Interview in Venice magazine, USA. Issued in January 2005
When electronic music became a part of film scoring, the machine-born notes usually conveyed horrific menace, the outer reaches of science fiction, and disco funk. That isn't to say that synthesizers weren't a brave new voice for soundtracks. But no composer would really be able to find the soul within the machine until a group of British Olympians sprinted up the beach in 1981's Chariots of Fire. The music that drove them was a completely unique wash of electronic sound, a beautiful, mesmerizing rhythm that at once conveyed their thrill of running and the Olympic glory in their steps. The technology of electronic music was at last given emotion as powerful and joyous as anything an orchestra could provide.
The composer who accomplished what might be the single, transcendent step in electronic music was Evangelos Papathanassiou, or Vangelis, for short. A self- taught musician from the age of four, Vangelis was a child of the progressive rock scene, a keyboardist who translated his talent for free-form melody into a series of animal documentaries, artsy erotica, and small thrillers. It was accomplished work that remained well below Hollywood's radar until Chariots of Fire won four Oscars, including an Academy Award for Best Original Score. Like the film, Vangelis was the dark-horse runner who seemingly came from nowhere, crossing the finish line with one of the most popular film themes in history, a hit record, and a sound that instantly garnered thousands of fans with its lush originality.
Though his film work over the next 23 years would grow increasingly scant, Vangelis continued to impress with his mesmerizing scores. He created a ghostly, yet kinetic desolation for the marooned sled dogs of Antarctica, then gave an anguished voice to the political victims of Missing. Blade Runner was a retro future where jazz noir combined with the infinitely sad music of its replicants. When one heard the siren call of Vangelis' tropical shores in The Bounty, it was easy to see how Fletcher Christian mutinied to stay in paradise. The increasingly hateful s & m games of Bitter Moon were given an erotic, darkly comic spin. And Christopher Columbus discovered a new world of dense, exotic sounds in 1492, a choral theme playing the greatness, and tragedy, of his discovery.
It's been over ten years since that Ridley Scott epic, one whose music is better remembered than the film itself. And while Vangelis wouldn't score a major Hollywood movie during that period, he certainly kept himself busy with commercials, concept albums, small foreign films, composing a tribute to NASA's Mars mission, and writing anthems for sporting events. And Vangelis' soundscape has grown with each project, his musical grasp extending far beyond the electronic world to encompass symphonic orchestras, full choruses, and worlds of ethnic music, all of which he seamlessly blends into his keyboards.
If Vangelis' music captures the stuff of legend, then it could not find a more daunting, or appropriate subject than Alexander the Great. The prodigiously talented king would reach out far beyond his native Macedonia (later to be known as Greece), and conquer the known world with youthful zeal and a tactical intelligence well beyond his years. Now his exploits are given blood and thunder in Oliver Stone's Alexander (soundtrack on Sony Classical), and if there was a match for the audaciousness of both an historical figure and the film director who's chronicling him, then it would be Vangelis, who makes a soaring return to film scoring after too long an absence.
As Alexander marches fiercely from Greece to Asia, Vangelis conveys his journey with majestic themes, wild percussive battles, exotic sensuality and ethnic rhythms from the world over. With this gorgeous miasma of styles and emotions, Vangelis shows just how much more of the musical world he's conquered since Chariots of Fire. But whether he's making use of an army of symphonic players, Oriental rhythms, or a heraldic chorus, Alexander remains just as far outside of the Hollywood scoring norm. And that's exactly what you'd expect from a composer who treats his music like an evolving tone poem, something meant to be more than the sum of its film frames. With Alexander, Vangelis evokes a time-lost world and the passions of the man who conquered it, all with the kind of melodic originality that does its subject proud.
As a Greek composer, what did it mean for you to score a legendary figure like Alexander the Great?
It was definitely special to write music for Alexander. And it was also challenging because I was not just scoring for the historical Alexander, but for Oliver Stone's vision of him as well.
What does the legend of Alexander mean to you?
Alexander became a legend not only for Greeks, but for the countries he conquered. Conquering is a very questionable thing, but Alexander was very gifted at it. He accomplished a lot of positive things, and most of the countries he conquered have good things to say about Alexander today. He really signaled a turning point for the entire world. I'm not saying we would have been better or worse if Alexander hadn't existed, but the world would definitely have been different without him.
Most historical epics are scored with a traditional orchestra. While you use one in Alexander, your approach remains completely unique for a blockbuster of this type. It doesn't have the obvious musical emotions that you'd expect.
Yes. My music does not try to evoke emotions like joy, love, or pain from the audience. It just goes with the image, because I work in the moment. I think the audience has to find their own answers as to what my music is saying, and if they like it or not.
Did you research the ethnic music of Alexander's time before scoring the film?
Not really, because my source for ethnic music is my life. I have always been interested in it. You could say that I composed it from memory, which is the most important thing in all of us. Of course, you can't cover everything that Alexander experienced in one score. But when you close your eyes, and make yourself available, you can really remember, and imagine certain things. And all of those ethnic, musical flavors will come to you. It's a universal music language.
Because your background is in synthesizers, was it a challenge to put so much symphonic music into Alexander's score?
Not really, because the orchestra is a part of the musical language. And if you look at the music I've written before, it's naturally symphonic. So scoring for an orchestra isn't unknown for me. It's an extension of my sound, and I'll use an orchestra when I feel the need to, as I've done on several projects before Alexander. I think we ended up using over 200 players on Alexander's orchestra, from woodwinds to strings, and chorus and ethnic instruments, which I then integrated with my samples.
What do you think is the biggest difference between electronic and symphonic music?
I don't see the difference between electronic and acoustical music. You can do aggressive, melodic, and dissonant things with both. It just depends on how you feel. And when I'm playing those electronic instruments, the music becomes a very important way of expressing myself.
You have worked with directors who have very strong personalities, like Ridley Scott and Roman Polanski. How does Oliver Stone compare to them?
Everybody's different. Oliver is very meticulous. He's a kind of special guy, let's say. [laughs]
How did he challenge you as a composer?
When you score the movie, you're working with what's essentially the final cut. But with Oliver, you can't do that. You score day by day, and are constantly adjusting the score.
Because of the way you work, was it easy to make Oliver's changes?
Unfortunately for me, it was easy, because I work very fast. So I could change things five times a day! And that becomes very tiring.
Did you ever say to Oliver, "Okay, enough. That's it!"
Sometimes yes. [laughs] But once you start a movie, it's very important to finish it. A lot of the music I'd written for one scene in Alexander would end up in another. I just tried to be compatible with what was happening in the movie, and what Oliver was looking for. In the end, Alexander took so long for me to score, almost a year. I still haven't seen how the score works in the finished movie.
You won an Oscar for Chariots of Fire, which became one of the most popular film themes of all time. What do you think of the score's impact?
I think it was positive, because the music made people feel happy, and gave them a lot of energy. I wrote Chariots of Fire and Alexander in exactly the same way, completely unplanned and instinctively.
Your next score for Missing was stripped-down in comparison to Chariots of Fire.
Yes, and it was very simple, too. There's not a lot of music in the film, unlike Alexander, which has hours and hours. When I approach a movie, I don't have any preconceived ideas to make the music simple or complicated.
Blade Runner might be your most acclaimed score.
It was, again, a very challenging moment, because the film was extremely interesting. But I don't think it was marketed well at the time. Everyone was expecting another Star Wars, but Blade Runner was a different thing, and I don't think the reception was as good as it should have been. But over the years, it became a very important and classic film. The first people who really loved Blade Runner were the Italians. They called it a masterpiece. Now it's one of the most important movies of the century. I enjoyed the subject very much, and it's turned out to be a very prophetic film. We're living in a kind of Blade Runner world now.
Your score for Polanski's Bitter Moon had an ironic, black humor to it.
I wish that Roman would have been even blacker with Bitter Moon, especially because the film becomes so unbelievable and surrealistic at the end. And, sadly enough, that can happen to people. The book is even harsher than the movie, and it was a completely different subject for me.
You re-teamed with Ridley Scott for 1492. You could say it was a precursor to Alexander, as both movies deal with explorers who undergo personal transformations.
I like Ridley's movies very much and, like Alexander, the subject of a man trying to search for a new world is very tempting for me.
Both 1492 and Alexander make exceptional use of a chorus. What attracts you to human voices?
Well, human voices are very important, and it's a great pleasure to use them in both films. But you don't need to have an epic to use a chorus. You need to make sure the director wants voices, as the idea might be completely opposite to what they are looking for. Some directors take chances, and others don't.
On that note, Gabriel Yared wrote a terrific score for another Greek epic this year called Troy. The score he'd been working on for over a year was dumped after a preview screening. What do you think about a composer putting so much work into an historical epic, only to have his work thrown out?
Unfortunately, one of the things you can change about a movie is the composer. It's a lot harder to do that with the actors once you've shot the movie. It's not nice for anyone to be thrown out. I don't know why that happens, and I can't judge it, especially because I don't know what Gabriel did for Troy. But when it happens, it's a sad thing. I don't think it should happen to any composer. I don't know if things like this happened so much before. Maybe it's more fashionable now.
Do you think European films take more chances with their scores than Hollywood pictures do?
Movies are an expensive business, but you need more than that to make a good film. I think Hollywood films tend to approach their scores as a business situation, as well as an artistic one. And more and more, everything is pure business.
Because Alexander was such a hugely expensive film, did you think you had the true freedom to express yourself on it?
I don't think money was ever a factor in the score. I was not suppressed because of it, not at all.
Does scoring an epic like Alexander give you more opportunities as a composer?
People might think so at first, but I don't know if that's true. You can make a score with few notes, for a simple film. But if those notes are the right ones, then it's as effective as any epic score. So you can't judge a score by how big it is, because a little flute might be as powerful as an orchestra.
It's been over ten years between 1492 and Alexander. Do you want to wait so long before scoring your next film?
I never wanted to be the kind of usual film composer, who would do three or four films a year. That would have been extremely boring. Film composing has never been a job for me, or a way to express all of my needs as a composer. I have many other things I like to do musically. There's nothing wrong with scoring many films a year. But that's not what I choose to do. It all depends on what kind of films that are proposed to me. If I'm inspired, then I'd do another score tomorrow. Maybe I won't wait for so long until the next score. Who knows?
Are there any unexplored territories that you want to go to as a composer?
One life is not enough in order to compose. There's so little that you can do. And music is vast. It's enormous. Every day is a new experience. And there's no end to it. So even though I've been composing since I was a child, I don't think that I've done a lot of things. I think that I'm still at the beginning.
Interview by Daniel Schweiger from Venice magazine