Vangelis is a world-renowned Greek composer, keyboardist, and multi-instrumentalist. He mainly composes instrumental and film music and he performs all the music by himself. During his career he has flirted with many genres and his music proved to be very hard to categorize. His music has been filed as “synthesizer music”, “electronic music”, “new age”, “progressive rock”, “symphonic rock”, “space music”, “electronic music”, etc. etc. None of those terms is spot on and his output is too varied to catch in one word.
He was born as “Evanghelos Odyssey Papathanassiou” on March 29th 1943 in a small town near Volos, Greece. He started playing the piano at the age of 4 and gave his first public performance of his own compositions at the age of 6. During his student years he was the founder member of a successful Greek pop band called the “Forminx”. In the late 1960s he moved to Paris and formed the band “Aphrodite’s Child”, together with singer Demis Roussos and drummer Lucas Sideras. They scored many hits all over Europe. In 1970 the group broke up and Vangelis started a solo career. In 1975 he moved to London where he set up his legendary Nemo studio that he used to record many of his famous albums and soundtracks. Most legendary are perhaps the Oscar winning score to “Chariots of Fire” and the ever popular score to Ridley Scott’s landmark film “Blade Runner”. In 1987 he left London and subsequently recorded music in Athens (“Direct”, “Voices”), Rome (“The City”), Paris (“1492”) and Athens again (“Voices”).
The musical style of Vangelis is diverse; although he primarily uses electronic music instruments, which characterize electronic music, his music has been described as a mixture of electronica, classical (his music is often symphonic), progressive rock, jazz (improvisations), ambient, avant-garde/experimental, world, and new-age. Vangelis is often categorized as a new-age composer, but some consider it an erroneous classification. Vangelis considers it a style which “gave the opportunity for untalented people to make very boring music”.
As a musician who has always composed and played primarily on keyboards, Vangelis relies heavily on synthesizers and other electronic approaches to music. However, he also plays and uses many acoustic instruments (including folk) and choirs:
I don’t always play synthesizers. I play acoustic instruments with the same pleasure. I’m happy when I have unlimited choice; in order to do that, you need everything from simple acoustic sounds to electronic sounds. Sound is sound and vibration is vibration, whether from an electronic source or an acoustic instrument.
Synthtopia, an electronic music review website, stated that Vangelis’ music could be referred to as “symphonic electronica” because of his use of synthesizers in an orchestral fashion. The site went on to describe his music as melodic: “drawing on the melodies of folk music, especially the Greek music of his homeland”. Vangelis’ music and compositions have also been described as “…a distinctive sound with simple, repetitive yet memorable tunes against evocative rhythms and chord progressions.” His first electric instrument was a Hammond B3 organ, while first synthesizer a Korg 700 monophonic. He has often used vibrato on his synthesizers, which was carried out in a distinctive way on his Yamaha CS-80 polyphonic synthesizer – varying the pressure exerted on the key to produce the expressive vibrato sound. In a 1984 interview Vangelis described the CS-80 as “The most important synthesizer in my career — and for me the best analogue synthesizer design there has ever been.”
In an interview with Soundtrack, a music and film website, Vangelis talked about his compositional processes. For films, Vangelis stated that he would begin composing a score for a feature as soon as he sees a rough cut of the footage. In addition to working with synthesizers and other electronic instruments, Vangelis also works with and conducts orchestras. For example, in the Oliver Stone film Alexander, Vangelis conducted an orchestra that consisted of various classical instruments including sitars, percussion, finger cymbals, harps, and duduks.
He explains his customary method of approach. As soon as the musical idea is there, as many keyboards as possible are connected to the control-desk, which in turn are directly connected to the applicable tracks of the multi-track machine. The idea now is to play as many keyboards as possible at the same time. That way, as broad a basis as possible develops, which only needs fine-tuning. After that it’s a question of adding things or leaving out things.
Vangelis once used digital sampling keyboard E-mu Emulator. While acknowledging that computers are “extremely helpful and amazing for a multitude of scientific areas”, he describes them as “insufficient and slow” for the immediate and spontaneous creation and, in terms of communication, “the worst thing that has happened for the performing musician”. He considers that the contemporary civilization is living in a cultural “dark age” of “musical pollution”. He considers musical composing a science rather than an art, similar to Pythagoreanism. He has a mystical viewpoint on music as “one of the greatest forces in the universe”, that the “music exists before we exist”. Some consider that his experience of music is a kind of synaesthesia.