An interview with Vangelis - June 1979 - France

An interview with Vangelis

conducted by
Dali De Clair

Alone in his huge underground studio near Marble Arch, Vangelis continues to work, bringing his synthesisers to life. In his mid thirties, his hair is straight and no longer tousled as it was when he was in the band Aphrodite’s Child, now, Vangelis divides his time between his recording studio and his immense apartment near the Albert Hall.…


I have lived in London for four years. Here, there is nothing else to do other than concentrate on my music - time, people and the rhythm of the city are different here. London is calmer than Paris, and being here helps me to concentrate. I have just invested a hundred thousand pounds in my studio - I have changed everything.


My studio is all that interests me - it’s my life. I do not lead the life of a typical pop star. What is important to me is to work with the best equipment and synthesisers that allow me to do what I want in my ‘laboratory’.

How much time do you spend in your laboratory?

I don’t know. I get up in the morning and I go to my laboratory. There are days when I forget myself there. On other days I have a headache, and so I paint or sculpt.

Does it annoy you that your music is used in an advertising jingle or as background music?

No. The fact is, music belongs to the public, and they can do what they want with it.

That reminds me of Bowie, who said he belonged to the old school that believed the work, once completed, no longer belonged to the artist and the artist is just a witness.

Yes, I think so. Besides, I would never push the public, I do a minimal amount of advertising and I don’t do many concerts, I hate this type of hype. When people have to be convinced, what remains? When an album sells well, thanks to a large advertising campaign, this creates a huge problem for the next album. It’s a kind of drug that you become a slave to: next time there has to be more and more advertising – it’s a vicious circle.

All your albums revolve around a concept: ‘Heaven and Hell’ was based on duality, ‘Albedo 0.39’ revolved around a physical truth (the reflection of light) and ‘Spiral’ was inspired by Lao-Tseu, the Chinese philosopher who saw everything in spirals. ‘Beaubourg’, in some ways, describes your somewhat esoteric feeling towards this building. Finally, you are a solitary philosopher, aren’t you?

I’ve always had a tendency, since my early childhood, to design the world not through society, but through a cosmic truth. I believe that our existence is first cosmic, then biological and then social. Unfortunately, so much importance is placed on our social life that it hides this fact. I think that people feel social pressure and understand that these systems, currently prevent happiness.

What is happiness?

For me, it’s harmony resulting from the cosmic wave, not the happiness resulting from the social wave: money, fashion, etc.

You call yourself VANGELIS PAPATHANASSIOU. What does your name mean?

In ancient Greek, it means ‘good angel of the father of the immortal’!

This angel always works alone. Why?

I enjoy working alone. I know myself, and I know what I want. At the same time time, it’s faster, but it is also more risky, since I am responsible for everything: I play all the instruments, I compose, I arrange, I produce. I know what I want, and all this allows me to create my music before my thoughts can interrupt. On the other hand, it is so difficult to find people who are musically compatible. It is also very difficult to find people who are compatible in general.

You rarely give concerts. So, don’t you miss the contact with the public?

The contact exists when the public buy my discs. Concerts are nonsense. They create many problems: money, interests – it is hardly spontaneous. I want to feel the same pleasure that my audience experiences, otherwise it’s not honest. I have seen too many difficulties arise with concerts. I want the best conditions for my audience and for myself, from the first note. And afterwards, of course, you never know if the concert will be perfect. I’ll soon be in Brussels with the symphony orchestra … I’d like to plan a concert in Paris around the same time, but I am always a little late. We will see.


You have interpreted Beaubourg – when did you go there?

I went there two years ago. I visited the entire area and I was very impressed. I returned to London and I recorded my album ‘Beaubourg’ quickly, spontaneously. So I ‘felt’ Beaubourg, but that does not mean that Beaubourg is only this: I can redo ‘Beaubourg’ in 30 different ways.

The key, it seems to me, is to hear this electronic music.

Yes. I needed courage to release this record. It is interesting to see this album in context with my previous ones. This album created a scandal: some people returned the disc to me and others praised me. It was very important to distribute it in shops that specialised in ‘contemporary’ music.

I have the impression that memory plays an important role in listening to this composition: I tend, more and more, to identify with the track and narrow down the track, to bring the beginning closer to the end. Perhaps this is because of the unusual brevity of the ‘melodies’?

That is certainly the case. I will ignore the ‘ideal’ way of listening to the music: each person has his or her own way. I have seen people unable to listen to this record who now appreciate it more and more, but I do not regard this as a compliment. It is a record that can be played in the background. (He smiles) I cannot force anyone to listen to it and I cannot force myself to record it!

This brings us back to the absurd vicious circle where the composer tries to decide what to record so that the public listens.

I did exactly that with Aphrodite’s Child; I had to enter that stage back then. It has been difficult to get out of there, especially because I want my music to appeal to a wide audience. Some people want to limit themselves to an elitist audience, but I think that is a very egocentric attitude. It is better to communicate with many people in this context.

Why do you rarely use the human voice in your compositions?

The voice, for me, is probably the best instrument, but, on the other hand, when a person sings words they immediately limit themselves to a certain category of people, to a particular dialect. Music without lyrics travels more easily and may be biologically conceived and received.

Thanks to all your gold records, you work without any external constraints, and each album you release is composed of songs recorded here and there, throughout the year. The music seems timeless.

Absolutely. ‘Beaubourg’ is an exception: I recorded this disc very quickly, it took me a little less than a month. I believe in spontaneity, in rapidity. I believe that if we insist working on a particular composition, the music can become tired and becomes ill.


Over a six-month period, we change a lot too?

Sometimes, I start something and finish it after a year – as I return to it from time to time over the year. It is good to step back, not to insist: I let it rest. It’s similar with painting. I always try to create quickly, to preserve the freshness and to be honest with myself: if I feel like that today, I will start to create the song. Six months later, I will come back and look at it, to see if it contains a certain magic, a certain truth, or if it is a failure. Anything can happen; I take pleasure in my good and my bad moments. It is a study of myself, really.

What is your level of technical knowledge of the dozen keyboard instruments that you have in the studio?

I know what my synthesisers can produce, and each time I push the creative output to the absolute limit. Every day I learn more in terms of technique, it’s infinite.

Yes, but theoretically? For example, I know nothing about theory of modulation, but do you?

I don’t know any theory. Knowing the theory does not mean anything. If we theoretically know what a human being is, but someone has never seen one, or if you have never had a relationship with a human being, you cannot know anything about human beings! I think that the best way to gain knowledge is through gaining experience and through connections.

Whether with humans or instruments?

Yes, as an instrument becomes as lively as you allow it to. The more I let it, the more it responds to me.

Look, if I approach an instrument theoretically, it will give me a theory, so therefore this will make cold music. This is not exclusive, the knowledge is useful, but I usually think that some composers are very concerned by the theory: their music seems too theoretical.

Nevertheless, it surprised me that ‘Beaubourg’ has sold so well?

This is normal. I was sure that in a year’s time it would sell well. People have to get used to it and the record company has to believe in it. It’s been a long time since I was concerned about sales. As we have discussed, if you constantly think about sales, it is no longer the same job. It is obvious that I did not dislike the fact that people bought my records, but this is not my main concern. My main concern is the music, and working in this way means that I do not have the time to take care of anything else – the music comes before everything. The power of music and freedom that you find there is extraordinary. It is a non-material force, inexpressible, never repeat. Sometimes, when a few discs are sold, artists say: "It does not interest me to sell." It’s an excuse. In my case, I think that my gold records confirm that my records sell.

It is not a criticism of quality?

I am not talking about the value of my music. I am simply saying that my old record company should have respected this; they should have ‘invested’ more and complained less.

I see. I have to mention the fact that ‘Beaubourg’ is seen by many people, as being similar ‘Metal Machine Music’, the last album that Lou Reed recorded for RCA.

I am not familiar with his album, but I was accused of purposely recording a disc of very ‘different’ electronic music. At first glance, this is true, but when a firm takes an artist under contract, it must know what that means. I never said that I would confine myself to one style! In reality, RCA has not believed in any of my four albums. However, my albums have sold better than those by other artists. I have left RCA and I am at Polydor now.

Images and sound

And now you are about to release ‘China’?

Yes, and as the title indicates, it is based on China. I’ve never been there, I had the idea long before the events that placed China at the forefront of the news. For years I have been passionate about the Chinese. I am not talking about politics, I am talking about the old China, the new China as well, about this enormous nation and the people who live there. What is happening there is miraculous, it touches me.

It has been nearly 10 years since you collaborated with Frédéric Rossif in various films: L’Apocalypse des Animaux, Opera Sauvage. You also worked with François Billetdoux and François Reichenbach (‘Ignacio’). Would you like to create images yourself?

My music has such a power that every director can make a different film from the same song. I prefer to compose, paint and sculpt. Producing a film requires so many people and so much money that there comes a point where you can no longer control the creation. Anyway, the same social problems exist in ‘good’ films, and this bothers me. I like to learn, and I prefer documentaries.

Do you find that your hearing lowers with age?

Everything lowers with age … it’s relative. You may be very young at the age of 60, and vice versa. It depends on the person, on their character, both mentally and physically. The ear does not only lower with age. I am sure that, today, many groups are deaf.

So it isn’t the volume level that damages a person’s hearing?

No, high volume levels cause less harm than the awkward arrangement of sounds. Assuming that the sound is a wave: if this wave is not balanced by itself, it causes great damage when it enters the ear. I have tested this on a few people in my studio. I made them listen to two tracks. The first track was considered too loud, whereas the second track was actually louder but more balanced. It’s similar in the culinary field: a dish may give the impression of being too salty, and this may be the case, but it is also possible that it is simply lacking in spices to balance it.

Hearing has an equilibrium factor?

It’s an extremely important which helps to balance the nervous system. Besides, people do not hear or see the same thing. There are specialists, especially in France, that measure hearing and determine the frequencies that the ear cannot hear or can only hear at greater intensity. This can cause psychological problems. For example, when I was in Paris, before recording ‘Beaubourg’, I wanted to relive my debut. I rented a small student studio, in a loft conversion, with a sloping roof, near the Boulevard Saint Michel. At night, I could not get to sleep because of all the noises from the boulevard that came swirling to me, amplified by the configuration of my room. I measured this frequency in the ear and it amounted to approximately 150 cycles, which is very low. I’ve been to the agency to explain it, but nobody else has heard this sound! I felt terrible there, and I wondered what the effects were on the people who live there who don’t hear the sound.

This makes me think of the ‘mantra’ and ‘drones’ of Buddhist monks, for example, which affect us both psychologically and physically.

It’s true. I am always very careful to balance the sound of my discs, whereas the dynamic fluctuates a lot. Often, people fall asleep while listening to my music. My music relaxes them.

Is your music a biological music?

Yes, the frequencies that I use are very important. The music has a real message inside. I must be very careful with sound. The sound is my life. My ear is completely aware. I spontaneously listen to all the sounds around me. For example, a frequency of approximately 30 cycles just passes, there. If we slow down sound it can cause sickness, and if we amplify it, it could destroy a wall.