The complete, uncut (and unpublished) interview with Vangelis, by Allegra Donn. A shorter version of the same article appeared in The Observer on July 1.
A synthesizer abuts the sofa of the Claridge's sitting room, where the celebrated Greek composer Vangelis is staying in London. "A toy" he quips, smiling. In a corner of the room of the man known as the master of electronic music, is a grand piano. When did his involvement with music start, I ask? "Since always", he deadpans. "Since I knew myself. There was no question that I would have done something else." Vangelis is self taught and to this day cannot read music. He is currently in the Capital working with his friend, British director Hugh Hudson.
The two men met in the early Seventies in Paris through a mutual friend and later famously collaborated on Chariots of Fire, the iconic British film that took the world by storm in 1981, winning four Oscars, one of which for Vangelis' evocative score. It's one of the most famous pieces of film music in the history of cinema and universally the unofficial soundtrack to the Olympic Games.
The true story of three British runners with extraordinary moral courage who competed in the 1924 Paris Olympics is about to be re-released on the big screen nationwide and will premiere with the original cast in Leicester Square on July 10th. In parallel, the play 'Chariots of Fire', adapted for the stage by Mike Bartlett, directed by Edward Hall, co produced by Hugh Hudson, will premiere on Thursday at the Gielgud theatre. Vangelis has recently adapted his soundtrack for the stage version.
Dressed in white, Vangelis sits on a sofa. His mane of grey hair with traces of black, his white beard, and his benign green cat eyes, liken him to Aslan from the Narnia Chronicles. Kindness exudes from his features and there's something majestic about him, which comes from an extraordinary simplicity, despite decades of international fame. But this is not surprising when Vangelis very naturally starts to describe how he creates his music. "It's one of the greatest forces in the Universe", he says in a low, soft voice, adding straightforwardly, "Music is constantly all around us", as though to say he is merely a conduit for it - an instrument at its service. To Vangelis music is something we are all connected to and we can all tap into by listening to memory.
By the age of four, Vangelis was already composing on the family piano. 'He is very instinctive' interjects Hudson. 'That's why I love working with him."
What initially attracted Vangelis to Chariots of Fire apart from his kinship with Hugh, was the narrative itself. "The script. The characters. The story of these runners is full of magnificent and profound messages that we have always needed - messages that are even more necessary today", he says reflectively. Eric Liddle, the Scottish athlete who wouldn't run on Sunday because it was contrary to his Christian beliefs, Lord Lyndsey, who altruistically gave Liddle his slot in a race taking place on a weekday so that the Scottish athlete could compete in the Olympics, and Abrahams, the Jewish runner ostracized by the establishment, are all men who would not compromise on their values, no matter the cost.
"If you look for truth you have to be courageous", ponders Vangelis. "My main inspiration was definitely the story itself. The rest I did instinctively, without thinking about anything else, other than to express my feelings with the technological means available to me at the time."
Vangelis describes emptying his mind of all thoughts when he composes, a discipline, that like music, he has taught himself. His compositions are recorded during the first take and remain thus. There are no adjustments, there's no editing - unless the director makes last minute changes on the film of course. "Then it becomes difficult", he says, glancing over at Hudson teasingly.
It was innovative for Hudson to score contemporary music on a period film. "I didn't want it to be a heritage film", says the director. And it turned out to be the perfect decision. Pure fate -- allowing the film to be more accessible to future generations as a universal tale -- rather than an historic account.
I ask the composer of the score of Ridley Scott's 'Blade Runner', '1492' and Oliver Stone's 'Alexander', among his fifteen soundtracks, if a good film can be as good without music. Can it reach us as deeply on an emotional level? "There are cases in which a film can stand on its own without music. But if music is used, its better for it to touch the soul and create emotions that the rest of the film cannot do. Music should continue emotions where words finish. Unfortunately most films are flooded with music, due to mediocre scripts and to producers and director's lack of talent or possible insecurity."
Vangelis was composing classical music almost immediately, "Although the term classical is not accurate for various reasons", he explains. "Then later I moved into the record industry. I was under the impression that in order to be alive and to be able to create what I had in mind I had to become successful and soon after that, I realized that success and pure creativity are not very compatible. The more successful you become, the more you become a product of something that generates a lot of money, instead of being able to move forward freely and do what you really wish, you find yourself stuck and obliged to repeat yourself and your previous success. Success is sweet and treacherous. Of course it helps you sell things, but I've been trying all my life not to fall into the trap and to try and get out of it."
Though Chariots is probably his most famous score Ė with one of the most memorable scenes ever recorded on film - when the athletes run on the beach to his unforgettable music, Vangelis' body of work is vast and touches different genres.
On December 11th 2011 he was asked to compose a piece of music which involved a 400 piece orchestra, the Kremlin choir and soloists like Angela Gheorghiu, for the inauguration of the amphitheatre in Doha, Qatar. Hudson recorded the one off event for posterity. Vangelis recorded his composition which was then translated into musical notes and given to members of the orchestra. Is something on such a massive scale daunting? "All instruments come in when they have to. I take it naturally. The only thing I'm afraid of is the technical part. Something can always go wrong technically. The rest is already there", he says placidly.
Aside from film and his personal compositions, Vangelis created the music for Wayne Eagling's ballet Frankenstein and over the years he has released 40 albums Ė his 41st, a new edition of Chariots of Fire, comes out at the end of July.
How does he see the world today, specifically Greece. "I see the crisis like a play. A very well organized play that concerns the world Ė not just Greece. Greece is a very good place to experiment. I felt many years ago that this was going to come. I'm not surprised at all. Definitely there's been a lot of mishandling of the situation on the part of Greek governments. But I think it's not up to any country today to decide on its own future. Greece has been through a lot of trouble through the centuries and maybe they don't have the same experience of being as organized as other countries have. Greece is naturally rich, corruption is the easy excuse, my big question is how did this happen? "
Is he happy with the results of the recent elections? "I'm Indifferent because it's only a step to buy time. It's a game. What you read is not what's happening. The whole planet is in trouble for the same reason." What does he think it is - greed? "Yes greed", he deadpans. "The focus on money and interest, because interest destroys the world. You get one pound and you have to give back one pound plus something, you're already in trouble."
Vangelis sees music as a great healer, though if misused it can also be very damaging. What does he wish to achieve through his work? "All I want to do is not impose things on people and try not to do any damage. To bring hope", he adds thoughtfully. "I have received so many emotional letters over the years, from people and athletes who have been helped by my music.
When Vangelis is not working he listens to anything from classical music to jazz to world music. "As long as it isn't manufactured", he says. "Scientifically, believe it or not, music drives everything, because music equals universe and universe equals music."
Famously private, Vangelis has always treasured anonymity. Throughout his career, he has given very few interviews - you can count them on two hands. "Freedom and privacy are a primary need of every human being, which unfortunately today the system methodically fights against. "
Vangelis is also a painter, something he practiced parallel to music from a very early age. "Music is spiritual, painting is physical, so I need them both", he says passionately. Until 2003, few people were aware that he was also a painter. He then exposed this side of his work in an exhibition in Spain that toured South America - without him. 'In Mexico there was a book for people to write comments in, " he says, his whole face lighting up with an enormous smile. "And the loveliest thing in it was something written by a nine year-old girl. She said - I love your pictures Vangelis. I just hope your music is as good as your paintings."
Interview by Allegra Donn, July 1, 2012