Remembering Vangelis: Cosmic Pioneer of the Synthesiser and Electronic Music
One of the original pioneers of synthesisers and electronic music, and a true artist in every sense of the word, the Greek composer Vangelis passed away at the end of May. His prolific body of work includes everything from progressive and experimental rock, pop collaborations, symphonic works, compositions for dance and theater, music for NASA and other space agencies and scientists – and of course, some of the most influential and iconic film scores ever made.
A notoriously secretive artist, who seemingly shrugged off fame and celebrity while simultaneously using his success to fuel his own creative vision, Vangelis’ long career produced surprisingly few interviews. Born in 1943 in the coastal Greek town of Agria, Vangelis was drawn to music at a young age. He began to compose on the piano around age 4, experimenting with different ways to produce sound on the instrument – it seems his ears were always searching for new sounds.
Early attempts at formal music studies forged a strong individualistic creative expression in Vangelis and he largely remained self-taught throughout his career, never learning to notate music in the traditional sense.
VANGELIS’ PROFOUND FILM SCORES
By 1968, Vangelis decided to leave Greece with his band, Aphrodite’s Child, to pursue opportunities abroad. The group ended up settling in Paris, where they signed to Mercury Records and began to record and release albums. Their work culminated in an epic double album, 666, inspired by themes from The Book of Revelation. The work also, unfortunately, brought the band to a close, leaving room for Vangelis to focus properly on his solo career. It was then that his career as a film composer also began in earnest.
L'APOCALYPSE DES ANIMAUX
One of Vangelis’s first major projects as a film composer was a collaboration with French director Frédéric Rossif titled L'Apocalypse des animaux. The film is a nature documentary that first appeared on French television in 1970.
The method of the work differs from the approach that Vangelis would later take to compose for film. As opposed to his later method of watching a first cut of a film and composing on the fly, allowing his first impressions to intuitively guide the music, for L'Apocalypse des animaux, Vangelis simply recorded a suite of music inspired by elements of the animal kingdom. The composition from this work, “La petite fille de la mer”, is a hauntingly beautiful and great example of Vangelis’s melodic sense.
Opéra Sauvage was the third collaboration between director Frédéric Rossif and Vangelis. The soundtrack was released in 1979 nearly a decade after their first collaboration. The documentary explores the theme of the relationship between humanity, music, and animals over a total of 21 episodes. However, only a small portion of the music has been released on the official soundtrack.
One of the more well-known pieces from this work, “Hymne”, is a majestic, stately theme, most likely performed on the Yamaha CS-80, Vangelis’ favorite synthesiser. The CS-80 was unique among analogue synthesisers at the time for its touch sensitivity, and Vangelis used the instrument extensively.
CHARIOTS OF FIRE
By the early 1980’s, Vangelis’s skills were beginning to gain wider recognition. He agreed to score the 1981 film Chariots of Fire, directed by Hugh Hudson. The film follows the story of two British runners preparing for the 1924 Olympics, and wound up receiving seven Academy Award nominations, delivering Vangelis his first Academy Award for Best Original Score.
The score itself was groundbreaking in several aspects. The film is nominally a period piece – it takes place during the runup to the 1924 Olympic games. When approaching stories from past eras, many composers try to emulate music from those eras, to make the visual images more believable. However, in an interview with Prog, Vangelis remarked “I didn’t want to do period music … I wanted to compose something that was both contemporary and still fitting with the imagery and feel of the film.”
The film score was such a massive success that it eventually topped the Billboard Hot 100 chart. Its main theme, generally known as “Titles”, has been featured prominently in many subsequent TV shows and films , becoming something of a meme for epic, slow motion sequences.
One of Vangelis’s most influential works of film music was his collaboration with Ridley Scott on 1982’s dystopian sci-fi film Blade Runner. Based on the Philip K. Dick novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, the film starred Harrison Ford as bounty hunter Rick Deckard, charged with “retiring” 6 fugitive androids.
Initially a box office flop and mired by business disagreements, the film’s soundtrack wasn’t released until over a decade later. However, Vangelis’ film score remains one of the landmark works of electronic music.
The film itself is a dystopian, science-fiction take on the classic film-noir genre – and Vangelis encapsulated this mood perfectly, melding his synthesiser with the gritty, futuristic darkness. Many cues stand out, but in particular the “Love Theme” brings to mind echoes of Bernard Herrmann’s work on the Martin Scorsese film Taxi Driver.
Vangelis’s discography is also notable for his collaborations with scientists and astronomical associations. Long interested in space exploration, Vangelis first collaborated with Carl Sagan on music for the astronomer’s TV series Cosmos, starting in the ‘70s and throughout the ‘80s. Sagan even sent Vangelis recordings of sounds collected by satellites.
Vangelis likewise had a long partnership with NASA, becoming something of an official composer for the space agency. In 2001, Vangelis composed an epic choral symphony titled Mythodea, which was the primary theme music for NASA’s 2001 mission to Mars. Similarly, the film composer also collaborated on music with the European Space Agency to mark the crucial success of their Rosetta mission landing on a comet.
A PROLIFIC, MUSICAL LIFE
Vangelis was an artist and musician with seemingly endless dedication to his creative pursuits. His enormous body of work, nearly as vast as the cosmos, provides us with more than enough music to explore and appreciate. His sonic developments with the synthesiser and studio recording technology are still undoubtedly highly influential to new generations, and his timeless and profound compositional style proves to be as remarkable today as it was decades ago.
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Cover Credit: Michael Putland / Contributor / Getty
Writer | Edward Bond
Edward Bond is a multi-instrumentalist composer, performer, and writer currently bouncing between Trondheim and Berlin. He apparently has the eyes of the devil, enjoys leopard prints, and will read your tarot, but not your future.