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Vangelis – A Memorial by Mark Jenkins



[Editor’s note: I posted some brief comments about Vangelis yesterday, but Mark’s heartfelt tribute here is much deeper. Mark also wrote a very nice musical tribute that you can listen to (and see the video) here. – NB]

Best known for his film soundtrack success on “Chariots of Fire” and “Blade Runner,” Vangelis had started innovating much earlier and his synth-oriented albums Heaven & Hell, Albedo 0.39, and Spiral introduced styles and techniques few others could match.

His synth and sequencer work was always tempered with piano and orchestral percussion, and even in the early days with wind instruments. Like Patrick Moraz, he specialized not so much in improvisations as in “spontaneous compositions,” which someone else would then score out for orchestral purposes. 

Most recently Vangelis had released piano solo albums, but had been keeping up to date with the use of Eurorack and other modern synthesizer instruments such as the Matrixbrute and Hydrasynth.

Vangelis was born Evángelos Odysséas Papathanassíou in Greece in 1943. He started playing piano at an early age but was more interested in modifying its sounds and in adding radio interference than with conventional music studies.

At 18 he formed his first band “The Forminx,” and after the band split created several soundtracks for Greek movies, then moved to Paris and London. He formed the band Aphrodites Child with Demis Roussos, and the double album “666” has long been considered a classic of early progressive rock.

In London, Vangelis built a 16-track studio named Nemo and continued with film soundtrack work. He auditioned to join Yes to replace Rick Wakeman, though the job eventually went to Patrick Moraz.

In 1976 he released the synth instrumental album “Heaven & Hell” through RCA. This included vocals by Jon Anderson from Yes, who went on to collaborate on several “Jon & Vangelis” albums in the years to come.

“Heaven & Hell” and the subsequent “Albedo 0.39” and “Spiral” were melodic, synthesiser-based successes. In 1978 he released the very experimental “Beaubourg” – widely held to be an attempt to be released from his record company contract – and in 1979 moved to Polydor for the album “China.”

In 1980 a huge breakthrough was achieved with the soundtrack to “Chariots of Fire,” dominated by piano and synthesizers. In 1982 Ridley Scott’s movie “Blade Runner” brought his use of synthesizers to the fore, largely featuring sounds from the Yamaha CS80 from brass and pads to huge, clanging ring modulator effects.

The CS80 remained a favorite instrument for Vangelis. Its individual note aftertouch allowed great expression in melody parts while he played left hand parts simultaneously.

Vangelis continued to compose extensively for movies and for singers such as Milva and Nana Mouskouri. Fascinated by space and aeronautics, he also had album tracks used by Carl Sagan’s TV series “Cosmos” and composed new music for ESA and NASA.

Vangelis was not a prolific live performer, but he did give a few major concerts, often involving a choir and orchestra.

In his studio he developed an instrument called the Direct Device, based on the Zyklus sequencer. Using common samplers and modules, he created an interface system like a giant Rolodex, allowing different sounds and layers to be called up instantly.

Combined with foot switches and pedals, this allowed him to create symphonic music spontaneously, which would then be scored out by an assistant.

In recent times he had released piano solo albums, but continued to experiment with up-to-date synthesizers including the Arturia Matrixbrute, ASM Hydrasynth, and Eurorack modular systems.

The American Film Institute nominated Vangelis’ scores for both “Chariots Of Fire” and “Blade Runner” among the top 25 movie scores of all time.

Vangelis’ private life always remained obscure, though it’s thought he married three times. He leaves a legacy that will be remembered by listeners and musicians around the world.

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