Polyphony (USA) - Interview with Vangelis, June 1983

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The Vangelis Interview

by John K. Diliberto

Chariots of Fire was the 2001:  A Space Odyssey Theme (Thus Spake Zarathustra) for 1982.  You couldn't get away from it or its many imitations.  It was on beer commercials, bank commercials, and Xerox commercials -- but Chariots of Fire was also a sweeping and powerful Academy Award winning soundtrack, a number one single and album, and one of the more light-weight pieces that Vangelis has recorded over the last 10 years or so.  Suddenly, my mother, who thinks that Wayne Newton is high art, was telling me about this Vangelis guy; someone who has been a cult favorite for those who love portentious and grandiose synthesizer music.

Vangelis has played the role of a one-man symphony orchestra for nearly a decade, releasing over a dozen solo albums in that time.  His music can be outright imitative with swelling string sections and clarion trumpets (Heaven & Hell) or totally abstracted electronics (Beaubourg). However, his best music falls inbetween, merging cultural influences from Greece and Asia into deftly orchestrated tone poems like China and Odes.

Vangelis approaches synthesizers as a keyboard virtuoso.  Although he rarely gives concerts, most of his music is recorded and played in real-time. Vangelis sits in the midst of his 24 track studio surrounded by more than 8 keyboards (mostly Prophets and Yamahas), plus electronic percussion, and dashes out his works with fingers leaping from one keyboard to another. He sets up an off-hand sequencer pattern from a Prophet, rolls in the tympani on his Emulator, pumps out brass from the Prophet 10, while a searing string melody cries out from the Yamaha.  I had thought he was giving me a spontaneous concert, improvised on the spot, but I later learned that he whips out pretty much the same routine for anyone who will listen. But it accounts for one of the reasons why his music is so fraught with emotional outbursts:  he doesn't distance himself from his music, coolly layering in single-lines on his multitrack.  He just leaps into it.

Vangelis is a garrulous man whose physical presence is as massive as his music. Even in his own Nemo studios where he was working, he was dressed in suit-coat and tie, and looking slightly uncomfortable as his body tried to burst out of it.  He smoked one of those thick stogey-type cigars that carnival barkers usually stick in their mouths. Though he was a pop star in his early days with Formynx in Greece and Aphrodite's Child in France, he takes pleasure in eschewing that image. Now he tries to be the common, cosmic man.  He denies any importance his music might have, and plays down his recent celebrity, but skillfully navigates questions about his art towards the universal significance of music, the spontaneous nature of his inspiration, and his need to express feelings and emotion.  He diverts questions about his birth by saying he is 3000 years old, "or more" (he's in his late-thirties). His charm is that he doesn't come off as pretentious in saying any of this. Instead, he emerges as a warm and thoughtful artist, who really just wants to make music and have a good time.

Vangelis distances himself from the industry.  With the final Aphrodite's Child album, 666, a minor art-rock classic, he took the leap away from the commercial scene, doing music that wouldn't get him much airplay except as the background for commercials. He's even expressed skepticism about the success of Chariots,  thinking that people will expect all his albums to be like that. That may be why he hasn't put out a new record in well over a year. On the other side of the coin, however, he does make cute pop records with former Yes singer Jon Anderson such as The Friends of Mr. Cairo.

Synthesizers have helped eliminate the need for manual virtuosity, and programmable synths are eroding the need even further. Perhaps Vangelis, with his formidable (and reputedly self-taught) chops is still a reminder that there's still a lot a musician can do with sound, just using one's hands and mind.  For Vangelis Papathanassiou, the way he makes music hasn't changed much since he first started beating on a piano and plucking its strings when he was four.

* * * * *

John Diliberto: When did you first start playing music?

Vangelis Papathanassiou: I think I started at the age of four.  It was something natural.  I remember playing the piano and whatever I could find in the kitchen; any thing that could produce noise.  I used to play tunes, my own tunes. And I'd open this big grand piano we had at home and I'd pull on the strings and create incredible noises and sounds.  I'd drive my mother crazy because she thought I'd break the piano, but I never did.  I'd done all this with great respect.  I never banged the piano.  I always tried to create more sounds, but not in order to destroy it.  I was never 100% satisfied with one sound, the conventional piano sound.  At that time I didn't have synthesizers, but I always felt that I wanted more than the conventional sound.  So my own way of finding new sounds was to go inside the piano.  Of course, when I got the synthesizers, everything changed.

JD: Did you have any formal musical training?

VP: No.  My parents tried desperately to push me towards music lessons but they failed completely. To me it was impossible to sit down and learn.   There are things that you can never learn, just like there are things you can never teach. Also, I never felt that I wanted to be like a symphony orchestra musician, which is just like being a really fine and great computer who can interpret any piece of music.  To me music was a completely different matter.

JD: Was the classical role model the only one available to you at the time in Greece?

VP: Of course classical music has always been around, and ethnic music, too.  That's really an incredible source of inspiration. Jazz music as well!  I remember being 12 years old and I could play any jazz tune and improvise. I always believed that jazz is one of the greatest musical languages. It might be the greatest thing that the United States has ever produced.

JD: Who were you listening to?

VP: Oh, everybody!  Charlie Parker, Thelonius Monk, Errol Garner, Oscar Peterson, Ella!  You know, everybody.   Count Basie...you could go on forever.

JD: When did you start playing for people?

VP: When I was six, I played for about two thousand people with a piano.

JD: Was it a recital?

VP: Yeah, but I was playing my own  music, because I couldn't learn anything else.  I could only improvise.  Even now, when I give a concert, I never know what I'm going to play.  I compose for the moment of the concert.  And I did the same thing when I was six.

JD: How did you get from that point to Aphrodite's Child?

VP: It was a natural development, getting together with some friends from the university.  We formed this group mainly so that we could play jazz.  It was basically an amateur group.  We never thought about becoming professionals or making money. But strangely enough, we became so famous in Greece that we were playing before 10,000 people in stadiums.  I felt this sort of hysterical success; people screaming,  having bodyguards, all the usual things.  But that was my first experience with huge success.  I was lucky to have this experience early. It was like a vaccination.

JD: Were there groups similar to Aphrodite's Child in Greece?

VP: There were some but not many. That's the reason why I left Greece and came to Paris and London.  It's a great place for inspiration, but you can't develop yourself there.  Also, music was not a number one priority in Greece when I left.

JD: It was also politically tumultuous then.

VP: Yes!  That's another reason why I  left.  I couldn't stay there.

JD: The 666 album by Aphrodite's Child was a pretty bizarre affair.

VP: Yeah, that was the last album.  Actually I would've liked that to be the first album, but first we had to go through that hit parade thing to prove that we could be commercial and sell and make it easy with the record company.  To me, Aphrodite's Child was a vehicle to break into the business and get enough money to have my own studio later.  That's the reason why we did 666 in the end, though I didn't know it was the end.  I created a terrible panic.  We used to be number one in the charts and they wanted to know why we were doing this, coming out with a double album that was not a single or easy chart album.  To me it was a chance to break away and do whatever I liked.  I was tired of trying to be in the charts. There's nothing wrong with charts, but it's wrong to try and do the things that you think will get you in them.

JD: How did you arrive at a piece like (Infinity)?

VP: Quite accidentally.  Most of the things I do are spontaneous. I don't want to prepare myself because then I lose the surprise. That's the way I work...

JD: Was Irene Pappas' vocal improvised then?

VP: Yes.  She came into the Studio one day and we had this text from the New Testament which was "I was I am to come". Because the 666 album is from St. John, the Apocalypse.  She improvised and I played the percussion.

JD: A lot of your music is involved with imitative synthesis. It seemed to really start with the Heaven & Hell album with the giant orchestral sounds and trumpets.

VP: Actually, when I did Heaven & Hell, I had the smallest collection of instruments.   I did it with one or two synthesizers.  It was the end of 1974 when I moved to London and was in the middle of the chaos of building a studio. But I had to deliver this album. I did try to produce this orchestral, big sound; but I don't do this all the time.

JD: When did you first start playing synthesizers?

VP: It was in early 1970.  It had always been my basic need for years to find an instrument that could give me an extension of sound.  The only solution to me was the synthesizer.  Of course, at the time, the synthesizers we had were not nearly as flexible as the ones we have now.  Now we have real instruments;  at the time, they were very basic. Today, to play a synthesizer the right way you need the same amount of technique you would need to play a violin, trumpet, flute, or any conventional instrument.  That is due to the touch response.  The keyboards are so sensitive now, and you can really put a lot of feeling into them. It's really quite extraordinary, because synthesizers are only 12 years old or so.  Now, the piano, the most known instrument, took maybe 200 years to build.  So it's extraordinary that in 12years time we've built synthesizers that we can consider really fine instruments.

JD: You do bring a strictly keyboard approach to playing the synthesizer.

VP: Yes!  Because the way that you can drive, you can play the instrument.  I'm not very keen on programming a lot of things because then I don't have time to play.  The human element is very important.  I love technology to serve me, but I don't want to serve technology.

JD: So you find that the interface with your synthesizers takes place on the keyboard?

VP: Yes!  I always believed that the human being is the best synthesizer.  The machine is always second.

JD: What was your first synthesizer?

VP: It was a very small, basic Korg.  I still have it.

JD: A lot of people see the synthesizer as being able to go beyond conventional instruments, yet you often use it to imitate.

VP: You can do both.  You can never really imitate.  Even if you try to have a symphony orchestra sound, the same thing played by a symphony orchestra sounds completely different.  It's more like a memory of what we know, but it's not  the real thing. But it doesn't matter.  What matters is if you're making communication. If you need a violin, you take a violin.  But now with a synthesizer you have the memory of a violin and that's a different thing altogether. Conventional instruments will always be around because they are a tool to help a human being express himself.  So when you have a flute that has been around for thousands of years and it's still there, there must be a reason.  I don't think that any synthesizer will put the flute out of business.  The flute is a machine as well; it's something that has been built to produce sound.  But whenever you play the flute, you can only get the flute sound. The only thing you can change is your personal feeling, because nobody plays flute the same way.  That's the fantastic thing about it, especially in oriental music.  The interpretation and the feel that you put into it is very important. So it's a completely different approach. But when you want to extend that, you need something more.  So synthesizers can add to what exists now.  They're not here to wipe away conventional instruments -- they are all machines and it doesn't matter if they are electronic or acoustic. With the violin you have a bow and the string that produces the sound. With  the synthesizer you need electric power to do the same thing.  So what!  Some people say that if it's electronic it's not real.  Everything is real.  The whole cosmic system is like that. It's energy, power.  The human being is full of energy and electricity; there's nothing wrong with that. The human being is the master and if you have a feeling, you'll always  find a way to get it through.  Let's take percussion. To some people, percussion is just noise.  To me, percussion is one of the finest assemblage of instruments that humans have ever produced. If you take a conga drum, somebody can just start banging and it will sound awful. But if you take somebody with feel, African or Cuban people, they play it incredibly.  This one or two tone instrument becomes so incredible and rich when these people start to play.  A simple sound becomes huge. So I don't believe that synthesizer don't have feeling.

JD: Don't you think, especially with the newer computer synthesizers, that music is more a creation of the mind?  That people's perception of good music doesn't rely on manual dexterity and flashy technique anymore?

VP: I think that music is a reflection.  And if people become too intellectual it reflects not only in their music, but in their everyday life.  We live in an intellectual  society  anyway. That's why we suffer.  That's why we become schizophrenic. There's too much logic and point of reference and fear.  Nobody dares to feel something.  That's why music has become so important in the last thirty years:  it may be the last source of communication between people.  We should keep a balance between the intellect and feeling.  Use the intellect to analyze something we did after it is done to see why and how we did it. If we don't use it to create what we're going to do,  we can come up with a piece of music that really makes sense and then someone else can understand it.  If our intent  is  intellectual,  I don't think we can have a dialogue.

JD: What I meant was that music is created in the mind, not necessarily intellectual music.

VP: But I don't think about my music.  It is there before me andafter me.  I'm somewhere in the middle and I'm like a wire, like a bridge between something.  What I do is help this existent thing come through so we can hear it. But I try to eliminate the filter and keep the music as pure as possible.  But it's very difficult. Music is very important.  I never see it as entertainment.  It could be entertainment, but that's a small percentage of the whole spectrum of music.  The way that we use music today is very little. We use music in a very narrow way at the moment.  Hopefully they'll use it in different ways in the future.

JD: What sort of ways?

VP: Science!

JD: How will they use it in science?

VP: Oh, they will.  Because music is like a code.  It contains all the secrets, things we don't understand (Editor's note:  Gurdjieff believed that certain truths were coded into the standard, 12 tone Western scale).  Until now, we used lots of philosophies to understand certain things.  But music is there like a witness to all creation.

JD: One aspect of your music, and a lot of electronic music is that it's not just concerned with the construction of sound, but also the placement of sound in space. I'm thinking especially of Beau- bourg, which is a very abstract piece, but creates this movement of sound through the stereo spectrum.

VP: Of course, with the technology that we have today, it gives us a new way of recording.  It's the same as recording holograms, three dimensional.  You feel like you're in a globe.  It's better in quadraphonic sound where everything is there and you know the position of every sound.  At the time I did Beaubourg, I used only stereo.  I'd love to use quadraphonic, but I can't because most people aren't equipped with the equipment to hear it the right way.

JD: Do you think your ideas are ahead of the technology?

VP: No, the technology is fine.

JD: You don't think that synthesizers could improve in any way?

VP: Oh, of course they can.  But it's a business thing.  With synthesizers, every year they give you a little bit more so that you'll continue to buy more, because the companies have to survive.

JD: You don't perform live anymore.

VP: No, I don't.  The last concert I gave was about 4 years ago. It's a real hassle to play live. When I decide to do a concert, I go through a lot of problems with publicity, interests, money, the sound...this simple idea of getting together with people becomes a monster of problems.  It's not spontaneous anymore.  I'm sure you've been to lots of concerts, and you know that backstage it's completely different than it is out front.   I can't go through that.   I also can't plan far enough in advance to do a concert. I don't like to commit myself.  My job is not to give concerts, but to live as freely as possible so that I can create.

JD: What about the technical feasibility of performing your music live?

VP: No, performing live is no problem technically.  With the new technology it's even less of a problem.

JD: An album like China was quite a departure for you.  What was it like, trying to bring the music of an alien culture into your own art?

VP: Ialways felt very close to Chinese music, even as a child. Of course, all ethnic musics have common points, but I've always been attracted to Chinese music. I didn't try to do Chinese folk music.  I'm not Chinese, but I did something that I felt had this characteristic color of Chinese music.

JD: It was very gentle music, compared to, say, Heaven & Hell, which was very dynamic.

VP: Heaven & Hell is European music.

JD: Do you think that Asian music lends itself to the synthesizer in that the synthesizer can go beyond the diatonic scale?

VP: Absolutely.  I know, because I play Oriental music and I can do the same things on synthesizer, much more than I have on my albums.  But when I just play for myself, I find that I can have the same flexibility of a sitar, shakuhachi or any other Oriental instrument.   It's a different technique altogether.  You take a violin, which is a very conventional instrument -- the Egyptians play it one way, the Indians another and the Greeks another.  You can even play jazz on violin. It's the same instrument, but it has a different feel and technique.  Today, with the touch response synthesizers, if you know how to use the technique, you can produce the same results.

JD: When Edgar Varese was thinking about an instrument like the synthesizer before there was such a thing, he talked about the liberation of sound.  Do you think has accomplished that?

VP: As long as the human being is free, yes.

JD: Do you like to use the synthesizer in ways that human players couldn't perform with conventional instruments?

VP: In terms of speed, yes.  A human being is a machine as well. You have ten fingers if you play the piano,  four fingers if you play the violin and you have to go a certain speed.  You have certain facilities and difficulties.  Now with the synthesizer, especially ones that you can program, you can alter the speed in the mechanical parts.  And by changing the sound, and programming the change in the sound, you can program in things that the human being can't produce.  But what the hands can't produce, the mind produces.  When I think about a symphony and I have to write something that's an hour long, I can think about this music in an hour's time in my brain.   So I've done it.   Now, we're not talking about whether it's good or bad,  but mechanically, my brain has done it.  Now to put that into practice it might take a year or six months.  I have to write the piece and rehearse it and all that.  But I believe that the real composition takes place in the mind.  I have many symphonies that are lost like that but it doesn't matter.  So the human being is able to think. The greatest machine might be to have a plug that you put in your brain and you immediately have a recording.  But this wonder doesn't exist.  It might even be dangerous.

JD: What do you think?

VP: It would probably be dangerous.  Human beings are very unstable.

JD: A lot of the electronic music to come out of the mid-70s was involved with space and technological imagery and you were involved with that too, around the time of Albedo 0.39.

VP: That a one of my interests. But it gets a little bit dodgey when you go to space and all that with synthesizers.  We created a fashion of electronic music in space.  And it's true that with electronic instruments you can get closer to nature and nature is space, it's everything.  But it became a fashionable thing and that's why I don't repeat it.

JD: When you say you write music, do you mean that you actually write it out?

VP: No, I don't write it out.  I don't know how to write music.

JD: Do you compose at the keyboard?

VP: I compose right on the keyboard.  And it's always the first take that I use.  It's a question of concentration and then I play.

JD: You say you use the first take,  but you must do lots of overdubbing.

VP: Yeah, but not alot.  I don't play one synthesizer at a time.  I play three or four.  So immediately you have a spectrum of sound.  Then if I need more things I overdub.  But I never do ten overdubs or anything like that; just two or three.  If you do more than that, it becomes dull.  You can have a really full sound with only a few things.  It just depends on where you put them.  With a symphony orchestra you can have a really full sound with only three or four voices.  You don't need 20 voices singing parallel lines -- this creates a thin sound because you cancel things.   In order to leave room for each family of frequencies to grow, you have to be as simple as possible. These are basic laws.  It's not my conception, it's how nature works.

JD: A couple of years ago, we were sitting in the United States, a car commercial came on, and we said "hey, we know that music".

VP: Oh yes!  In Europe you can't imagine what it's like.  All of my albums are used by everybody, in every country.  It's embarrassing actually.  Thank God that they don't mention my name.

JD: It seems that in the last year they've been using different versions or re-mixes of some of the pieces.

VP: Yeah,  they are different versions.

JD: Your music does elicit strong visual responses.

VP: But when I play I don't see anything.  I feel things in terms of waves, electricity, magnetism, mass and like that.  I see things after, when I listen back, but not when I compose.

JD: What do you like to listen to?

VP: I listen to things that are very simple,  like the Blues or Indian music.  Arabic and Greek music is simple.  With Oriental music you have an abstraction. Blues is an abstraction as well. It's unbelieveable what you can do with the blues.

JD: Do you listen to any other electronic music?

VP: I listen to nature and natural sounds.  To me, the synthesizer is the same as natural sounds, like thunder, the wind, and water.  Electricity!  Energy! I really like living in this cenury where I can enjoy all these instruments.

JD: I find it interesting that you're into the blues.

VP: I've never done an album of blues.

JD: Would you want to?

VP: Oh, I'd love to.

JD: Do you think people would take it seriously?

VP: I don't know.  I do whatever I feel.  If they take it seriously or not is not up to me.  Of course people put on labels, and I hate labels.  One of the big dangers after Chariots of Fire is that people will think that my next album is going to be like that. Every time they call me to say that I'm number one here, and platinum there, I get terrified that I might be stuck with that. How am I going to convince thousands of people that it is just one moment during a month's time?

JD: Do you think that electronics might be paving the way for a more universal music?

VP: To have a universal music we have to feel universal.  We'd have to get rid of our everyday points of reference and beliefs.  It's okay to be English, Greek, or American but we have to see that we are all on earth and we are all one.

JD: I sometimes think that the synthesizer could be a tool for breaking down the barriers.

VP: It can be. Until now, what conventional instruments have done is help the human being to develop his own language or dialect.  So if I spoke to you now in Chinese or Greek you won't understand anything;  I could say the most beautiful thing and you would not understand.  That's why, when you have, say, a great piece of Indian music, people aren't able to receive it.  But with synthesizers, you can go beyond this.  We can keep the roots of something and then you don't have to apply the precise language. I have an example of that on an album with Irene Pappas (Odes). It's done with very old,  Greek traditional music.  Until a few years ago, everyone used to play this music with the traditional instruments and it was like a museum piece.  Because of that, the music dies every day.  Now I played that music that I learned when I was three or four and I play it my way. This album was one of the most popular albums in Greece.  It has nothing to do with the conventional way.  These songs are exactly the same.  The feel is exactly the same, but the way of expression is different.  You can't say that it's ethnic music anymore.  So maybe the synthesizer brings a more universal expression.

JD: Why do you use so many different makes of keyboards?  Why don't you have just a couple of Prophet l0s or Yamahas?

VP: Each make is different and they give you different possibilities.

JD: Is it like a pianist, who thinks that each piano is different?

VP: Oh yes.  Each synthesizer is different.  Even if you have two of the same model you'll find that there's a difference between them. The more you know an instrument, the better it is.  I think it's essential to have different ones.

JD: I see that you have a few different percussion devices.

VP: Yes, I have three different ways to produce percussion.

JD: What do you think of the Linn Drum Machine?

VP: It was the first one of that kind of thing.   I  think it's a little bit primitive,  but it's okay.

JD: In the other room you have a whole arsenal or conventional percussion...

VP: Yes,  but I have all thatconventional percussion here (points to his Emulator).   It's easier when you play.  It all comes up on the keyboard chromatically and then I can change it.

JD: You've got an acoustic piano over there.  Why wouldn't you just record it and throw it on  the Emulator?

VP: That's possible, but the keyboard is bigger there.   I've got more octaves.  And the Emulator is not only to reproduce the sounds, but to change the sounds. You can do incredible things with it.

JD: What kind of mood do you have here when you record?  Do you have all these people running around?

VP: It depends on when it comes. When it comes I have to do it.  It depends on what mood I'm in.

JD: Do you still occasionally whip it out on the tympani?

VP: Oh yeah! There are still things that you can do on regular instruments that you can't do on the synthesizer.

(This interview is taken from a radio series called "Totally Wired: Artists  in Electronic Sound".  This is a series of 26 half-hour radio programs focussing on  the history and  artists  of electronic music.  The series will be distributed via National Public Radio's Extended Program Service and the National Federation of Community Broadcasters Distribution Service this summer.   The series is produced by John Diliberto and Kimberly Haas and is supported by grants from Sequential Circuits, Inc., Yamaha Corporation, the Pennsylvania Humanities Council, and the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts.)

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