Vangelis: Composer who scored Chariots of Fire and Blade Runner

Famed for his New Age synths, Vangelis changed the landscape of classical music

Tim Greiving
Sunday 22 May 2022 00:01 BST
Vangelis’s atmospheric work secured his legacy as a mainstay of global cinema
Vangelis’s atmospheric work secured his legacy as a mainstay of global cinema (AFP/Getty)

Vangelis, the self-taught, Oscar-winning Greek composer who piloted a dashboard of synthesizers through the New Age and into the cinema, most notably with catchy, cosmic scores for Chariots of Fire and Blade Runner, has died aged 79.

Chariots of Fire (1981) was Vangelis’s first studio feature, and it won him an Academy Award – besting John Williams’s traditionally orchestral Raiders of the Lost Ark. Chariots of Fire also won an Oscar for best picture, for its crowdpleasing story of English runners representing their country in the 1924 Olympic Games, and opened with an iconic image of the young men running in slow-motion along a beach.

Vangelis’s score – fronted by a buzzy anthem soaring over an insistently pulsing rhythm – defied the film’s period trappings with its space-age palette and poplike tunes.

“It’s an electric texture that at first seems oddly modern for a film so painstakingly accurate in its Twenties setting,” pop music critic Richard Harrington wrote in The Washington Post at the time, “but the neoclassical mood and moment are triumphant: one is swept along with the runners, and it’s easy to find oneself suddenly breathless.”

Vangelis also, perhaps, was swept along with the runners.

“I try to put myself in the situation and feel it,” the composer told Harrington. “I’m a runner at the time, or in the stadium, or alone in the dressing room … and then I compose … and the moment is fruitful and honest, I think.”

The score brought Vangelis international fame, and the soundtrack became the fastest-selling LP at the time. Its theme remains one of the most recognisable – and parodied – in film music history.

He cemented his cinematic legacy the next year with Blade Runner, drafting a grand, glacially advancing opus for Ridley Scott’s neo-noir sci-fi film – a failure in its day that went on to become a classic and inspire a 2017 sequel.

Scott visited Vangelis every night as he was cutting the film in London and remembered vividly his reaction when he first heard the composer’s musical idea for the opening shot, a stunning aerial of a future Los Angeles broiling against the night sky.

“Honestly, my hairs stood on end,” Scott told The Post in 2017. “He was the soul of the movie.”

The Blade Runner score filled Scott’s cluttered city with giant swells of elegant, electric chords, and attended Harrison Ford’s replicant-assassin with a sad ballad for saxophone and synthesisers. It became an exemplar in the genre and continued to influence bands and film composers decades later.

Vangelis began his musical career in rock’n’roll, first as a songwriter and organist for Greece’s first popular rock band, the Forminx, which he formed in high school. He moved to Paris after the 1967 military coup in Greece and co-founded the progressive rock band Aphrodite’s Child, which released three successful albums that collectively sold more than 20 million copies in Europe.

Vangelis (right) with his band Aphrodite’s Child in 1969
Vangelis (right) with his band Aphrodite’s Child in 1969 (AFP/Getty)

“It was too sophisticated for the group,” he said of their ambitious album 666, in a 1974 interview with the magazine Sounds. “I realised that I couldn’t follow the commercial way any more; it was very boring.”

The band split in 1974, and Vangelis moved to London to make solo albums – including Heaven and Hell, Spiral and the more avant-garde Beaubourg. The band Yes invited him to join when their keyboardist Rick Wakeman left, but Vangelis, as he told Keyboard Magazine in 1982, found the group incompatible.

He made several albums with the band’s lead vocalist, Jon Anderson. Billed as Jon and Vangelis, they produced two hit singles in the UK: “I Hear You Now” (1979) and “I’ll Find My Way Home” (1981).

In music shops, the composer’s solo work was shelved in the burgeoning New Age genre, with peers including Mike Oldfield, Jean-Michel Jarre and Tangerine Dream. A key difference between Vangelis and his contemporaries was melody.

“Vangelis is the master of the sweeping, melodic statement,” Paul Haslinger, onetime member of Tangerine Dream, told NPR in 2016. “Whether you like this opulent, symphonic sound or not, the melodies catch – and if you’ve ever tried anything in music, you know how hard that is.”

While others were experimenting with modular, sequenced rhythms, Vangelis played his synthesisers like a church organ, drenching big melodies in massive, artificial reverb to create the feeling of sound in a cathedral. He also devised a system that allowed him to play multiple synthesiser voices at once – turning his keyboards into a full orchestra – and typically recorded pieces in one pass.

“I won’t even rerecord a thing if I play a bum note,” he told Beat Instrumental in 1975. “Making music is like making love – it's not good unless it’s honest and spontaneous.”

Performing his ‘Mythodea’ composition at the Temple of Zeus in Athens
Performing his ‘Mythodea’ composition at the Temple of Zeus in Athens (Reuters)

His music connected the sacred space with outer space – a quality that made it a natural fit for the movies, where many of his fellow “cosmic synth” artists migrated. His first efforts were for French documentaries and the 1970 film Sex-Power, and his album music provided much of the score for Carl Sagan’s 1980 PBS series Cosmos. In 1982, he scored Missing, Costa-Gavras’s Oscar-nominated drama about an American writer who disappears in Chile amid the 1973 coup that brought the Pinochet regime to power.

In 1992, Vangelis reteamed with Scott for the Columbus epic 1492: Conquest of Paradise. Its infectious anthems blended electronics, choir and primitive instruments, and the soundtrack conquered the European pop charts. His last major score was for Oliver Stone’s ill-received Alexander (2004), about Alexander the Great, the Macedonian conqueror of the ancient world.

Outside of film, Vangelis wrote two scores for the London Royal Ballet in the mid-1980s, and he continued making solo albums throughout the Nineties and 2000s. He provided music for high-profile special occasions, including for the Olympic Games in 2000 and 2004.

In 2001 he wrote a symphonic oratorio, Mythodea, to commemorate Nasa’s mission to Mars – a production staged in the ancient Temple of Zeus in Athens and criticised in the Greek media because it cost $7m, half of which was supplied by the state government. In 2016, he released a now-retro synth album, Rosetta, inspired by the European Space Agency’s probe mission of the same name.

“For me, music is science more than art,” Vangelis told NPR. “It is the main code of the universe.”

Evangelos Odysseas Papathanassiou was born in Volos, Greece, on 29 March 1943, and grew up in Athens. His father was “in property”, he told the Los Angeles Times, and was “a great lover of music”. Vangelis began playing the piano at four but received little formal training.

He soon started composing, and he experimented with sound by “playing” kitchenware filled with different amounts of water. He received his first Hammond organ as a teenager, and painted it gold.

After moving to London in 1974, he built his high-tech Nemo Studios – named for Captain Nemo from the Jules Verne fantasy-adventure novel Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. He also began going by the name Vangelis because, as he told Sounds, Papathanassiou was “impossible to fit” on record sleeves and hard for English speakers to pronounce.

Vangelis granted few interviews and, in them, revealed little personal information. By all accounts, he had three serious romantic partners and no children. Information on survivors was not immediately available.

He was recalled by friends as a fun-loving bear of a man with a hearty appetite for cigars, wine and practical jokes.

Anderson, recounting his first meeting with Vangelis in Paris, told The Post: “As I walked in, he had a longbow and some arrows, which he proceeded to fire down the very big hallway. The arrows went through the very large curtained window. I explained he could kill someone, and he just laughed, saying he was Greek. ‘Don’t worry, Jonny.’”

Vangelis, musician and composer, born 29 March 1943, died 17 May 2022

© The Washington Post

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