Life (USA) - Interview with Vangelis, July 1982

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Vangelis in London circa 1982


Portrait: Vangelis

The Composer Who Set Chariots Afire

By Joe Klein

On a mild afternoon in late April, Vangelis climbs the winding stairs to his recording studio in a converted Anglican girls school on a back street in London and finds a crowd of people waiting to congratulate him. His theme music for Chariots of Fire is now the fastest-selling album-and single-in the U.S.

"Isn't it marvelous!" says the woman from the BBC who has become his unofficial astrologer.

Vangelis shrugs. "I don't know... I don't know," he says, slipping off his leatherjacket and blue silk scarf. He says hello to two record company executives from America and a woman from Los Angeles who wants to feature him on a video cassette. He exchanges an isn't this crazy? glance with his childhood friend and business manager, Jiannis Zograthos.

"I am panicked," he says softly. He runs a hand through his thick black hair, which is, incongruously, thinning in front.

"People will buy this piece of plastic by Vangelis-this product-and they will expect the next one to be similar. I do not like to be a product. I do not like to do the same thing twice. Everything I do is spontaneous. Everything I do is improvisation. I do not like to be controlled, limited, have expectations made upon me."

It is, of course, the classic plaint of the long-struggling artiste who has become a commercial success. Vangelis is playing the ambiguous role with barely concealed gusto. He walks the precipice, sneers at convention, dares the gods... and yet, remains the humble servant of forces beyond his control. "Music," he says, "is far more important than entertainment.

Music," he adds, "can be very dangerous. Music," he concludes, "is nature."

Somehow he remains more charming than pompous while saying all this.

Evangelos Papathanassiou-his full name-cannot read music, nor write it down. He works alone-composing, arranging, producing, performing on a clutter of synthesizers in a single room. In the past year he created the music for Chariots of Fire, Missing and now Blade Runner in this room, screening the films on three videotape machines. It is not quite so spontaneous a process as he would have you believe. The films are run and rerun, the tracks taped and retaped, but the results are always an improvisation. When things are going well, the work can proceed very quickly: he composed the Chariots theme, he says, in an afternoon. "I saw the beginning of the film, the athletes running by the ocean.  It was so healthy and joyous, all that oxygen... and exhilaration."

He sits in a vortex of keyboards, moving nimbly from one to the next, layering sounds upon each other, creating orchestras out of thin air. He seems continually surprised and delighted by the effects he can summon from the machines, giggling as he causes a timpani to roll with two fingers on his left hand while his right hand creates a Bach-ish fugue. The theme is bent into a pattern of computer boop-beeps by the twist of a knob as he lays down a ruminative buzz underneath, then distant trumpets, bells, a male chorus, a moaning saxophone, a school of whales. His hands, which one would expect to be thin, delicate instruments, are thick and stubby, with sausage fingers broadening into spatulate fingertips that seem more like knuckles-odd, round globules with perfectly manicured opalescent nails, moving ever so easily from keyboard to keyboard. The sounds-the trumpets, boop-beeps, timpani, strings, chorus and whales-meld somehow into a satisfying whole; and Vangelis, in the middle, seems as ecstatic as the runners he captured so perfectly in Chariots. There is a distant tinkling sound... the telephone. Suddenly, the music disappears and Vangelis answers the phone. More congratulations.

Later, at dinner that evening, he quietly asks one of the American record company executives, "What does it mean to be number one?'

"It means," the executive says, "there have been days during the past few weeks when we have sold 80,000 units. That is more than the vast majority of records sell in their lifetimes."

Vangelis, who is 39, has been playing the piano since he was four. When he was six, his parents sent him to a music school in Athens where he was something of a rebel. "I am very good at remembering melodies," he says. "When the teachers asked me to play something, I would pretend I was reading it and play from memory. I didn't fool them for long, but I didn't care. It was obvious there were things they could not teach in music school. They can teach you to be a fine human computer-a musician-but they can not teach you to be creative."

He received his first electronic instrument, an organ, when he was 14. He painted it gold. "Actually, my first electronic instrument was the radio, I played the radio. I liked the sounds it made when I moved it from station to station late at night when I was a little boy. Ever since then, I like to play with sounds. First, I do it with a tape recorder, then the synthesizer. When the first synthesizers came out in the 1960s, I was disappointed. They were crude machines. The technology has come very far since then."

Vangelis performed in very successful European rock bands, Formynx and Aphrodite's Child, but says now that he did not take that stage of his development very seriously. He moved from Athens to Paris, where he composed the scores for several successful French television documentaries and also met the woman he now lives with, Veronique Skawinska, a photographer. In 1974 they moved from Paris to London. They live quietly in a Queen's Gate flat. Vangelis entertains himself by painting, cooking and taking his cocoa-and-cream Rolls-Royce for an occasional spin. Most of his time is spent in the studio, though, where he loves to demonstrate his work for visitors-except photographers, whom he mistrusts, believing they "steal" his image.

"I find London very creative," he says. "Perhaps it is because the weather is so bad."

By the time he reached England, Vangelis was one of a growing number of European electronic musicians. Rather than indulge in the self-consciously futuristic computer music that was popular among synthesizer players, he tended to be more romantic, composing melodies on the keyboards. "People say to me: why don't you play real music on real instruments, instead of these machines. But a violin is a machine; and like the violin, these instruments can be played well or poorly. I love them because they are microscopic and instantaneous. They are microscopic because they can take a melody and explore it, bend it, examine all its parts. And they are instantaneous: I can create sounds upon sounds immediately, and see how they fit together."

But isn't it rather lonely? Doesn't he miss the interaction with other musicians? "I began alone when I was four," he says, "and I will finish alone. It is appropriate."

In fact, after doing three movie scores in the past year, he is growing ever more leery of working with others. Since the success of Chariots, videotapes of new films arrive at his studio practically every day for his perusal. There are dozens of other offers: concert tours in the United States, singers who want to collaborate with him.

"I do not know what I'll do next," he says. "I have never made a plan in my life. Something will happen."

It is another afternoon at the studio-Vangelis never arrives before noon-and there is a problem with the Prophet. "There is something terribly wrong here," Vangelis says to Raine Shine, the young woman who is his engineer, as he pushes buttons on the synthesizer to his right. "When you transport halftones, the Prophet plays a full tone." The engineer checks the U.S.-made machine, makes a phone call, then explains that one of the two minicomputers in the Prophet has lost its logic. "I think it will have to visit a psychiatrist," says Vangelis. "It must have an inferiority complex."

The Prophet has compounded an already difficult situation. Vangelis has been trying to put the finishing touches on Blade Runner for several weeks now, but the filmmakers have been changing their minds, recutting scenes, especially the ending. Each time a scene is changed, the music must change. All afternoon Vangelis has been screening a version-perhaps the final cut, he is not sure - of the last scene, and trying different things with it. Unlike Chariots of Fire, in which the music actually seemed to drive the runners, the score for Blade Runner, a si-fi thriller, is almost a subtext to its remarkable visual effects. There is no triumphal theme, but several distinctive melodies that Vangelis is thinking of using during the last scene and closing credits. He may repeat a haunting love theme introduced earlier as the hero and heroine drive off into the distance; he prefers, however, a pounding, glittery piece of computer magic he has been concocting. Between phone calls to Blade Runner director Ridley Scott in Los Angeles, he has run and rerun the final scene, adding a sequencer track (which is a rhythmic, percussive ratchetlike sound), and then a brass track-distant trumpets whose blare he can smear by running a finger along a black bar at the keyboard directly in front of him. The work is satisfying but frustrating too-he is not sure what the filmmakers will finally decide.

He stares at a plaster sculpture of a boy whispering in a girl's ear that sits below his gold and platinum records. "Do you like that sculpture?" he asks, his blue-green eyes mischievous. "I do not like it." He goes into the second, larger room of his studio, which is cluttered with percussion instruments ranging from a rotary saw blade to timpani, and returns with a large piece of Plexiglas. Then he asks one of the hangers-on- there is always a crowd in the studio; his manager calls it a "railway station"-to go out and buy "lots and lots of glue."

"What are you going to do?" asks Raine Shine.

"I am going to smash this boring thing." says Vangelis, who is cradling the sculpture in one hand and a hammer in the other.

The man returns with the glue. Vangelis pours it onto the plastic in a random pattern. He puts the hammer aside, then holds the sculpture aloft and lets it drop on the plastic. The girl's head breaks off on impact and skitters to the right before being caught by the glue; the boy's head remains in the center. Various pieces of the base are scattered about. Vangelis gets down on his knees and starts moving the pieces on the plastic, much as he might modulate the tracks of one of his compositions. Then he stands and inspects his work.

"Ahhh." he says, "that is much better."

"What will you call it?" asks the engineer.

"The Liberation of Spring," he says, and returns to the keyboards, where work on Blade Runner will continue late into the night.

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