An interview with Vangelis - November 1982 - Canada

An interview with Vangelis

Gilles Bédard

Vangelis? You recognize his name of course, though perhaps you’ve only just noticed him. You’ll remember his recent Oscar for the powerful and evocative music of ‘Chariots of Fire’, and you may for that reason have noticed his name in the credits of Missing and Blade Runner, or on the TV series Cosmos. All this is new, but Vangelis isn’t. The music has long left the man in the shadows. It’s voluntary too. Vangelis seldom gives out interviews.

Which makes it all the more remarkable that somehow our reporter, Gilles Bédard, managed to get the interview that has been refused to so many other magazines and newspapers and TV networks. Not that it was easy, but Bédard never gave up, even if it meant enriching the world’s telephone networks.

Once he has the green light, he made more calls and sent more letters - to England, France, Japan, Greece - to nail down the research details that make up a truly great interview.

Bédard then sat down with editor Patrick Schupp to edit the recording of the interview down into manageable form. It was a labour of love. Bédard, as you may have guessed, is a Vangelis fanatic. Schupp caught the virus, and you will too.

When did you first feel attracted by the beauty of sound, and when did you first start making music?

Early on, I was only four years old. We had a piano at home, and I was fascinated by it. I started tickling the keys, then really playing, then composing without quite realizing where I was going. It seemed like the natural thing to do, it was spontaneous.

You’re supposed to have started giving concerts when you were six. True?

Certainly. And I was playing my own compositions too. But I never had music lessons. I did not want them.

So it was important for you to be able to express yourself without academic constraints. That left you a wider margin of freedom, in relation to your composition, to the musical structures you were creating.

Exactly. I have always felt instinctively that creation could neither be learned nor taught. Performing is different: you can learn Beethoven, or Mozart, or some new technique. But what I did was create my own technique, to let me express what I felt. I have given concerts, of course, but composition is a lot more important to me.

Let’s start with your first experiences in sound, when you joined the group Forminx when you were 15.

That was a group at the school I was attending, and I was very young. They were playing mostly for fun, and they took me in. Ultimately we became stars throughout Greece, without really realizing what was happening. That was very pleasant but I was not thinking of making a career out of it. Like any other teenager, I was having a ball.

Were you playing the group’s own compositions, or were you playing current hits?

Both, and we were playing a lot of jazz too. That’s one kind of music I love. I think, in fact, that it’s the most important musical form of our century.

Speaking of jazz, have you been influenced by a style or a performer in particular?

Not really, we were playing it all. We were experimenting, and most of all we were having fun playing together. However I caught on very quickly that you could make enough money at it to become really free. That’s what convinced me to go on with a second group, Aphrodite’s Child. With that one I really earned my freedom. An I just don’t want to rely entirely on producers and record companies for my livelihood.

You started off playing the piano and the organ?

That was all I had.

When did you first take up electronic musical instruments?

As soon as they appeared on the market. That would have been around the end of the Sixties.

You favoured the Hammond organ at first. Weren’t you ever drawn to more unusual instruments, like the Mellotron?

No, I’ve never liked the Mellotron. I’ve never thought it was fully developed.

What instruments do you use in the studio?

All the instruments you can imagine. And that includes percussion instruments from all over the world.

Including digital synthesizers?

You know, with my reputation, a lot of synthesizer makers come around and lend me instruments to try. That doesn’t mean their products are any good. After all, they’re in business, aren’t they? Generally speaking, I keep the instruments I like.

Do you program the synthesizers yourself, or do you delegate that?

I program my own, yes, but I’ve got an assistant to help me when I’m actually recording. Which is a good thing, because otherwise I’d be in the studio all alone, and that would be sad. (laugh)

How do you work?

Spontaneously, always spontaneously. I follow the inspiration of the moment. I record everything that I compose, and I always keep the first tracks.

What about the percussion? Do you lay it down first, or later?

That depends. If the percussion is going to be predominant I’ll record it first, but it really depends on the piece. I don’t go by any fixed formula. There are as many working methods as there are pieces of music.

Do you do one piece at a time, or do you record several works at once?

I do several at once, but I try to finish each one off quickly, while it’s still new. Otherwise the freshness and the spontaneity evaporate.

Today, after all the experience you’ve had, have your working methods change at all?

I began with very simple instruments, if you compare them to what I use today. I get a purer sound now, a better sound. And I’m looking to the future too. If digital recording turns out as promising as it looks, there may come a time when the result is really fantastic: sound without background noise, without distortion. But I have to add that it’s a mistake to sacrifice musical expression to pure technique. Everything has to sound natural.

Each of your recordings has its own theme. Do you choose a style ahead of time, or does it develop as you work?

It develops during the recording, and I always go with the inspiration of the moment. I compose an enormous amount of music each year, but I don’t always know what’s going to go into any given record. You know, what you can hear on disc is about ten percent of what I produce.

Where do you get your inspiration? Does the fact that your’re Greek influence your music? Do you prefer Greek popular music or traditional music?

I was born in Greece, and I carry within me its climate, its spirit, its traditions, and its music. And yet it’s not the folk music that really attracts me. I see a fusion between East and West, without seams, without frontiers. To me music is all one, it’s indivisible. Only the language changes.

Does that mean that you wouldn’t make a distinction between, say, jazz and African music?

That’s right. You can use any language to express the same thing. The form changes, yes, but the substance remains the same.

It must be tempting to go for real popularity. All you’d have to do is bring out another ‘Chariots of Fire’. But you always seem to be looking for another path. Why?

You’re right. Once you’ve overcome the major obstacles in a composition, the rest is too easy. And I still want to have fun, I still want to be free. That’s something the record companies still can’t understand. I’m not in the rat race. I want to do what I want, when I want it. I’ve got nothing against selling millions of records, but that’s not what my life is based on. That’s why I’m always changing styles, to avoid the trap of easy success. The most important thing to me is to let inspiration come by itself, and not try to order it around. You have to ’feel the vibrations’, and let them happen. It has to be real and natural, like making love. My way of creating is an act of respect for Nature.

When you create, do you start with a particular tonal colour?

I feel the vibrations of the tonal colours first, and then choose the appropriate musical instrument. I’ll be influenced by, let’s say, the scenes of a film, or by actual colours. I then choose the elements I need. It’s hard to explain. I really can’t categorize my music.

You paint too, don’t you? Is there any relation between your painting and your music?

I suppose I could compare the two to a dialogue between two complementary but different things. When I’m saturated with music I turn to painting, and vice versa. This coming and going from one to the other is a wonderful source of inspiration. It’s always Nature, but expressed differently. But my music is less limited than my painting. When I compose, I feel but I don’t see what I feel: no colours, no landscapes, just feelings. Nature isn’t just trees and flowers. It’s also microbes, energy, vibrations, the whole cosmos.

Which may be why your music fits the TV series Cosmos so well.

Actually Carl Sagan made all the arrangements with my publishers without even telling me. It was quite a shock when I saw the programs on TV, but I very much liked the way he used my music. I was doubly happy because I’d heard a lot about Sagan, and I wanted to meet him.

Let’s talk about your music. Your first solo disc ‘Fais que ton rêve soit plus long que la nuit’ was recorded in France in 1972. Then the following year you recorded ’Earth’, an album which has just come out here. Tell us about it.

The Greek influence is very strong, but the influence of Doric songs is even stronger. That was the last recording I did in France, because I was very disappointed with the attitude of the French recording milieu toward music. There’s no inventiveness. Everything is so straight, so narrow-minded. This disc was sort of an ’adieu’ to all that.

So now we’re in 1975, with a disc called ‘Ignacio’ (Can You Hear the Dogs Barking?), which was movie music. That was your first international hit. The same year you brought out an album called ‘Heaven and Hell’.

In between I’d moved to London and set up my studio there. For my first British recording I tried to do something difficult and recherché, something completely different from what I had done before. That was also my first collaboration with Jon Anderson. One day he came to the studio and we recorded together a song called ’So Long Ago, So Clear’. We used it on the Heaven and Hell album,and I decided to work with him again.

In 1975 you brought a record called ‘Albedo 0.39’. What does it mean?

That’s the index of light reflection of the Earth. I’ve always been fascinated by outer space and the universe, and I really wanted to follow that style. That album was a lot freer, a lot more spontaneous than ‘Heaven and Hell’, which was very orchestrated, very symphonic.

Let’s move to 1978 with ‘Beaubourg’. It’s odd, almost like contemporary serious music.

‘Beaubourg’ is the big modern museum in Paris, which I found very bizarre. But what you call contemporary serious music, I just call the music of today. I had a more ’pop’ style too, but this time I wanted to do something really non-commercial. I find it really ironic to see in the pop section of the record stores the kind of music you’d normally find on ‘Deutsche Grammophon’ or Nonesuch. I also wanted to show that, having had the courage to make that kind of record, I could succeed with it. Which is what happened, no thanks to RCA which tried to bury the record.

It is a difficult work, but after you listen to it a few times, you find a certain lyricism, and some beautiful melodies.

It’s true that it needs to be listened to more than once. For me, ’contemporary’ music, as you call it, is just another kind of music, which I can compose like any other : spontaneously. The music has to speak to the listener. Maybe ‘Beaubourg’ isn’t the best example, because it’s very special, very difficult music. But I’ve got, in my desk drawer, other music you’d certainly call ’contemporary’, which is totally different again. I’m keeping it for myself, though, because no one would ever take a chance on it. The media really condition the public, and nobody likes to take a chance in the music field.

But don’t you have full creative control at Polygram?

Sure, but if they don’t like what I do they won’t work hard to push it. You always have to remember that you’re working with human beings, not machines. It’s sad, but despite that ’creative freedom’, there are more and more limitations. You can’t do this, you can’t do that. You compose in three or four minutes slices, so your music can be used in a sandwich on the radio. These media which are supposed to make your work easier actually contribute to musical pollution. They grind out copy after copy of previous successes. It’s unbearably boring.

Let’s talk about your next record, ‘China’, which was, in 1979, your first disc on Polygram. Why ‘China’?

I tried to capture on the record ‘China’ as I fell it, with its peculiar character, its perfume. I find certain resemblances between the music of ‘China’ and the music of Greece. Of course I find a lot of musical similarities all around the world.

East meets West?


Then, there’s ‘Shorts Stories’, your first full album with Jon Anderson.

During one of his visits to my studio we recorded a number of pieces together, without knowing exactly what we would do with them. Those pieces became ‘Short Stories’. The record has no other theme.

The same year, Frederick Rossif asked you to do the soundtrack of ‘Opera Sauvage’, and you also did ‘Odes’, with Irene Papas. That’s a lot . Why ’Odes’, which is so Greek?

That music is very important to me because it’s so close to my roots. It’s usually played in conservatory fashion, as though it were a museum piece. I wanted to show that it was still living music, and it became a gold record in Greece. That ’museum’ music is now part of Greek everyday life. Irene Papas signs, while I play tunes a few hundred years old that I know by heart. I just added in the odd thing here and there, to breathe new life into the music without betraying its spirit. You can improvise music like that today just as they did centuries ago, and I think I proved it. By the way, Irene and I have since recorded another album, based on old Byzantine Music.

You were back with Jon Anderson the following year to make ‘See You Later’, a disc which has just been released here. Anderson sang with you in two of the songs. I think that record is specially important to you, isn’t it?

I had written lyrics for it, something I’d never done before. If you listen carefully you can sense my rather cynical way of viewing the world. I mean ’see you later’ is one of those stupid meaningless expressions that gets bandied about everywhere in this hard and terrorized world. I find that funny. Anyway, the record wasn’t what people expected. I’ve got the same problem now with ‘Chariots of Fire’. It’s such a hit that everybody will expect my next record to sound just like it. But they’re in for a surprise. As soon as an image of me springs up, I do my best to smash it. To return to ‘See You Later’, I actually wrote it in 1975, and at that time it was so radical nobody wanted to touch it. So I worked on other things, and five years later I came back to it because I wanted to. I wrote some other revolutionary things at about the same time, things I haven’t released.

Why not a double album, with one pop disc, and the other more experimental, more daring?

I don’t know. Sometimes I do very simple melodious music, and sometimes I do very electronic music. It depends on the inspiration.

What about your latest success, ‘Chariots of Fire’?

I had carte blanche from the director on that one. I wanted something rather contemporary, and yet, in keeping with the movie’s very Victorian concept. So it’s music of today, influenced by the spirit of another era. The second side is a kind of symphonic suite, which gave me room to really develop the music and set up a dialogue among the different themes.

And you have also done the soundtracks of ‘Blade Runner’ and ‘Missing’. Are you happy with them?

I did what I wanted with them. For the rest, I will just wait and see.