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The sorcerer of the synthesizer: Vale Vangelis

To honour the Hellenic legend… 

Vangelis, the Greek-born composer and electronic music pioneer, has done and Diana and died at a hospital in Paris*, reportedly from COVID-related complications. He was 79. 

For most listeners, Evángelos Odysséas Papathanassíou, thankfully known professionally as Vangelis, is the the high wizard sorcerer of synthesizers, and composer of an Olympic theme, which is somehow fitting for a citizen of the Hellenic Republic, though he did move permanently to France in 1975.

Based mainly in Paris, Van the man composed and performed more than 50 albums. Considered to be one of the most important figures in the history of electronic music, he became a feted figure for creating the evocative synthesizer-laden scores to numerous films including Blade Runner, 1492: Christopher Columbus and Chariots Of Fire, for which he received an Oscar. 

Picture the scene and sounds.

An insistent, pulsating ostinato sprints out of a sequencer, enhanced by two anthemic siren-like synthesizer notes as if to announce a sunrise over the ocean. A percolating drum machine effect, triplets used as a melodic motif, precedes a graceful piano motif of exquisite beauty, followed by an even more rousing, lyrical chorus ported to a variety of modified voicings.

It recalls the moving images of young British athletes, resplendent in Georgian white, running along a Kent** beach “with hope in our hearts and winds on our heels” as they prepare for the 1924 Olympic Games in Paris. 

Of course, it’s the opening scene of Hugh Hudson’s Chariots Of Fire— a British film from 1981 executive produced by one Dodi Fayed which won four Oscars. One of those, the Academy Award for Best Original Score, went to the composer of that distinctive music, Vangelis Papathanassíou. 

Though filmed historical fiction typically eschewed modern instrumentation – especially synths – Vangelis had concocted something suitably and memorably neoclassical that the stirring score become something of a shock hit. It proved so popular that the theme hit the number-one spot on the American Billboard Hot 100 chart, on May 8, 1982 (ending the seven-week reign of I Love Rock & Roll by Joan Jett & The Blackhearts), it was its 22nd week on the chart, at the time one of the longest climbs ever to pole position. It became, predictably, a perennial sports staple, and was later used as the background music at the London 2012 Olympics winners’ medal presentation ceremonies. 

The single was a rare chart-topper in several respects. This sparse synth wash was the first instrumental No. 1 of the post-disco era – and even spurred the soundtrack album to reach the top of the American charts, selling over a million copies. 

By the time he’d been tapped to score Chariots Of Fire, Vangelis had already led a storied career, though, 

Born on March 29, 1943 in Agria, Thessaly, Vangelis achieved fame as autodidact keyboardist for donner-prog outfit Aphrodite’s Child, the best known Greek pop group internationally. 

Sometimes a trio, often a quartet, the band’s singer and guitarist was another big star, the kaftan and cake-loving Demis Roussos (1946-2015). Both were already established names when they submitted themselves to an ABBA-style combining of talents in 1967. A teenaged Roussos had been in a series of musical groups including the Idols and We Are Five, while Vangelis had been organist leader of Forminx, one of the countless proto-garage bands all over the world imitating the sound of the British invasion, spearheaded by The Beatles.

Aphrodite’s Child*** had considered moving to London, but it was in Paris that their destiny would reveal itself in May, 1968. The group was stuck in the French capital, unsure whether it was because of civil unrest, strikes or interminable administrative formalities (believe me, in the France of 2022 we are still acutely accustomed to at least two of those on a regular basis). 

They took advantage of the situation to sign a contract with the Mercury label, recording Rain And Tears. For the music of this slow summery song, Papathanassiou directly borrowed – neither the first nor the last to do so (hello Coolio and Pet Shop Boys) – the majestic Pachelbel’s Canon. 

The lyrics were in English by a local songwriter, Boris Bergman, while the angelic voice of delectable Demis and the neo-baroque arrangements did the rest. Issued that July, the single topped the French charts and went platinum. 

The band’s career ended shortly after release of their most influential work — 1972’s 666, a classic slice of psychedelic art-rock that’s appeared on a number of top progressive albums of all time type lists over the years.  

In the early 1980s, Vangelis formed a musical partnership with Jon Anderson, high-octave lead singer of prog rockers Yes, pre-their Owner Of A Lonely Heart makeover by Trevor Horn.

Jon & Vangelis scored a top ten hit all over Europe with the haunting, melancholic I’ll Find My Way Home, though they’d become known for a much more a much more enduring and timeless classic, the spiritual State Of Independence, which would go on to be a beloved hit for Donna Summer and Moodswings featuring Chrissie Hyde a decade apart.

But such was its ubiquity, the Chariots Of Fire score was undoubtedly the one piece of music could overshadow the rest of an oeuvre that brought Vangelis recognition as a master of synthetic music in cinema, alongside Wendy Carlos and Giorgio Moroder.

Among fans of soundtracks, his expansive and deeply emotional score for Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner has even greater cult status, a perfect symbiosis of epic grandeur and anguished atmosphere.

For 1982’s dystopian masterpiece, Vangelis crafted a perfect symbiosis of epic grandeur and harrowing climates — a sonic soundscape that perfectly described the loneliness and alienation of the futuristic cityscape and its denizens.

To say that Yamaha’s CS-80 was vital to the success of Blade Runner may seem like an overstatement. Yet, it’s hard to imagine an instrument that has become more identified with a soundtrack on which it was used. Indeed, there can be few dramatic films in which the music was as thoroughly embedded and as important to the mood as the lighting, set design, or even the dialogue.

Vangelis’s beloved CS-80 was a polyphonic performance synthesizer, and with features such as velocity sensitivity and aftertouch, was as expansive and expressive as it was hefty: an instrument packed with forward-thinking features. The ribbon controller above the keyboard – used for gliding between pitches — was a notable example that can be heard on much of the film soundtrack.

Like Kraftwerk’s The Model lead, the distinctive brass sound from the Blade Runner opening theme begins with a sawtooth wave. In this case, it’s a slow envelope on the amplifier and the filter that cause the sound to gradually swell into existence. By detuning the synth’s oscillators relative to one another, a chorus-like effect is achieved, emulating the slight pitch variations you might expect to hear from a human brass section.

Rarely have a film and score been as enmeshed simpatico style, as on Blade Runner. The movie was released in Britain on the same day as another landmark work, ABC’s Lexicon Of Love (The day before I became a teenager, as it happens), and it’s hard to pick two projects that define 1982 more than these tales of tears, longing, and (replicant) romance. Their skewed-neon ambience would prove massively influential to generations of producers making everything from polished techno to airbrushed orchestral pop.

Despite being nominated for a BAFTA and Golden Globe award, the Blade Runner soundtrack was inaccessible for years, thanks to a rights dispute that resulted in Vangelis withholding its release. 

Fans settled for a generic recreation by recorded session musicians, named New American Orchestra. When the real deal finally emerged in 1994, it was incomplete, missing several cues that had appeared in the film.

Not that it really mattered much. For the rest of his life, Vangelis would produce great work – at turns cosmic, operatic, melodic, irruptive – for a variety of media, but the relatively straightforward and bell-clear Chariots and Runner remained his high-water mark.

Steve Pafford, France

*Also from Athens to Paris: Jean Moréas, pseudonym of Yánnis Papadiamantópoulos the poet who played a leading part in the French Symbolist movement, was born April 15, 1856, in Athens, and died March 31, 1910, Paris

••West Sands, in St Andrews, Scotland doubles up for Broadstairs. Just with ghastlier weather *** Many Greeks have names that correspond to a saint. In this case, the “name day” may be celebrated as though it were their birthday. This is the feast day of the saint that they are named after. In the case of my mother, who spent much of her pre-teens in Greece before moving to London in 1967, her name is Aphrodite, child of Polymnia.

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