Interview with Vangelis in Replay Magazine, August 1993.
Howard Maxford talks to the Oscar-winning film composer Vangelis.
"Music is a vast area. It's so rich and demanding. it's better to go for a wide variety of projects."
So speaks the celebrated Greek composer Vangelis Papathanassiou (Vangelis to the rest of the world) whose ground-breaking work with the synthesiser has encompassed a number of musical areas including films, concept albums and songwriting. Perhaps best-known for his Oscar-winning musical score for Chariots Of Fire. Vangelis' film credits are indeed select, and include such highly-regarded productions as Missing. Blade Runner and The Bounty.
Despite his avowed intention to accept only one major project at a time, Vangelis recently found himself with two film scores on his hands, Ridley Scott's epic film 1492 based on the life of Christopher Columbus, and Roman Polanski's controversial sex thriller Bitter Moon. "I certainly didn't plan it that way, it just happened," he explains." I've been friends with Roman Polanski for a long time and he asked me if I would do the music for his film... we had wanted to do something together for some time, so when he offered me Bitter Moon I agreed immediately. I've always been an admirer of Polanski's work. Then the commission for 1492 came along, which of course added to the pressure I was already under."
He continues: "I don't like working under pressure, but it is inevitable that will happen with every film that comes along... the soundtrack music is always left until the very end of the production when the pressure is really on to complete the film. Consequently the composer, along with the film editor, takes the full brunt of it all."
When undertaking a new film music assignment, Vangelis tries to garner as much information from the director about the project. "I like to know exactly what the director feels about the film, and whether we are compatible, because that can avoid problems later," he says. "Ridley Scott and myself are certainly compatible - he isn't a conventional film director and I'm not a conventional composer!"
Indeed, Vangelis has a singular way of writing film music - he simply sits down in front of a screen, alongside his synthesisers, and busks the music there and then. "I don't ever experiment and I usually do everything on the first take. When I compose I perform the music at the same time, so everything is live, nothing is pre-programmed. I don't do any demos. 'Improvising' isn't quite the word for it, but I do use the first idea and impression which comes into my head.
"I've done all my film scores like this, and worked on my albums in the same way. It's much quicker, there's no agonising, and if I make a mistake then I'm the only one who can be blamed. The most important thing is to catch the spirit of the film."
So how has he managed to accumulate the confidence to compose in this rather unusual way? "Well, I'm not afraid of the bloody machines for a start... "I've never been intimidated by a piece of electronic equipment because I believe that man himself is the best piece of electronic equipment ever."
He claims that he has nothing but contempt for those who use synthesizers as 'a bland replacement' for a full symphonic musical score. "The very mention of the word synthesiser seems to create panic in some people. You can do a lot with synthesisers that you can't achieve with conventional instruments, but there also has to be pre-programming... and I don't believe in that sort of musical creation. It lacks 'playability' which is something that I strongly believe in."
Anyway synthesisers are becoming more difficult to communicate with, and I'm very worried about that, kids don't seem to have the point of reference that the more traditional musical instruments can give. Synthesisers have to be treated like computers and, while I'm not against computers, I do think that they were made for other things. It's taking the immediacy out of music, we're having to adapt ourselves to machines instead of them adapting to us."
Vangelis has happy memories of working with director Ridley Scott on the films Blade Runner and 1492. "Like Roman Polanski, he has talent and the ability to tell a story well - and his films are very durable. Blade Runner for example still stands up today, it's not just another science fiction film, there's something special about it."
Despite the success of the Blade Runner film, Vangelis' soundtrack music for it has never been released on record. "I really don't know why but there were apparently some contractual problems, which prevented the release of a soundtrack album. It certainly wasn't anything to do with me, but hopefully there will be a way of releasing it. WEA Records released an album of the music by Jack Elliott conducting the New American Orchestra, a symphonic version of the score, but it's not the original recording version."
Composing the soundtrack music for Chariots Of Fire proved to be Vangelis' big break-through as a film composer. The main title theme was an international hit and changed the whole course of his career. After his Oscar-winning success he was offered a plethora of similar film music projects, "but I didn't want to turn into a boring composer doing twenty films a year - I've had a lot of offers to write film scores over the years, but I always try to be selective."
What are his future plans? "I always try not to make plans," he says, "but then I tried desperately not to make any plans last year and ended up with lots of projects. Hopefully this year I'll be able to stick to my plan of-not planning anything at all!"
Interview: Howard Maxford