Interview by
Bob Doerschuk

This year’s Academy Award for Best Soundtrack marks a milestone in the career of Evangelos Papathanassiou, known for years to his fans and now to the world by the name Vangelis. But more than that, it has a special meaning for the music world in general. Not only does it take the synthesiser one step further as a principal compositional and orchestral tool in movie scoring; the Oscar also signifies its undisputed arrival in the community of instruments.

The ascendancy of Vangelis, a self-taught artist whose melodic and colourative gifts soar unencumbered by his inability to read music, demonstrates that synthesisers, like pianos, violins, and every other accepted Western instrument, can cater to any and all compositional schools. Wendy Carlos takes centre stage in adapting them to the precise demands of Baroque performance, and Kraftwerk pioneers their application to a blend of neo-Futurism and rock, but Vangelis is the great romantic, the inheritor of mid-nineteenth century approaches to lush mixtures of sound and the sweeping thematic line. He is, compositionally, the electronic Tchaikovsky.

It is another reflection of the times that Vangelis has done what he has done without the benefit of a formal musical education. The great composers of the past generally could not have written full scores without having had some basic grounding in the complexities of transferring their inner music onto paper effectively enough to bring the sounds out into the open. But in his London studio, surrounded by banks of keyboards, percussion instruments, and recording apparatus, Vangelis is able to let his imagination run directly onto tape, improvising the basic melodic track first, then augmenting, altering, and enhancing as his mood dictates.

Some traditionalists in the musical world complain that the impact of technology has been to drain music of its life forces; they fear that the process of filtering their expression through electronics will somehow move it further from the fingertip immediacy to which acoustic musicians are accustomed. This may be true in the work of certain artists, but to the general public Vangelis is surely the first clear and undeniable exception to this idea. This burly bearded Greek expatriate is no white-smocked technician; he is as emotional in his conversation as in his art, at times verging on the mystical in his expostulations on the relationship between his music and his equipment. He, perhaps more than any other synthesist, has demonstrated that technology can be brought to the service of romantic expression.

Though he seldom performs live these days, preferring to spin complex synthesized webs in the shelter of his studio, Vangelis has been through the pop star experience. At one point, he was even invited to replace Rick Wakeman in Yes, a post many multi-keyboardists would have killed for. Yet Vangelis turned it down, since the pressures of fame, and the compromises it would have demanded on his work, were unacceptable to him.

For similar reasons he is somewhat uncomfortable with his Academy Award. Proud as he is of Chariots of Fire, Vangelis does not see it as his high-water mark. Music to him is not a flood, a contest to pile one wave higher than the next against some measure of public acceptance. In Vangelis’ eyes, it is more of a river, a steady stream of inspiration, twisting here, falling there - perhaps to accommodate dramatic action in a film, for example - but always flowing outward, from the heart. If the Oscar seems to represent a standard for him to beat in his future work, Vangelis may well at times wonder whether he would have been better off without it.

Now nearly 40 years old, Vangelis was born in Volos, Greece, and raised in Athens, 200 miles to the south. He began experimenting with music at the age of four, composing his first piece (for piano) and exploring other, more unusual sound sources by playing with radio interference and stuffing the family piano with nails and kitchen pans. Attempts to subject him to piano lessons proved fruitless; an indifferent student, Vangelis preferred developing his own ideas to playing those dreamed up by someone else in some distant time and place.

Rock attracted him at an early age. At 18 he acquired his first Hammond organ, and soon formed a group with some student friends. Called Forminx, it quickly became one of the top bands of the early '60s in Greece. However, partly because of limited opportunities for musical progress in his homeland, and partly because of the ominous political atmosphere stirred up by the 1968 Greek military coup, Vangelis packed up and moved to Paris at the age of 25.

There he formed another band, Aphrodite’s Child, which also featured the popular singer Demis Roussos. Their theatrical style of progressive rock fit in perfectly with European tastes at that time, and with their major hit record, “Rain And Tears,” they became one of the top bands on the continent. Vangelis enjoyed his success at first, but soon found his interest shifting away from the rock arena. He began working with French television and film directors on his first soundtracks, including the music for Frédéric Roussif’s Apocalypse des Animaux and Opera Sauvage.

By the time of his move to London in the mid-’70s, Vangelis was already well on his way toward his goal of building a self-contained music studio, or “laboratory,” as he calls it. Today it sits in London, tucked away near Marble Arch behind an unobtrusive side-street door. Inside, up some stairs, it unfolds in two enormous rooms. The ceilings tower overhead, dark and indistinct, but a wonderland of keyboards and equipment spread out brightly below. A simple walk-around tour offers a taste of the Vangelis arsenal: a Minimoog, Yamaha CS-40M synthesiser, Roland CSQ-100 digital sequencer, Yamaha CP-80 electric grand, Roland Compuphonic synthesiser, modified vintage Fender Rhodes electric piano, CSQ-600 digital sequencer, Roland VP-330 electric piano, Roland CR-5000 Compurhythm, Yamaha CS-80 synthesiser, Emu Emulator, Sequential Circuits Prophet-5 and Prophet-10, Simmons SDSV drum machine, Linn LM-1 drum computer, Roland JP-4, nine-foot Steinway grand piano, Yamaha GS-2, 24-track Quad-8 Pacifica mixing console, and an RSF one-octave Blackbox synthesiser. And, on an elevated platform overlooking the whole array, three timpani, a trap drum set, and rows of gongs, chimes, and exotic bells.

Of course, the laboratory is never quite finished. New additions come along, old instruments are stored. But despite the changes, Vangelis is comfortable here. He visits with friends amidst this maze of hardware, playfully punctuates his conversation with rim shots on a nearby snare drum, and ambles from one keyboard to the next, trying out new sounds, musing over new ideas, and storing them on tape. This is a home of sorts for Vangelis. It was here that he put together his popular solo albums, like Heaven And Hell, Albedo 0.39, Spiral, China, and See You Later, as well as his duo albums with singer Jon Anderson of Yes (Short Stories in 1979 and The Friends Of Mr Cairo in 1981), his 1978 project with Greek actress Irene Papas, who sang traditional Greek tunes to his less traditional accompaniment in Odes, and his other film or television assignments, like the ethereal theme to the Carl Sagan PBS series Cosmos, the Costa-Gavras movie Missing, and his most recent effort, the Ridley Scott adventure film Blade Runner.

And it was here that Keyboard met Vangelis. The bustle of the city seemed far away as we settled down in the stillness to discuss music and the machines that make it.

Recently an article in America claimed that you had studied piano for a while, contrary to reports you were sell-taught. Which is true?

The second one, actually. I started very early, around three years old. My parents tried to push me to go to the music school, but they failed. It was just an attempt.

Why did you object to the idea of attending music school?

Because I always believed that there are things you never can learn, and I never liked the idea of becoming a computer or a performer performing someone else’s compositions. To me, music was more fundamental and more important than the thought of becoming a musician. I never felt like a musician. I don’t feel like one now. Music to me is nature. It is not a music school; it is not a kind of job; that to me seems completely schizophrenic. You can learn some technical things in school, but the best thing is to build your own technique. You want to do your own thing, which is the way that you feel...

Can you remember your first musical thoughts as a child?

I remember, but it’s very difficult to put into words, because whatever we say through this whole interview will be about two kinds of music. One is natural music, and the other is what I call social music. This means you have to split the human being in two. There is his natural existence, with his natural behaviour to everything, not just to music. Then you have the social existence, where people learn how to behave. As you learn how to behave in society, you learn at the same time a music which derives from that by going to music schools and becoming a violin player, a keyboard player, or whatever, in order to play what is there already, to perform. You build a machine, and then you put in memories of how to play Mozart. Now, natural music is a different thing altogether.

So if someone is trained as a pianist, for example, you see that as a barrier that person must get past.

Not necessarily. Now, even if I am a fully qualified piano player from a school, I don’t think that means I can do anything in front of a synthesiser, because that’s a new instrument which requires a new technique, a new dialog altogether. If a pianist does play the synthesiser, it isn’t because he is a pianist; it’s because he was meant to do it. The synthesiser is like a mirror over the world, which is the same as nature.

Are you saying that it would be a mistake for anyone to put too much effort into going to music school, or are you just speaking for yourself?

I can’t say anything about that. I think each human being has to do whatever he feels, but with a great amount of understanding - with total understanding - of why he does it. If he does it to become famous, then forget it. Music is not a business that you go into for fame. Creation is not fame.

Does it get harder for you to create as you become more famous?

Oh, it’s a tremendous problem. Sometimes I’m completely panicked. Like now, for example. I’m living in constant fear that I have too many social values, which creation doesn’t have. Creative values are completely different from social values. Creation comes first, then analysis and evaluation come later. By putting the evaluation before, you kill the creation. Creation is completely unpredictable and free.

What do you do to keep your own music free?

This comes only from consciousness and awareness. That’s all. But sometimes I fail at this because I’m a human being and I live in society. I go through all the usual everyday problems that everybody else has, so my problem is to keep the balance between this side, which is success and fame and all that, and the creative side, which is pure and has nothing to do with fame. To me, success is a vehicle for me to keep this place, my laboratory, alive, and to buy more synthesisers. Nobody is going to just give me money for that. You have to make it yourself.

At least you must feel good about that aspect of financial success.

It is a fantastic situation, like going to some fantastic place. If you go to India or China or someplace else that not too many people experience, then you will call me, because you are a friend of mine, and say, “Come with me next time.” You want to share that. What I am saying is that I try to share with other people. With two or three million people buying my albums, I share not my ego with them, but what I experience through this. This is the main reason why I am working before the public. Maybe in a few years, if I don’t feel the need to do it, I won’t do it anymore.

Do you feel a limitation in how much you can share, though, by going through as impersonal a medium as recordings, rather than by playing directly to live audiences?

Oh, those are two different things. You see, what I’m doing on records is completely spontaneous. It’s like playing in front of you now. When you have a picture, whether it’s of a battle or a bird, you have what it was at that moment forever. This is the recording. You can repeat it, and every time you repeat it you can feel it and see it in a different way. This is the power and the beauty of music. Now, if I play without recording myself, the music is lost forever. This is also fantastic, in a different way, but we humans have a tendency to preserve things. Maybe in a different theological society this would be wrong, but we do.

On those rare occasions when you do give a live performance, do you try to enhance your communication with the audience through multimedia techniques?

No, no. I hate visual effects. I’ve never believed that music is an entertainment anyway. It’s not my job, and the concert is not for me an opportunity for success. It’s an opportunity of sharing and questioning.

Going back to your early years, did Greek ecclesiastical or folk music influence your musical development? One seems to hear an echo of Greek Orthodox choral music, for example, in your score to Ignacio.

Possibly. You see, Greek music was always very important through my childhood. As a music it is very rich in simplicity, and that’s always been a great factor. Ethnic music is very important - not just Greek, but every ethnic music. For me it was Greek, because I am Greek, but I never felt that this was therefore the best music. It is very significant and important, but it is only one part of ethnic music from all over the world.

And unlike the social music you avoid, it isn’t primarily an economic commodity.

Ethnic music is never affected by economics. The only thing that affects it is when it has been treated like a museum piece, which it is not. Ethnic music is more alive than that. I give you an example. Two years ago I recorded an album of Greek ethnic music in a completely contemporary way, with synthesisers; the actress Irene Papas did the vocal. Historically, nothing like that had ever happened before. Nobody had dared to touch ethnic music that way. Instead, they watched while ethnic music died, died, died, more and more every day. But today this album is one of my most successful ones in Europe. Everybody loves it, especially in villages, because they can hear that it is the real thing. I’m working on another album now in the style of Byzantine music, which has been passed to us through the church music in Greece.

These were primarily vocal music. Wasn’t the piano your first instrument?

Yeah, it was the first instrument I found in the house. Plus all the kitchen stuff, the bottles and pans. I would use them for percussion. I’d put water in glasses to make all these sounds: bing, bing, bing [hums descending scale]. When I was four years old I used to have a bed with tubes on the frame. I would put my bed in pieces, and blow into these tubes and do strange sounds.

So the piano was a beautiful instrument for you...

... But just one instrument, not enough. So I put nails in the piano, played on the strings, banged on the keys, making incredible sounds come out.

As a child, did you do much music with your friends?

No. I always played by myself, but in my later teenage days I started playing with other people. I didn’t listen to other musicians either. Never. For one thing, in Greece at that time we didn’t have many chances to find records. And when I got my first Hammond organ, a B-3, I didn’t know what it was. It was a totally new thing for me, so I treated it without any previous memory of other people’s playing. I heard Jimmy Smith and other people after I got it, and I could play like that, but it was not my way to do it. I treated it more like a synthesiser than an organ. To me it was always, “Find the sound possibilities.” You can play jazz on it if you want, but what the Hammond organ could give me was more from the spectrum of sound than from just one place.

Did you do anything unusual in amplifying it?

Well, everybody used a Leslie, but I never did. I went straight through the PA system with different gadgets - echoes and things like that.

Did you play the foot pedals?

Sometimes, yes. I used to do incredible things with the Hammond organ. You can’t imagine. I had some beautiful strings with it.

How did you get those sounds? Did you rewire any of the presets?

I did some few things inside the organ, but not a great deal. When you play an instrument, it’s the way you play that makes the difference. To me it wasn’t the point to become a virtuoso and play as fast as possible, or to show off by playing a very difficult phrase ten times. What matters is the total.

Since so many people seem to enjoy virtuoso displays in concert, that must have made it difficult for you to work.

No. You see, an instrument to me is not an object of performance. It’s an object of creation. I mean, I can perform, and I can play fast if I want to, but that’s not the point. If I need to, yes, but how many times am I going to need that? Not every time I give a concert.

As a creator or composer, do you ever regret not being able to read music?

No, not at all. I don’t need to. My score is my tape. I score on the tape, not on paper.

So you don’t even have your own system of notation.

No. My orchestration occurs during my playing because I developed the technique of playing different synthesisers at the same time.

Do you feel, though, that it’s important for synthesists to eventually develop a standard notation that would allow them to communicate their work to one another on paper?

Yes, I think that’s very important. I believe that in the future there will be orchestras and ensembles with synthesiser players, when the synthesiser will be as established as the piano. If you want people to play live and repeat what you’ve done, there must be a way. It’s very difficult, because you always have the personal way in which you play. The way that Mozart or Handel or Bach played their music is not the way that we play it now. They had different instruments and different techniques. Still, I believe that this standard notation is going to happen.

Has your way of composing changed dramatically since you began writing at the age of four?

No, because when you are four years old that is a different age from when you are 20, but the fundamental thing never changes. I have the same essential need now that I had when I was four years old. Sometimes I go through tapes I used to make on my little domestic recorder and listen to them, and although it’s not exactly the same thing, it’s the same root. Sometimes I can’t believe that I’ve created that music with almost nothing.

When you begin composing, do you hear the music as an abstract theme, or as a specific sound?

As a sound. I might call it a violin, but I don’t know what that is. Then it’s a strange feeling. You feel that you have to start creating. It’s like you feel when you have to go to the toilet. Then I just push the tape, and it happens when it happens. I don’t know how it happens. I don’t want to know. 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. If you think about how to breathe, you choke. But when you do things dramatically, they happen like that.

Do you usually begin on any particular instrument?

It just depends. Every day is different.

Do you play often without turning the tape on?

Many times. Sometimes when I play, I don’t mind if I don’t keep it. Sometimes I do things then that may be better than the things you hear. But even though they are lost, so what? Actually, they are not lost. We think they are lost because we can’t hear them again, but they are actually there all the time.

What was your first synthesiser?

It was a very cheap, small Korg. Quite nice, quite humble, a primitive, simple instrument. I’ve done a lot of things with it. But the first time I heard synthesisers, I was very disappointed. I never liked this oueee-oueee sound. It’s a very cheap, small, uninteresting sound. So when I saw pictures of this great big Moog or whatever it was, I said, “My God, this is what all that’s about?” The reason it sounded so bad, actually, was because of the way that people played it.

I see that there are no modular synthesisers anywhere in your studio.

I never liked the fact that you had these big instruments and you had to plug in all those things. It was a waste of time to have to program like that. A little later, in the early ’70s, we started having instruments that we could play immediately - poor synthesisers in some ways, but quite nice.

Did you sense from the beginning what freedoms synthesisers would allow you as a composer?

It was a different freedom. I never condemned the conventional instruments. They are beautiful. They will always be there, and they are what they are. But synthesisers are what they are as well. I can’t imagine myself using only one thing. It’s impossible.

How do you feel about the way the synthesiser is being used in the music world today?

[Sighs.] You see, I am not here to discuss or criticize other people. The only question I can ask is, Why do people do it? Why do people play synthesisers? They do it for fame, as I said, and for fashion. That doesn’t get you very far. But if you do it because you can’t do without it, then it makes sense.

What about audience reactions to synthesiser music? Chariots of Fire was enjoyed by many people who probably would never have thought they would enjoy listening to electronic music of any kind.

Well, many times I’ve heard people who were looking at a painting of something like a flower say, “Oh, it’s so beautiful. It’s almost like real.” And when they see the flower itself, they say, “It’s so beautiful that it’s almost not real anymore.” Both things are absurd. In both cases it’s a very intellectual way of accepting something. In music, it’s not because it’s a synthesiser or not a synthesiser. I like it or I don’t like it, that’s all.

That’s true, but still there are many people who shut the door on synthesiser music only because it is played on synthesisers.

It’s unfortunate for them, but that’s not my problem. There’s nothing I can do. It’s a psychological problem for people who need to accept other things in society too. It has nothing to do with me anymore.

But as an artist, don’t you feel a responsibility to try to communicate with these people?

No. The only responsibility I feel is to myself because of my popularity. I must ask myself, Why is my music so popular now? Have I done anything wrong? I feel that it is possible for people with a lot of popularity to give something to listeners that could be very damaging.

Why do you think the theme to Chariots of Fire has been so successful? Does it sound different to you from the other music you’ve been doing over the years?

No, not at all. It’s exactly the same, no difference. I never did it for success. It’s only another piece of music.

Did you study footage of the film as you wrote the soundtrack?


So they said, “We need 30 seconds of music here...”

But I didn’t do music for 30-second bits. I did it for the total. I tried to put myself in the movie. I tried to become a contemporary of the people in the film, with a kind of memory of that period. I didn’t want it to become period music, but I didn’t want it to become contemporary music either. That was the difficulty of this film.

That, at least, must have made this project different from your other recordings.

Yeah, mainly because I had to work with something specific, a film. Now, in many ways Blade Runner is a completely opposite kind of film. It requires a lot more music, suited to many different situations. You don’t have the unity you had in the music to Chariots.

But the compositional process is the same?

Yes. I still watch the film. But normally, when I’m not working on soundtracks, I am very spontaneous. I don’t work with any specific thing - only the moment and nature. That’s all.

Still, your albums do often have thematic unity. How, for example, did you come up with the idea for Albedo 0.39? That title, of course, indicates the light-reflective capability of the Earth.

As I’ve said, nature and space are always very important to me, although I try to avoid words like “space” because they are now very common and fashionable. Fashion is something from the social world. It comes and goes, but space and all those truths are always there. Even if you take the albedo out and put in another name, it doesn’t change anything. At that moment I was very into that kind of thing. I am now as well, but on the day I began creating that music I was in, let’s call it, an inspired kind of situation. But, you see, I never record to make an album. I record because I record, and from what I have I decide to release an album. It’s not like, “Now I’m going to do an album, and when I finish it I will continue with the next album.” Even if I stop releasing albums I’m going to continue to compose.

But do you make music more easily if you have something specific in mind - a picture, a story?

No, no. When I compose I never see pictures. No visual things at all.

But you’ve composed soundtracks before.

Yeah, I’ve done television, things like that.

Haven’t they demanded working off of visual images?

Yes, but not as specifically as in Chariots of Fire.

How does your creative process differ when recording with Jon Anderson, formerly with Yes?

It’s like the discussion you and I are having now. We sit down, I start playing, he starts singing. Maybe 80% of the keyboards and Jon’s lyrics on our two albums were made up as we were recording. I do a little cassette, he takes it back and overdubs some lyrics, then we mix. Maybe I do two overdubs if I need to, and that’s all.

Why is Jon Anderson the one singer you’ve worked with over the past ten years or so, aside from Irene Papas?

I don’t know. It just happens that way. Partly it’s because we’re friends. We never said, “Let’s do an album together.” It just happened when he came over one afternoon. It took us one afternoon, and just one tape, to do our first album. The next day we listened to what we had done. It was quite fun and we enjoyed ourselves, though still we didn’t decide to produce an album with it. But then many more friends and people listened and said, “Oh, come on, you have to make this an album,” so we decided to do it. That’s how Short Stories came out. Because of its success, we did The Friends Of Mr Cairo, and we’ve also recorded a third.

Given your admiration for Anderson’s singing, why didn’t you join Yes when they invited you to replace Rick Wakeman?

I never really admired the band very much. I never felt that compatible with them. Yes used to be very good, but I never felt that their music fit well with the way I think. I don’t know. To me, Yes was a little bit of patchwork. They’ve done great things and had a great career, but I never felt like being a part of the group.

In your work with Anderson - actually, in most of your work - you create very orchestral sounds on your synthesisers. Do you consciously try to duplicate the sounds of familiar acoustic instruments?

I don’t try to imitate. What is a horn or trombone? It is an instrument or a machine that is made to produce a certain sound wave with certain harmonics in a certain range. Now, this sound can be produced by blowing into one instrument, scratching another, or by electronics. You’re talking in each case about similar areas of sound. These are all sounds that are in nature anyway. We don’t invent any new sounds.

The trombone sound exists in nature, and to capture that sound from nature in the past, the only thing we could do was to produce a trombone. Now, to change or extend that sound, we build synthesisers. But even though the instruments are different, we are still talking about the same areas of sound, the same family. You can distort them or do whatever you like, but you’re talking about the same given law, the first law of our acoustic system.

Yet you also have the ability now to produce sounds that could not have been heard in nature.

Yes, because you go beyond the old boundaries. When you blow in a trombone, you have a breath problem. Your lungs can produce only so much pressure and air, so it’s a mechanical thing. Even with ten fingers, you are limited to a certain speed, because you have a skeleton with muscles around it that permit you to go from A to B, but not to C. With a synthesiser, you can go to C, and that’s not something that shouldn’t happen. Your brain, your heart, your feelings, these are different instruments, so synthesisers can come past mechanical limitations and go deeper into human possibilities. There is no limitation in the synthesiser. The limitation is in the brain of the human being. And until we reach the limits of the brain, we have a long way to go.

More specifically, how do you create your very realistic string sounds? Do you have a favourite instrument for that?

No, I do it with different things. It depends on the phrasing, the key, the kind of mood I’m in. You see, for string sounds, people tend to go buy string synthesisers, but they always forget that a string sound is not only the machine, it’s the way you play the strings. To make a string sound as real as possible, the way you play has to be as a string player would play. You can’t play as a pianist or a drummer. It is impossible to have strings come out that way. It also depends on the way it’s orchestrated. To create the sound of a symphony orchestra, I try to be each player in the orchestra. Then I have to arrange the whole thing in a way that is equivalent to symphony orchestration. Now, when I’m doing something different on the same synthesisers, the colours I had put together before are in a sense no longer compatible.

Have you ever worked with Mellotrons or pre-recorded tapes?

No, I never have liked the Mellotron. It’s never been used right. It’s a very clever, but insufficient idea.

On your album ‘China’, it sounds as if you studied Chinese instruments as models for your programming.

I never did, actually. Many people have told me this, but I’ve never been to China and I don’t have one Chinese album at home. I can learn more simply by looking into a Chinese face. I never pretend to play like a Chinese musician.

The solo line in “The Long March” from that album creates the impression of a string instrument very strongly.

I think I did that with the Yamaha CS-80. I used that a lot on that album.

What about the violin lead line in “Lotus Blossom”?

That really was a violin, played by a friend of mine.

You play what sounds like a pipe organ in the introduction to “Nucleogenesis,” from Albedo 0.39.

Oh, yeah. That was actually a very small synthesiser. I can’t even remember the make, and I think I don’t have it anymore. It was like a children’s toy. Again, it’s the way you play things, when and how you use them, that’s important in creating a certain effect. Sometimes with very cheap instruments you can produce incredible things.

But you won’t go into detail about what instrument you use and how you use it to get certain specific sounds?

The problem is, I don’t know what happens! You see, there are people who know exactly what they are doing; they program this, think about that, and so on. With me, it just happens.

Well, maybe you can tell us about some of your outside sound sources. You’ve utilized recorded telephone announcements, strange percussion devices; what is the most unusual tape you’ve used?

I wouldn’t say unusual, but maybe the rarest was on a tape that came from NASA, when an astronaut was walking on the moon. He was saying, “Oh, this is great! Hello, world!” while jumping on the moon. That’s on Albedo.

Of all your instruments, which keyboard action do you like best?

That is a good question. I’ve been through so many different keyboards that I’ve had to develop. My hands are ready to play anything, and so in a matter of five minutes I can adjust to the demands of any keyboard. Each instrument has a character. My way with them is to have a dialog, a love affair, with each one. The more you try to understand its behaviour, the more you have the response you need.

You have a Steinway nine-foot grand. Is this the only piano you’ve recorded on in recent years?

No. I’ve done a lot of things with this piano, but I’ve done a lot of things with the Bösendorfer Imperial too, which may be a better piano.

In what way?

In every way. It’s more sensitive in responding to the many dynamics, moods, and characteristics of playing. It’s really perfection, that instrument. A piano is a very difficult instrument. To put a feeling into a piano piece, you have to be able to cheat a little bit, because the piano is very stable. You can’t make your own sound, like on a synthesiser; the sound is there, so the good pianos must be so delicate. The smallest differences in touch should be able to produce a different character, and that makes a piece interesting immediately. That’s what we call performance.

And the piano is surely the ultimate keyboard instrument as well, since the keys play a much greater role in creating nuances of tone on pianos than on other instruments.

The piano of course is a very difficult keyboard instrument because it is very rigid, but I think that the most difficult technique today is on touch-responsive electronic keyboards like the CS-80, where different pressures can have a great effect.

What about pedalling on the piano, then?

The pedal is the breath of the piano. If you miss with your pedal, the piano will choke. A fraction means a lot. It is a fundamental, maybe the most fundamental thing, of the piano. I use all three pedals constantly.

Do you alter the piano signal when you record?

Sometimes, but when you use a piano, it’s a piano. I remember in the late ’60s, before I had synthesisers, I used to play the piano through really incredible gadgets - all the effects pedals you can imagine. Now it doesn’t matter, because we do things in a different way.

Do you have a favourite way of miking the piano now?

No, no. I just do it the way it sounds right. It doesn’t matter if the microphone is on the other side of the room.

Do you have your equipment modified frequently? Your Rhodes seems to have been extensively worked on.

I had a graphic equalizer and things like that put into it, but that is not too important. Sometimes it can be, but there are other things you can do. You take this instrument, you go through a graphic equalizer, or you take it straight out and go through any other kind of gadget you want, or you send it to the mixing desk and change the sound again. But that’s all very personal.

Do you add echo often in the mix?

Possibly, yes. Many times. But you see, when I record things, I make my sound the moment I play. I go straight into the desk. I don’t really put the sound on tape and then change it. The given sound is 99% there when I make it.

As you accumulate new instruments, do you ever get rid of older ones?

Oh, no. I always keep my keyboards because of the good memories. They can always be useful. Each instrument keeps its own character. Nothing changes.

Are there still sounds in your mind that the instruments of today cannot release?

Yeah. I have in mind a different way for using synthesisers, but I’m first going to have to get together with the people who make them.

What changes would you like to see them make?

It’s difficult to explain sounds by words. And, again, all those things are personal to me in connection with my technique, so whatever I might have built for me would be completely irrelevant for other people. That’s why you don’t see these machines, because of marketing. The question shouldn’t be one of economics; the question is to make a better instrument for the sake of making it. For years and years, every time I ask them to do something new in a synthesiser, they say, “Oh, come on, you ask the impossible,” but then four years later they do it. Now I know they are going to do it, so why not do it now?

And if I were one of those synthesiser designers, what would you ask me to do?

I’d ask the impossible.