From the heart: The Power of Music

Appeared in ‘New Scientist’, Vangelis in a conversation with Michael Bond, published in November 2003.

What does it feel like to make music? Is composition a structured process, or is it always instinctive, irrational? Here the Greek composer Vangelis, most famous for writing the scores to the films Blade Runner and Chariots of Fire (for which he won an Oscar), explains how he does it.

MUSIC, for me, is not just about notes. It is about everything. Music exists before we exist. It is the shaper of the universe. It is the universe itself. It is the primary vibration, the first thing that moves everything else. Everybody understands the language of music, whether they are a composer or not. We do not necessarily need to learn it. We need rather to remember it, for it is part of us. It is deep in our memory.

More and more, I feel I had tremendous luck not to go to music school. I do not read or write music, and I do not believe I need to. I am not against formal training, and there are some extraordinary trained musicians. But music schools do not necessarily teach music. They teach you how to interpret certain things, how to read and write. They teach you a repertoire. Yet music is more fundamental and deeper than that.

You do not learn in music school, for example, the essence behind the notes, that each note is an entity in its own right. Each note can be a galaxy. The main reason I feel this, the reason music became the main language for me to understand the world around me, is because I was not taught in the conventional way, which can close doors instead of opening them. From the age of four I learned to let myself go, and in this way learned the fundamental language and function of music.

I compose spontaneously. I try to capture the music without the influence of reasoning or the possibility of alteration. The only way to achieve this is not to think. Thought is a tool of analysis. It cannot be a tool of creation. The crucial thing is to get away from thought and analysis and create as much as possible without subjectivity and misplaced ego, to be absent as much as possible, to be detached from your environment — to be totally "available". To analyse something you first have to create it. This, it seems to me, is the natural order.

When the music comes raw like this it is closer to the truth of the moment. When I touch the keyboard, I do not have to know what is going to happen. There is definitely a reason why I play a particular thing and not something else, but do not try to analyse that. Often after I have created something I will walk away and leave it and will not come back to check it sometimes for months, in order to eliminate any possible attachment.

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Of course, when I am writing a score for a film, the situation is different. You cannot use the spontaneous approach in quite the same way. You have to get inspired by what you see, and to take that as a starting point. You have to try to work like a magnifying glass, to bring to people what the pictures cannot completely say and then extend it to something deeper. The emotion I am trying to get across is not all mine.

It is a very interesting exercise, though it is a different approach to my usual one. I do it because I need to. I have to do things like record albums and write film scores in order to build my studio, to buy my equipment, to function. Nevertheless, it is still possible to be truly creative within this kind of structure. All my life I have practised the spontaneous approach, so it does get through when I have to do something to order like write a film score. These things come instinctively. Normally when I am writing a score, I play while I'm watching the film. Most of the time, as with Chariots of Fire, Blade Runner and 1492 — Conquest of Paradise, I write it on the first take.

Music is so powerful, it can change everything about a film. It can change everything about everything. It can be therapeutic or it can be destructive. And we have to be very careful when looking at the effect of music on people because people can interpret music in very personal, subjective ways. You can play someone a piece of music and see them react in a very positive or negative way. This is not always because of the music itself. It may be because the music is triggering a memory of a happy or unhappy period in someone's life.

People often tend to make music to get famous, or to make money. This is almost criminal, because we end up being surrounded by a cacophony of sound. We end up with an unnecessary mass of music. What purpose does that serve? Does it serve the public? No, it serves only the people hoping to make money by selling it. This is not a good thing. We are playing with a dangerous weapon. When I am asked to make a record, I often say to myself, do I have to do that? I do not want to impose anything on people. It is good to share music, but used in the wrong way it can be a dangerous thing.

It is the same with technology. I do not use computers when I write music. Everything is direct. I am not against technology, I am against how we design and use it. In every field, technology should serve people. Lately people are being used by technology. We need more than technology to call ourselves civilised. It can be a handicap. In music, technology is useful when it is being used properly, but it can help you only after you have created.

The crucial thing to remember is that it is not the composer who makes the music so much as the music that tells the composer what to do. The composer is like an instrument. We should be conscious that we are dealing with something that is vital and fundamental. This is what I have tried to do, and am still trying to do, every day. ◊

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