An interview with Vangelis - November 1982 - UK

Mechanic of Music

Interview by
Andrew Duncan

One of the most successful popular composers in the world can neither read nor write music. Evangelis Papathanassiou is determined to avoid falling into the trap of his own success

Evangelis Papathanassiou, one of the world’s most successful popular composers in spite of the fact that he can neither read nor write music, strode to a 9 inch rotary saw blade fixed to a piece of wood in his studio (a converted girls’ school behind Marble Arch in London), struck it with a xylophone hammer and listened with delight to the resulting sound. "Everything is an instrument", he said. "Everything is a tool to make music".

For Vangelis, as he is known, this simple philosophy has proved astonishingly profitable during a career which had its foundations 35 years ago in his curious desire, at the age of four, to stuff his parents’ grand piano with nails, chains, glasses, paper or cutlery in order to adjust the sound. "I drove that piano crazy, but I never smashed the strings or broke anything. It was all for the sound".

Today he plays with more sophisticated devices, synthesizers, to produce haunting music for films like the recently-released Blade Runner, Missing and Chariots of Fire, his first film score, for which he won an Oscar. "I’d admired his work for a long time", said David Puttnam, producer of Chariots of Fire, "and I wanted him to do the music even before we started shooting". He had been impressed by work Vangelis had done for French television, which resulted in an album, Opera Sauvage, and his subsequent interest in Oriental music culminating in his album, China.

Vangelis’ earlier success as a pop singer, which he derides with refreshing honesty, has enabled him to build a self-contained recording studio and keep complete control of what he does. "I had to compromise a bit in the beginning, to prove that I could be successful and make enough money to do what I want. Freedom and independence are very costly".

He can afford now to cause high blood pressure in the executive offices of his record company, Polydor, by declining to promote himself or capitalise on his fame by even issuing a record of Blade Runner, though it would be almost certain to sell at least a million copies.

"They put a lot of pressure on me to go to America for the Oscar", he says with wry understatement, "but I don’t like to be pushed, and especially for that. I hate the idea of competition".

Three million copies of the record of the music from Chariots of Fire have been sold within a year and his presence on the television interview circuit could have added another million.

He is frightened of flying, so he was offered a stateroom on the QE2 and every conceivable luxury. But his idea of exotic travel is to drive his two-tone brown Rolls-Royce to Dover and wait until the Channel is shimmering smooth; even then he feels queasy about boarding a boat. "I’ve never been to the U.S. Maybe it’s a nice country, but I’m not sure I want to go. It’s aggressive, young and plastic".

They said he must produce a record of Blade Runner.

Why? I write music every day, and I can’t end up with 20 albums a year just to satisfy some businessman. I do these things because I like it, and will release an album when I want to. But it’s impossible to explain that to the industry.

If I became the greatest song writer in Hollywood it would be a disgrace and destroy me. I am not going to be trapped in that absurd chain of behavior where you are obliged to create successes by repeating yourself all the time. Maybe that is unusual in this business. But to me it is unusual to be in this business. I’m only in it because I need to create the facilities you see around you.

Every day, from noon until late evening, he goes to his studio where he is alone except for his engineer, Raine Shine. There are gold and platinum discs around the wall, video machines for viewing the films he is scoring, as well as incongruous objects like a child’s sailing boat and an old-fashioned radio.

That is the most fascinating machine for me … and I collect as many as I can. My first synthesizer was the radio. At night I used to lie awake adjusting it to the interferences, and those sounds drove me crazy. I loved them. My mother wasn’t so happy though, because I was only about four years old. It’s a strange feeling I have with radios.

He has ten synthesizers, each costing upwards of 5,000 GBP, grouped into a broken square, with a further ten stored away.

Each has a different personality, and by mixing them together, you can achieve something like a painting. It is tremendous satisfaction because it is the whole circle of creation. Everything you hear has been done by me.

In my way I can play every instrument, but I have never been to music school. I could not take that. People ask how I can compose if I can’t read or write music. I can’t understand how they can teach composition in music school. It is impossible. You can’t teach someone to be a composer - either he is, or he isn’t. Great musicians are not great because they study. They are great because they are great. Everything I do is condemned to be done only by me. My score is the 2 inch recording tape

Next to the synthesizers, which create various different sounds electronically, is an emulator - a computer into which noises are first recorded and then manipulated in various ways to make the exact sound Vangelis wants. With thick, stubby fingers he twiddles the knobs, plays the piano and violin with some expertise, bangs drums or Chinese gongs, and records sounds as diverse as thunder and coughing, in order, he says, "to extend and go beyond the range of a symphony orchestra.

People say that a synthesizer is a machine, not a natural sound. Everything is natural. The first instrument built - a flute or maybe a tom-tom - was a machine to create sound. Acoustical conventional instruments, like a guitar, are fantastic, but they are restricted and always give the same sort of sound.

It allows us to go beyond what we have known. You can start from a beep, and develop a whole range of sounds with endless variations. It is incredible.

In front of the synthesizers is a huge console for "mixing" the sounds on a tape.

It is like being a conductor, standing here, modifying the levels, adding echoes, filtering the sounds. The target is not to win Oscars but to be in balance with nature and use this tool which has been created through the centuries.

Although synthesisers are relatively new, there has been enormous progress the last ten years this has created consternation among many professional musicians, some of whom are frightened of being replaced by a machine.

It is like being a conductor, standing here, modifying the levels, adding echoes, filtering the sounds. The target is not to win Oscars but to be in balance with nature and use this tool which has been created through the centuries.

Although synthesisers are relatively new, there has been enormous progress during the last ten years; this has created consternation among many professional musicians, some of whom are frightened of being replaced by a machine.

I don’t try to put people out of work. I love working with choirs and big orchestras. The sound is different, of course. But there are so many restrictions, and the cost is astronomical.

I have played with the Brussels Symphony and choir - 250 people - and it was fabulous. I would like to play on stage again if it could be spontaneous and done for pleasure and real communication.

There is also a suspicion that synthesisers are a bit of a fraud, and that sounds made by pushing buttons are not genuine music. Rick Wakeman, of the rock group Yes, says,

Many machines do have preset modes, and that is why most groups sound the same. But Vangelis is a genuine experimentalist, a musician who can cover all types of composing. I was surprised at what he did with Chariots

Vangelis was born in Greece. His father, a sprinter, died just before “Chariots of Fire” was released and the music is dedicated to him. His family was wealthy and he went to a good school..

It was awful and I didn’t learn anything. it was not a professional attempt to make money.

As a teenager, he and some friends formed a group, Forminx, which became the most popular of the time in Greece.

It was just our idea of having fun. It was nothing to do with music, though.

He left Greece for Paris in 1968 and worked on television programmes and formed another group, Aphrodite's Child, with singer Demis Roussos. The band had a hit here, Rain and Tears. According to Vangelis’ laconic account, their popularity was almost an insult to his aspirations

We had a million seller, then another. I hate it if a project I am involved in, and don’t particularly like, becomes successful. I did some things I couldn’t bear at the time, but I don’t have any regrets.

In 1974 he moved to London and a large flat near Hyde Park

I love London; although I am cosmopolitan and feel I belong to the earth. Maybe that is because music is universal. Here, although the weather is not great, people have a basic respect for each other. You can still walk in the streets. And it is strange how many unpredictable things exist in England. It takes a while to get, used to the contradictions, but once you know them you get hooked and it becomes very creative.

I get upset when things are not going well, but I don’t think I’m difficult. I have taken very dangerous steps in my career, going from certain success into the unknown. I think I have been right. I compose for myself, which is the best thing to do, and every day I do something different. Maybe tomorrow it will be a ballet, or an opera, or some African music. I don’t want to be successful. I want to be me. ◊