2004).”

What was it about Vangelis’ music that seemed to find that emotional sweet spot, given the ethereal textures in so much of it? While the composer, himself, largely chose to stay out of the limelight, reluctant to give interviews or speak about his personal life, in one conversation he did with the Los Angeles Times a decade prior to his passing, “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.’ ”

Proving he was not only a synthesiser-ist, and definitely not a one-trick pony, the Los Angeles Times interview continued, “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.’ ”

In the occasional music criticism about his work, one article in Vulture explained, “On the cusp of Blade Runner, Vangelis was enjoying a period that saw his decade in the shadow of Europe’s mainstream step out into the neon sunshine of the American market. Disco in general, and Giorgio Moroder’s productions in particular, had integrated synthesizers into the Hollywood palette, and, as Vangelis’s work evolved, it led to two huge commissions. First came the 1980 score of the hit Carl Sagan PBS mini-series, Cosmos, which featured new theme music and incorporated various older recordings. 

“Then, more significantly, came the soundtrack for Chariots of Fire, Hugh Hudson’s period piece about British athletics and prejudice, which in March of 1982 won Vangelis an Oscar for Best Score, and whose theme song went No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 a couple of months later.

Blade Runner was a different beast. Scott and Vangelis had collaborated previously on a Chanel advertisement called ‘Share the Fantasy’…. Work officially began on the score at Nemo [Vangelis’ personal recording studio in London] in December of 1981, with Vangelis receiving footage from the editing room on VHS tapes, scene by scene, then processing the visual inputs and cues, creating live takes using the dozen or so synthesizers at his studio. This immediate integration of sounds and vision was key in making the music responsive to the unfolding scenes and the atmosphere Scott had created. They were not simply connected through aesthetics or the call-and-response of the narrative, but through a shared emotional tonality and fully cohesive sensual environment: just cold enough to be artificial, just feeling enough to be alive.”

With Vangelis’ passing, Sweeting added, “The Greek composer Vangelis, who has died aged 79, always avoided becoming a trained, academic musician, and had an almost superstitious fear of analysing the nature of his gifts. ‘I don’t know how it happens,’ he said. ‘I don’t try to know. It’s like riding a bicycle. If you think, “How am I going to do it?” you fall down.’

“However he did it, he created a string of enduring and hugely varied works, ranging from pop and semi-classical compositions using a mixture of synthesisers, electronica and traditional instrumentation to some of the most memorable film scores in cinematic history… His solo albums covered countless musical bases, from classical and jazz to electronic and ambient… However, he [Vangelis] had no interest in learning to read or write music. ‘Music is not something that’s written,’ he said. ‘Everything that’s noted down comes after the music is created… Music is immediate, wild, unpredictable, multidimensional.’ ”

Vangelis’ great film scores place him securely in compositional Valhalla, along with other greats like Bernard Hermann, John Williams, Ennio Morricone, Maurice Jarre and Eric Korngold. His music was even included in events marking the death of physicist Stephen Hawking as well as being put to use in Nasa projects. At some point, it seems, the rest of the universe will hear his music too. DM


[hearken id=”daily-maverick/9472″]


Comments - Please in order to comment.

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted

We would like our readers to start paying for Daily Maverick...

…but we are not going to force you to. Over 10 million users come to us each month for the news. We have not put it behind a paywall because the truth should not be a luxury.

Instead we ask our readers who can afford to contribute, even a small amount each month, to do so.

If you appreciate it and want to see us keep going then please consider contributing whatever you can.

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options

Become a Maverick Insider

This could have been a paywall

On another site this would have been a paywall. Maverick Insider keeps our content free for all.

Become an Insider