Interview in the Sounds music newspaper, June 19, 1976
DUKE ELLINGTON used to say that his instrument was the orchestra. What he meant was that although a gifted and sensitive pianist, he was only able to express himself fully when writing and arranging for the band. Today, directly resulting from the staggering advancements in keyboard technology and manufacture over the past decade, Duke's words take on a literal ring of truth.
We no longer think in terms of pianists. It's keyboard players these days - and with the vast array of acoustic and electronic instruments currently available to them, these guys can, quite literally, play the orchestra. No one single aspect of music has been subjected to such a radical facelift - and so far as rock music Is concerned, the familiar upright and baby grand are now dwarfed by banks of synthesisers, organs, string machines and sundry electronic aids.
Emerson and his mighty Moogs, Wakeman with his swirling mellotrons, Moraz mixing electronics with authentic Brazilian percussion - all have shown that it's possible to create soaring, majestic orchestral tapestries through keyboards. And leading the field is the remarkable Vangelis Papathanassiou - arguably the most gifted and forward-thinking one-man keyboard orchestra in the world today.
Vangelis differs from his contemporaries in two major respects. Firstly, whereas the above (and almost all other keyboard men) function with the aid of a conventional bass/drums rhythm section, he prefers to go it alone. OK, so he multi-tracked self-played percussion on his RCA album 'Heaven And Hell' and decided to use a full orchestra and chorus on his only London concert a few months back. But take it from me, this was a rare occurence.
Normally, he prefers to play a complete one-man show - handling tympani, gongs and assorted percussion himself and coaxing additional rhythmic propulsion from a couple of drum machines which he plays keyboard-style (in fact, his dexterity on drum machines is quite startling, but that's another story).
Secondly, until a couple of years ago, he hadn't touched any form of synthesiser - the source of most of the simulated instrumental sounds in the keyboard armoury. He still uses synthesisers sparingly, and has thus far shown no interest whatsoever in the mellotron, which appears to be standard keyboard equipment these days.
So where do all the sounds come from? Let's begin at the centrepiece - a somewhat battered Hammond B3 which he won't let out of his sight. Apart from a straightforward organ sound, Vangelis uses it to produce the most beautifully lush string section you're likely to hear outside the London Symphony Orchestra.
Lyrical vibes, vibrant bass, an amazingly accurate music-box sound and all sorts of other things emanage from a Fender 88, and he uses a Hohner Clavinet D6 primarily to simulate clavichord and guitar. Then there's a couple of 20-year-old Claviolines - one almost permanently utilised for French horn sounds, the other varying in output between strings, flute and all manner of woodwind.
Two string machines (a Stradivarius and an Elka Rhapsody) are used for both solo and section work, and his preference for acoustic piano is a Bosendorfer Steinway. A frail-looking plastic Tornado organ, which Vangelis insists is really no more than a toy, is the source of his thunderous church organ sounds.
When Vangelis performs, it's only occasionally that we hear the original intended sound of the various keyboards. So how does he produce such varied sounds from so limited a source?
"A lot of it has to do with the way you play - approach, adjustment, technique and that sort of thing. And the rest is down to the mixer. I mix my own sound all the time - on stage and in the studio. The mixer is the most important 'keyboard' in my set-up."
"Right now, I use a Turner 16- channel. It's fine, but I really need more scope. But if you go about it the right way, you can achieve the same results with any respectable, reliable mixer," he emphasises.
In order to achieve the sort of sound spectrum that would have been considered impossible only a few years ago, Vangelis used an astonishing range of electronic aids, including reverb units, graphic equalisers, digital sequencers and 16 echo units.
"I always aim to multiply the sound possibilities of each keyboard at least ten times. Once you get to know each instrument, there is really no limit to the possibilities. The first step is to learn the range and capabilities of all the instruments used in a symphony orchestra. Once you've mastered that, you can start to do things with the keyboards. The only real problem is that you've only got two hands.
"The real secret is to ride the instrument - to be in total control all the time. It's too easy to allow things to get out of hand. So you have to dictate to the machines ... be the master. Then all things are possible," he claims.
Although he now uses synthesisers in his set up (two ARPs, three Mini-Korgs, a Roland and a Farfisa), it's this control aspect of his approach to music that prompts Vangelis to be more than a little suspicious and sceptical of the Mellotron.
"I know that it can be a very versatile piece of machinery in terms of sound. But that's not enough for me. It's not flexible, there's no immediate attack and you have to cope with this delay thing all the time. And I'm not sure that tape loop systems are all that reliable.
"Most important of all, I don't feel that I have total control. If I have to rely too much on the mechanics of an instrument, I can't relax. I feel that I'm in command with synthesisers and all the other keyboards but I don't get this feeling with the Mellotron."
An adventurous approach to music - coupled with a natural bent for experimentation - has prompted the emergence of Vangelis as one of the most important musicians of our time. For him, perfection is not enough. Music has no boundaries - and Vangelis is clearly proving the point.
Interview by James Wynn