With some 17 solo albums to his credit, as well as two ballets, five collaborations with Jon Anderson, and film soundtracks that include 'Blade Runner' and the Oscar-winning 'Chariots Of Fire', Vangelis has continually explored the creation of musical forms via the integration of the acoustic with the electronic. Recently, he took time out to talk about his own work methods and express his views on the current technological scene. Richard Buskin asks the questions.
"In over 20 years there is not one synthesizer that has become a classic. Nobody created one as a performance instrument instead of as a computer, and then developed it. I'm not saying the computer approach is bad, but there should have been a balance between the two. Today everything is geared towards pop music, and whilst I'm all for pop music I'm against this being the only consideration."
Vangelis is not a man given to making light and generalised statements about the current state of his art. Music has been his life, and he a part of that music, ever since he began composing at the age of four, and from the very start he strayed from the conventional and strived for the unimaginable.
Through a list of 17 solo albums stretching back to 1972, as well as two ballets, five collaborations with Jon Anderson, several television themes, and film soundtracks that include Blade Runner, Missing, and the Oscar-winning Chariots Of Fire, Vangelis has continually explored the creation of musical forms via the integration of the acoustic with the electronic.
Uninhibited neither in terms of his work methods nor in terms of his geographical location, Vangelis has brought his unique talent to wide-ranging projects around the globe, moving from his native Greece to Paris during the late 1960s, on to London - and his own studio/music laboratory - in the mid-70s, and across Europe and the States since the mid-80s. Taking his collection of instruments with him as he travels, he is currently located back in Paris, where he chooses to employ his synth setup either in his hotel suite or in the larger confines of Mega Studios.
Heavily involved, as usual, in his life-long programme of making music, Vangelis took time out recently to talk not only about his own work methods but, more specifically, about his views on the current technological scene. Not at all interested in a self-promotion exercise, his sole desire was to express his forthright opinions about contemporary electronic keyboards; their design, manufacture, marketing, and utilisation.
You have been quoted as saying that you "function as a channel through which music emerges from the chaos of noise". Is that true?
"Yes, I believe that. It's not a pretty phrase, it's just true."
So it's almost as if you are an instrument...
"Yes, I think I am. I am an instrument which I try to perfect more and more every day, in order to interfere less and less with the flow of the moment. You see, I started at the age of four and I don't remember ever being without music. My first memories are tied to playing the piano and any other object at home that could produce a sound. So my contact with the outside world was always through sound, and I never felt that music was a job or had anything to do with being famous. When I started with music it was a kind of language, a necessity, a way to perceive and understand things, and today I have exactly the same approach. The only difference now is that because music somehow became a professional part of my life and I am involved with this 'music business', it's a constant fight between my initial approach to music and something that is unfortunately much more calculated, with all the wrong values.
"I don't want to go into details about the music business today, but most of the time it is a matter of survival. When you start out with music just being a part of you, it's very difficult to then find yourself in the middle of a very precisely calculated business."
Being that you see yourself as this instrument, converting a rough noise into a musical form, is there a particular way in which you function when you are working on a new project?
"Well, the only way in which I function is that I don't think. During the past 30 years the idea of an 'album' became something very specific; the album became a product. An album contains about 45 to 50 minutes of music, and within this time you have to produce your new product. It's easier to sell that way; you know what you have to do and people know what they are going to buy. In other words, what I am trying to say is that music now has less and less to do with a spontaneous idea, and much more to do with working within guidelines.
"So I don't really have new projects. I work every day without saying 'this is going to be my new album.' Of course, every now and then I release a new album - and now with the compact disc, you have the choice of releasing more than just 45 minutes - but I don't work with the idea of a project in mind. A very limited amount of my work is released, whereas the amount that is produced is enormous. The reason that I am composing and producing music is not because of my contract with a record company, but simply because this is what I do every day, and I will never stop doing this."
Are compositions formulated in your head or whilst you are actually playing a keyboard?
"It's on the spot. I never prepare anything in advance. I never know what is going to happen tomorrow. I never calculate anything."
So whatever happens, this takes place at the keyboard.
"Yes. As soon as I sit there, it happens."
What about when there is a specific project, like one of your film scores?
"Oh, that's different. That is something which is a collective work with a specific theme. But talking purely about music, my creating is totally free. I can never interfere, and I don't want to interfere."
So you don't analyse or think about it.
"No, no. If you think, you interfere. The more you think, the more you are in the past. You are analysing the fact before the fact happens. Do it first and then analyse it later. This is the way in which I function."
How did you select the equipment that you have set up here?
"I'm not using any more or any less equipment than anybody else. I am using whatever is on the market, and it is with great difficulty that I find something that I really fancy. I believe that instruments are progressively becoming less and less playable and more complicated - less of an instrument.
"I keep all of my keyboards through the years. I never sell or throw things away. Every instrument has something to offer, but I am very disappointed with the way that things are going. The technology is fine, but the design is less and less human."
Can you cite any particular examples of that?
"Well, everything. There's not one instrument out today that really allows you to do anything fast enough. We are getting more and more away from nature. In the last few years sampling has become very fashionable and it was a very nice opening for the world of keyboards and electronic music, but unfortunately the process of sampling has become very stiff.
"With, let's say, an analogue synthesizer like the Mini Moog, you could shape and change the sound instantly and give a little warmth, even though the keyboard itself wasn't really that great. The concept of immediate response was very, very important, without any reference to the sounds that we knew from conventional instruments. Then sampling came along and this gave us the opportunity to have 'real sounds', but it is of no use to have the sound of a flute or a violin, or a guitar or a harp, when you can't play it properly. What makes a violin sound attractive is the player, not the violin itself, but with these new instruments the player is becoming less and less important. The sound is already there, with its own vibrato and its own expression, so when you want to play something you can't really do much ..."
You mean you can't put your own personality into it?
"Not only that, but it just sounds wrong, because it's always the same. What makes my voice different is not what I am saying but how I am saying it."
Yes, but people who use the latest technology and like it say that they can still stamp their own performance on a record. A particular sampler may have its own homogenous sounds, but each person can perform differently with those.
"I believe that instruments are progressively becoming less and less playable and more complicated..."
"Yes, but not instantly. Let's say you play 10 notes on the violin; on those 10 notes you can apply 10 different vibratos, instantly. Let's say you do that with a sophisticated keyboard; you can play maybe 10 notes with 10 different vibratos, but you have to programme it, and that's ridiculous! You are interfering with the most sacred thing — the immediacy, as well as the expression.
"It took billions of years for the human computer to do that, and I find it so silly that we are impressed with a second-rate computer. The designers have never thought to produce a perfect keyboard. I'm using all of these keyboards, but why has nobody designed something that can give you instant expression? It's possible."
Do you use samplers?
"Yes, I do, and I sometimes sample things myself..."
Why do you do that? Why don't you use the actual instruments that are being sampled?
"Simply because the samples are very cheaply done. You see, none of the big companies that design and produce instruments - the Yamahas, Rolands, you name them - are there to provide a complete sound. They are there to give you a sound just as a little addition to the menu, to change in six months or a year's time."
Even though it may be convenient for you - both financially and in the physical sense - to use this kind of instrument, do you think it is detracting from your music?
"Well, I can say that it doesn't really help me a great deal, but it does of course help me to a small extent. I have to use a lot of unnecessary energy to work around the problems, instead of having something that gives me a boost and allows me to use my energy for quicker and more positive results.
"I can honestly say that I am extremely fast, and even then I am not fast enough. I have never pre-programmed anything in my life. In order to perfect the technique of doing things on the spot, you need instruments that can react immediately.
"We've now created the 'mouse people'. That's what I call them, and I call this the 'mouse period'. Everything is done with the mouse, and I find that appalling."
So are you saying that music is almost like a patchwork quilt nowadays; it's totally constructed?
"It's more composing than creating. You see, this market is not really for music; it's for people who can't make music. There's nothing wrong with that, because everyone should be able to make music, but at the same time what I am criticising is not what has happened with the technology, but the fact that nothing else has happened along with it. It's nice to give the opportunity to everybody to make music, but there's not a company out there that produces one instrument for pure music played by musicians.
"If you look at all of the instruments of the past, they have each been around for centuries. Each of them - the piano, the violin, the flute, the French horn, and even the percussion instruments - have been developed very carefully over a very long period and perfected. Through the generations this has allowed people to become better and better at playing them, to express music better and to develop better results. Now, opposite to this, there isn't one synthesizer that has been created and developed through the years in a better and better way. The only thing that has been created and developed is the computer, but I am talking about instruments."
There is a flow of new instruments all of the time...
"Yes, and every time you have to learn new and very devious ways in which to use them, and I don't have the time to do that. Even if I do in fact do that, the next model won't be the same, so I didn't learn anything. I just learned something that I had to throw away six months or a year later!"
Are you not therefore tempted to stay with the older instruments?
"I always stay with everything, old and new. I match things together."
But how much do you feel you are benefitting from these new instruments?
"Let's say about 10% are new things that I don't already have. Some feature that maybe should have been included on the previous model, but wasn't because of the marketing bullshit. I often discuss things with the manufacturers and they agree with me, but they don't do anything about it!
"To me, all of these new machines are not really instruments, but just part of a library of sounds, and so when I want a particular sound from the library, I select the appropriate machine.
"We underestimate ourselves, and technology - which is a divine thing - we use the wrong way. I'm all for technology, I've never been against it, but I'm against the way it is being used."
If you were talking to manufacturers about contemporary keyboards, what improvements would you suggest in order to make them more musician-friendly? To cater more for people such as yourself.
"Well, it's like they have designed a plane, but instead of using a test-pilot as their adviser they have used an accountant. There are thousands of things that I could suggest to them to make an instrument that is human, instant, and really makes you feel happy. You don't feel happy today - you feel like you've been through incredible agony just to change the sound!
"I have talked to other musicians - especially in America - who have raved to me about how quick the response of an instrument is, and after watching them programming for five minutes I realise that they don't know any more what 'quick' means. They have lost the point of reference. Only when I am doing something in front of them do they understand what 'quick' means.
"By 'quick' I don't mean that if you are faster you are better. If you are faster you can be better, but I'm not saying that someone who plays fast piano is better than someone who plays slow piano! I'm saying that the delay interferes with the music, so that you lose the spontaneity, the playability, and the expression. It is appalling."
Do you not therefore feel tempted to go back to completely acoustic instruments?
"Sometimes, yes, but then acoustic instruments have other limitations..."
"I'm all for technology, I've never been against it, but I'm against the way it is being used."
In terms of what? Variety of sounds?
"Sounds, and many other things. The only limitations that acoustic instruments don't have is limitation of expression, because they really were conceived and made to collaborate with the human being. Over the years, human beings made them in such a way so that they could express themselves.
"What I have been saying for a long time is that the era of the synthesizer, which is now only at a very early stage, will one day be very important. People don't seem to understand this very easily, and at the moment business is more important just like business is more important than pollution! People have been warning about pollution for years, and only now does everyone else start to panic! In the same way, I have been talking about synthesizers for the last 20 years."
Do you think that synthesizers started out okay and have grown worse?
"Well, they started simple and okay. In the mid-Fifties they produced some extraordinary synthesizers with aftertouch, and then 15 years later they came out with the first Mini Moogs, which, although they were all very nice and simple, were inferior in expression to the technology of 15 years before! So that was already a bad start. Nobody adapted the technology of the first mini claviolins and audiolins. These were French instruments with small keyboards, but you could still express aftertouch on them.
"Being negligent of the most important form of expression is, I think, criminal. Touch: even though this is the most important thing to produce expression, it has just been chopped off, and this reduces the finished product by about 50%."
So, having said that over the years you keep all of your instruments, are there any favourites amongst them?
"Well, the only instrument that came a little close to what I am trying to say - even though it was slightly too large and it didn't have a great variety of sounds - was the Yamaha CS80. It was really the most musical instrument of all and the most unsuccessful - maybe because it was too early and also because it wasn't continued long enough in order to allow people to understand it."
What do you look for in a recording studio?
"I look for a big control room in which to work, and nice people, that is all."
Is there any equipment, a particular mixing desk perhaps, that you favour?
"Well, I don't like the SSL desk; I prefer moving faders..."
Like the Massenburg system?
"Yes, I think it's more human. But then again, even that is not so important. It's another myth that you need all this technology to produce music. You don't. In fact, all this technology can stop you making music. Programming everything that you have around you, you can spend three days without putting down a bloody note!"
That seems to be a common complaint amongst musicians. You're spending all of your time programming and not making music.
"Mozart would have written a symphony in the time that it takes someone to programme several racks of equipment!"
Do you not appreciate the SSL for its mix automation?
"The mix is not important, the mix comes from the human being anyway. I find all of this to be very primitive."
What desk are you recording on at the moment?
Is the fact that you're not crazy about the SSL, but are nevertheless working on one, down to there not being any other console that you really like?
"No, it's just that I'm working at a studio run by good friends of mine, it has a good team. I prefer to work with nice people and a desk I don't like instead of working with a desk that I like and bad people."
But isn't the SSL desk of benefit to the engineer who's handling the mix?
"I do the mix."
Well then, don't you find the 'total recall' facility beneficial?
"I would find it beneficial if you pushed a button and saw all of the faders go back to their stored position, but all you've got total recall for is to see it on the bloody screen! The moment that you have a total recall system where everything goes back..."
You mean the flying faders...
"Not just the flying faders, but flying EQ as well! Then you're talking. Of course, it is good to see where you left off using the total recall, but it would be better if the console physically changed at the same time."
The album, Page Of Life, that you recently completed with Jon Anderson; how does that collaboration work? Do you write together?
"Yes, very spontaneous, no big deal."
In the studio?
"Yes. Play something, sing something, finish, goodbye."
Do you record demos and take them into the studio?
"Mozart would have written a symphony in the time that it takes someone to programme several racks of equipment!"
"No. We record a song to the finish, and then Jon likes to sing on top. That's all, nothing more. There's no need for a big preparation.
"We've never considered ourselves to be an act or whatever. For him it was a change and for me it was a change, and it's as simple as that."
What is Jon Anderson's musical input, apart from vocalising?
"Well, mainly the energy, because once we've done something, it's done. We don't construct it beforehand, we don't discuss how we're going to do something. Maybe during the recording, if I have to do an overdub, either of us may suggest something. But as we do things very quickly and very spontaneously, there isn't much discussion."
When you create your own music, especially when it is a soundtrack for a film, do you record a demo first?
So the equipment in your hotel suite is for your recordings proper.
And then you overdub in the studio?
"Very, very rarely. I have a complete result in one take. If you listen to my albums you'll hear that I hardly do any overdubs. Even at the start, without a MIDI system, I did very few."
"Sometimes, if there happens to be a mistake. But with [the new work] Symphony No.3, it lasts about 45 minutes and there was not necessarily the need for an edit."
So you just sat there for 45 minutes and ran through the entire piece?
"Yes. I always do that - for me, that's nothing exceptional. Sometimes you may play for 20 minutes and make 10 mistakes, but if the take is good why spoil it? If there is a bad note I can always cut it out, but I discover this once I've finished recording the piece, because whilst I'm playing I don't think about it."
Was the piano part on Chariots Of Fire played straight through?
"Straight through. For me that is the only way."
Was the piano part the first thing that was laid down on tape?
"Yes, the piano and the rhythm. And then few other things were added.
I take it that there isn't a set pattern as to how you build up a track.
Doing everything spontaneously at the same time, how do you put all of that together?
"Because I am better than a computer! I am not trying to sell myself through this interview, but a human being is able to do things that a bloody computer can't do. Anyone who says that a computer can do better than us is wrong.
"The only thing that can play constantly is the drum machine. Someone reading this may say, 'Well, he says that he doesn't programme anything, but there's a drum machine there', but I don't consider that as programming, because with a drum machine you have a pattern and you just follow the rhythm. I'm not programming anything."
So, to reiterate what you have said, when you're dealing with your regular work - not a specific project like a film soundtrack - you sit down in front of the equipment, either in the hotel room or in the studio, with no particular pre-planned ideas, and you just start playing all the parts together in one take, laying them down on tape immediately.
"Yes. That way you end up with a piece of music. God knows what piece of music... Some of my pieces have been released and people are familiar with them, and other pieces have never been released and never will be."
But I take it that you may continue to work on a piece, polish it up and improve it...
"No. It's done, finished."
Do you listen back to it?
"Sometimes immediately, sometimes a month later. I don't have a specific pattern. Sometimes, with certain projects such as the Jon and Vangelis record, I will say 'Okay, I'll put a little bit here and there', but with all of the pure symphonic work that I've done I have never added anything. I'm not saying I shouldn't do it, but until now I have never wanted to. The musical moment, whether it was good or bad, was complete."
Considering your frustration with new technology, do you ever feel tempted to try and develop some instruments yourself?
"Oh yeah, I do develop things now.
"One example is this box which gives me direct functions. So if, for example, I want to make some instant sound changes or transpose something instantly, I can achieve this in a way that I can't with a normal synthesizer.
"When sequencers - like the Roland - first started, you would record a phrase and instantly you could hear it back; it was like playing live. Then they changed the approach, and although they still called them sequencers, you now have to pre-decide how many bars you want, where you want to go and so forth. And so you don't have this spontaneous approach any more. If you play a piece and you want to go from one key to another, you can't, because you have to tell the sequencer beforehand what you are going to do. If you are playing something on a DX7 and you feel that you need to change up an octave, you have to call three, four, or five options in order to do that, and by this time you are maybe 30 seconds to a minute late in real time. My machine enables me to do this instantly.
"So what I am talking about here is realtime response, because for me this is vital. I believe that if two people with identical talent were working, one using the system that I am talking about and one with the system that exists, the former would be a hundred times more productive than the latter. The system that we currently have around us is a system that limits talent, flow, spontaneity, everything."
So was this real-time response box that you use custom made for you by an engineer?
"Yes. And from now on I will produce more and more of my own things. Possibly I will put them on sale, not specifically to make an incredible amount of money, but maybe just to help some people. I don't want to try and change everything, but I'm just saying it would be nice if the big companies like Yamaha or Roland would do something to help out in this direction. To make a keyboard instrument playable and human, it has to be a masterpiece."
What does that consist of?
"Well, each key has to be as important as the finger itself, and that is possible. It has to have real, high quality, piano keys, and then each key will give you a perfect aftertouch, a perfect vibrato, whatever you want. Then, if you want to use cello, flute or whatever through the same keyboard, they will sound great.
"Keyboards now give you aftertouch, but so what? It's a very basic aftertouch. A synthesizer keyboard has to be as good as a Steinway keyboard, as a Bosendorfer, as all of the good piano keyboards. With that, and with real-time response, then we are talking. I use the piano and I can even use a symphony orchestra, but I want to go further than that, and I do so with great difficulty every day."
Interview by Richard Buskin
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