Vangelis Speaks | Vangelis
Vangelis, one of the synthesiser world's most influential figures, reveals the long-hidden facts about his approach to modern music-making. Interview by Dan Goldstein.
With a host of solo albums, film soundtracks and collaborative efforts to his credit, Vangelis is one of the most influential synthesiser composers in the history of modern music. Yet until now, the methods, incidents and philosophies behind his unique compositional style have remained a mystery...
Being told in advance of its whereabouts doesn't necessarily make finding Vangelis' recording studio any easier. It's located on the fourth floor of a large, unprepossessing, and unadorned building in a tiny back street that even the most experienced of London's cab drivers has to consult his atlas before tracing, yet a good aim and a following wind would take a pebble from one of its windows to the ground beneath Marble Arch, one of the capital's best known and most central landmarks.
The studio is called Nemo, and has been Vangelis' only place of work since he came to England from Paris over a decade ago. Even before his soundtrack to the film Chariots of Fire put his name on the lips of cinema-goers the world over and brought him the vast collection of gold and silver discs that now adorn his studio walls, Vangelis was an electronic composer whose brilliantly-conceived and originally-arranged music had earned him considerable respect among the burgeoning synthesiser fraternity and a cult following that grew in significance with the release of every album.
Yet in many ways, Nemo is an uninspiring place, lacking not only the mass of hi-tech hardware now considered standard in commercial studios with any serious pretentions to the title 'State of the Art', but also the visual and acoustic decorations that make so many recording venues appear similar: the shag pile carpet, the triple-glazed windows, the subtle back-lighting. None of these things are included in Nemo's specification, nor are they ever likely to be.
In many ways, Vangelis' workplace is a reflection of the worker himself. Unconvinced by the worth of technology for its own sake and unimpressed by the conventions imposed by commerce and marketing, he remains true to the musical philosophies that impressed themselves on him when he first began tinkering with his parents' upright piano in his native Greece at the age of four.
'That is my earliest memory. Playing piano, some percussion and whatever else that was available that made a noise. Right from the start, I was only interested in playing my own music, not other people's, and very early on I had a desire to create my own studio in which to write my music.
'But at the time I was very young and still at school. I had a very good time in Greece, but after a while I felt I wanted to get away so I moved to Paris, where I worked my way up through the music industry to get enough money to start a studio.'
While in Paris, Vangelis played keyboards in a couple of rock bands he considers too embarrassing to talk about, as well as meeting Yes' Jon Anderson - who would later become the composer's partner in a number of joint musical ventures - for the first time.
Around 1972, he made the move to London, where he signed his first major recording contract (with RCA), the proceeds from which were used to construct Nemo...
'That was not a very easy time for me', the composer reflects. 'I was trying to put together the studio while recording my first album, Heaven and Hell, at the same time. In fact, the studio was Hell because there was unmixed concrete everywhere, builders all over the place making a lot of noise, and next to all that, there I was, trying to finish my album.
'There was no limit as to how much time I could spend working on the album, but I felt I just had to do it, and in any case, the only way you can complete the construction of a studio quickly is to start working in it before it's actually finished. If you try to wait before the building work is complete, you'll end up waiting forever!'
In the technological thunderstorm that is 1984, it's perhaps difficult to imagine how refreshing the delicate synth soundscapes of Heaven and Hell were when the album was first released. While the rest of Britain's pop culture was still under the spell of Glam Rock and Glitter Power, Vangelis' first vinyl product was stunning in the beauty of its arrangement and the originality of its structure. Its creator used synthesisers as the sonic base for his compositions, and paradoxically, their solid state automation added warmth and colour where most other contemporary music had none.
'Keyboards have always been my main instrument, and as soon as synthesisers became available, I had to have one. My first electric instrument was a Hammond B3 organ. At the time I got it, it provided me with a whole new spectrum of sound (though obviously it had its limitations), and it served me very well: I drive all my instruments very hard, so that's a compliment.
'My first synthesiser was a Korg 700 monophonic. It's a lovely little machine: I still have it - I never throw any keyboards away - and I still enjoy playing it. It's full of possibilities no organ can even approach.
'Once I'd got the Korg, new synthesisers started becoming available every six months or so, and I used to go around the shops in London to see if there was any synthesiser offering anything new. Luckily, I was in a position where I had enough money to buy more or less what I wanted.'
Vangelis describes the electronic instrument market during the early and mid-seventies as a 'low-key situation: synthesisers were still quite basic, but they weren't really all that expensive, either'. Nowadays, he views the hardware scheme of things in a detached and philosophical manner rarely found amongst the synthesiser world's elite.
'One half of the market is now completely oriented towards domestic users, with the Lowrey and Hammond organs and little Casio keyboards, while the other side embraces the Fairlights and Emulators of this world. Those instruments are very sophisticated and - I think - unnecessarily expensive. You could say there's also a kind of middle-ground made up of the programmable polysynths from the likes of Roland and Korg, which I think is going through a bit of a crisis at the moment. Well, perhaps crisis is too strong a word, but those polysynths haven't offered anything really new for quite a while.'
Nothing really new? What about MIDI? What about the DX7? Vangelis has sensed my disagreement.
'The DX7 is a nice, commercial little toy, at a reasonable price. But it's a little bit noisy, and I think the main reason so many people have bought it is that it has such a clever library of sounds. I don't want to criticise it too much - it's good for studio work and nice to have around. I've used one myself quite a bit, but to me it's the equivalent of what the Korg 700 was ten years ago. A popular instrument, it is to the synth world what the Renault 5 is to cars. The Renault 5 was a hit because it was very versatile and you could park it anywhere... What I really don't like about it is that, for Yamaha, it's a step back from the CS80.'
It transpires that there is no instrument Vangelis admires more than Yamaha's late seventies synthesiser flagship. In the couple of hours I spoke with him, his individual command of English was used to describe his feelings on the CS80 more than any other subject.
'The most important synthesiser in my career - and for me the best analogue synthesiser design there has ever been. It was a brilliant instrument, though unfortunately not a very successful one. It needs a lot of practice if you want to be able to play it properly, but that's because it's the only synthesiser I could describe as being a real instrument, mainly because of the keyboard - the way it's built and what you can do with it.
'Today, the only thing that matters to synth makers and synth players is the supply of different sounds - nothing else. I think the manufacturers have a responsibility to fit synthesisers with better keyboards so that people get some encouragement to play better, because if all you do is use synths as a source of sounds, you'll never be a complete performer. You'll never be a player in the practical sense, you won't acquire fast reactions.'
But if the likes of the DX7 are enough for most players, what's wrong with the manufacturers giving them what they want?
'Nothing, really. I can understand why manufacturers do what they do for the middle ground, but that should only be one part of the market. Take Yamaha, which is an enormous company: they can go ahead and sell DX7s, but there's no reason why they can't also build an extraordinary instrument. There's the DX1, but to me that's a disappointment - awkward to use, and really quite inflexible. When Yamaha created the CS80, I expected them to refine it and improve it, make it lighter, put new sounds on it, but they didn't.
'I think what I'm saying will make more sense in 10 or 15 years' time. By then, someone somewhere should have created The Instrument - the ultimate synthesiser. I don't mean in terms of sound, because we can create anything we want these days, but in terms of being an extension of the performer - a true performance instrument.
'To explain, if you look at the piano today, it's the result of about 200 years' continuous development, but there's not one synthesiser that's been developed over anything like that length of time. When a synthesiser comes out, it's Top of the Pops for two years, then it's scrapped and replaced by another one with more memories or whatever. When manufacturers stop adopting that attitude, that's when they'll get closer to creating the sort of instrument I'm after - a true performance synthesiser. '
So we're still quite a long way from that?
'Well, nothing since the CS80 that I've used can act as a natural extension of a player's ability. Nothing can be as immediate. The situation is even worse now with the arrival of computers.'
Aha! Now we come to the real bone of contention. It seems computer technology doesn't really fit into Vangelis' scheme of things at all. He's used them, of course, as and when they've become available, but he remains unconvinced by their usefulness as performance instruments, while grudgingly acknowledging the enormity of their sonic potential.
'In terms of communication, computers are the worst thing that has happened for the performing musician. Why? Because you have to learn to talk to the computer. Having to talk to a piece of equipment moves you one step away from spontaneous creation, things are no longer immediate. When you want to play a piano, you just sit down and play it - you don't have to talk to it. You don't have to say 'give me some sustain here', but unfortunately that's exactly what you have to do with the Fairlight, for example.
'Of course, if you take the time to program computers you can do quite incredible things, but you still lose the immediate contact and response. In that respect, all the new digital and computer instruments are a failure.
'The one computer instrument I've used a great deal is the Emulator. I wasn't expecting much from the Mk I because... well, because it was the first. It had its problems but I could understand that, and although it was primitive it was a very useful instrument. But again, the new Emulator is a bit of a let-down to me. They should have fitted a bigger, better keyboard, and made it more human, easier to use. Still, I don't want to be too critical. The sound is much, much better now, and it's very useful for studio work.'
OK, End of Hardware Story. Vangelis' tirade against what the latest modern technology can offer the performance-oriented musician has been a surprise. It's certainly strange, the idea of a man who received no formal classical training whatsoever, who has access to the most sophisticated electronic instruments money can buy, putting immediacy and response highest on his list of synthesiser priorities.
Then again, perhaps it shouldn't be so surprising. After all, comparisons between Vangelis' musical output and those of his contemporaries almost invariably show his to be the less contrived, the more natural-sounding, the more immediate. And that's something that's true of his solo work (he refers to it as 'pure' music), his collaborations with the likes of Jon Anderson, and his scores for film, ballet and opera.
How does he keep up the standard?
'Well, I think it's important not to get stuck doing one thing all the time. For instance, since I did Chariots of Fire I've had about 50 offers to do soundtracks every year, but I'd rather not do too many because I don't want to be known only as a filmscore composer. The most important thing for a composer is to have the freedom to become involved in any musical field - that's the most inspiring way of working.
'Of course, inspiration can come in different ways, depending on what field you're working in. When I'm writing music for a film, inspiration will come from the subject matter and visual images, because I don't agree to any offers of film work unless I believe I can add another dimension to the film. But if I'm writing music purely for myself, inspiration comes naturally, from everything around. I absorb every experience in life, every situation, because anything can become a source of inspiration - positive or negative. In general I'm influenced more by everyday concepts - nature, the city and so forth - than by hearing other pieces of music. Neither do I find any special inspiration from working in a studio. Obviously it makes life a lot easier to have 24 tracks to record on, and I use the studio as a tool to help in the writing process. I see the mixing desk really as another instrument, the conductor for all the others. But although the tape recorder and the console are just as important as the keyboards, I haven't equipped my studio with a lot of hi-tech effects: I'd rather spend time searching through my sound library to get the exact colour I want.'
The longer our conversation continued, the more it became obvious that Vangelis regards his own commercial achievements with amusement rather than excitement. It's clear that he has little time for what he calls 'junk food music', or records that are made merely to fulfil commercial ambitions, and dreads the thought that he might one day be forced into a similar way of working.
'For every album I've ever made, I've written many times more music than has actually been released, and the way I choose which music appears is almost totally random, but one thing I have never done is to make music for the sake of commercialism.
'I write music primarily for myself, though it's lovely if everybody goes out and buys the records. My new album - Soil Festivities - was made because I wanted to make music, not sell a million records. I don't think it's possible to guarantee commercial success for an album anyway, because nobody really knows what is commercial and what isn't. Even if I went out of my way to make an album that was more accessible to the public, that would not guarantee its commercial success.'
Soil Festivities is in fact Vangelis' first album of 'pure' music to be released for some while, though as this conversation has already shown, that's unlikely to be due to lack of endeavour on Vangelis' part. An album inspired - more than any of its predecessors - by the beauty of nature, Festivities is a celebration of the natural elements, with their characteristic sounds sampled by Emulator, mixed in with 'conventional' polysynth sounds, and occasionally backed by Vangelis' now familiar acoustic percussion patterns.
And although it's unlikely to match the commercial success achieved by his film soundtracks and Anderson singles, Vangelis can draw satisfaction from the fact that his latest album reaffirms his position as a leading electronic arranger and a composer of the highest calibre. Perhaps more excitingly, it may well be that his own happiness at how Festivities has turned out brings him back to the concert arena, something he's visited all too infrequently during his long career.
'From the creative point of view, live music is always different to what appears on a record because everything is spontaneous and you're influenced as a performer by your audience. The negative aspect of live work is that the audience expects to be entertained, and not only that, the record company and the promoters expect you to be successful. But to me, the theatre is a meeting place where something unpredictable happens, not necessarily successful, maybe pleasant, maybe not. That's how I think a concert should be, but in reality things have to be planned down to the last detail, you have to rehearse with other musicians so the scope for improvisation is lessened, and these things prevent a concert from being a truly spontaneous affair. In a way, this reality makes me less keen to do concerts, but in essence I do like playing. I enjoy the risk.'
So the idea of live improvisation is important?
'Yes. I'd really like to do some concerts of completely improvised music, but one of the reasons for doing a concert is to experience the enjoyment of the people there, so you have to include excerpts of music from previous albums because they want to hear something they already know and like. There's nothing wrong with limiting your spontaneous playing to just improvising around old themes, but what is wrong is playing a concert solely to promote a certain record. I've never done a concert tour just to promote Heaven and Hell or Chariots or anything like that. That sort of thing seems pointless to me.'
Returning to the subject of the sound-generating hardware that's now available to the modern musician, it seemed reasonable to inquire whether the magician had ever considered delving inside, say, a CS80, in the hope of bringing it up to the standards of his 'ideal instrument'.
'Well, to be honest I don't think it's necessary to find out how pieces of equipment work. I would prefer to know how music works, or how my body and my mind work. After all, it's more useful to know how to drive a car than it is to know what makes it go.
'Of course it's important to know certain things about a machine, but I don't need to be able to build my own synthesiser. It strikes me that the people who do build them don't know how to play them, so I'd rather find out more about playing.
'That's probably why I don't rush out to buy all the latest technology. In fact, I find it quite boring at the moment, simply because so much of it is just technology - nothing more. I buy something if it really appeals to me, if I think it will add another dimension to what I have at the moment. Don't misunderstand me: I think it is important to have as many different instruments as possible, with different libraries of sounds, and different characteristics. But some people adopt the attitude that if they had enough money they could have all the machinery they wanted, and that would somehow make their music better. That's simply not the case.
'The way I see it is that the ear works on several different levels, like the eye. If you're trained to look carefully you see more than people who aren't, and the same goes for the ear. If your ears are well-trained, you can hear not just a range of pitches but other sounds that most people just miss.
'This is another reason why it's important not to become obsessed with technology. You've got to remember that however a sound is generated - acoustically, electronically digitally - it's still just a sound, a part of nature.'
There is a trace of sadness in Vangelis' expression as he contemplates, perhaps, a musical future dominated by the will of technicians and marketing men.
There's no doubt that Vangelis has done as much to bring electronic music into the realms of public acceptance as anybody else. All he desires now is for those who design electronic musical instruments to take the needs of musicians into account a little more than they seem to be doing at present. And there aren't many more honourable desires than that.
Interview by Dan Goldstein
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