RIP Vangelis (1943-2022)

Sadly, one by one, my musical idols are joining the choir invisible (or the Great Gig In The Sky, for Pink Floyd fans).

Evangelos Papathanassiou, known to all by the Greek nickname for Evangelos, “Vangelis”, was born 29 March, 1943, in a small coastal town in Thessaly and raised in Athens, where his father worked in real estate. [ADDENDUM: from a documentary called “Journey to Ithaca”, I just learned that his mother was an amateur classical mezzo-soprano who used to accompany herself on the family’s grand piano. Her young son would quickly learn reproduce the accompaniments by ear so she could just sing.]

He started playing the family piano at age four: while he took lessons for a while, he was largely self-taught, being blessed with keen musical hearing. I am reminded of how Eddie Van Halen (RIP, originally a pianist) never learned to properly read music — as he could reproduce anything his teacher assigned to him by ear. (His fondness for remote key signatures like Db major — even when not forced upon him by any singer’s vocal range — suggests to me he had absolute pitch.)

At age 18 Vangelis bought a Hammond organ and co-founded the rock ‘n roll band Formynx, which was locally popular. His first major break came with what I would call the “theatrical symphonic pop” band Aphrodite’s Child, featuring Demis Roussos on vocals and bass. Their “Rain And Tears”, inspired by Pachelbel’s Canon, became a number one hit in several European countries, and during its short existence Aphrodite’s Child saw massive record sales.

Demis Roussos became a big-name solo act in Europe (with music that isn’t exactly my cup of tea). Vangelis had started doing soundtrack work while he was still with the band, for a documentary called “l’Apocalypse des Animaux”.

As Rick Wakeman had just left Yes, Vangelis auditioned for the position at the invitation of singer Jon Anderson. In an interview with Keyboard Magazine I read (on paper) decades ago, Vangelis recalled being impressed by the band’s rehearsing of “Sound Chaser” (from the upcoming “Relayer” album). Vangelis and the band’s singer Jon Anderson clearly hit it off both musically and personally, but touring with Yes would involve massive amounts of air travel, about which Vangelis had a phobia. [ADDENDUM: Vangelis himself dismissed that in the “Journey to Ithaca” documentary. I do know there were also visa and work permit issues involved.] So in the end he declined, and Patrick Moraz — who auditioned on Vangelis’s own setup! — was hired instead. The singer and keyboardist would later record several solo albums together as “Jon and Vangelis”, producing such chart hits as “I Hear You Now” and “I’ll Find My Way Home”.

In the meantime, what we think of as the “classic Vangelis sound” developed over such solo albums as “Heaven and Hell” (a segment of which was used as the theme music for Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos”), “Albedo 0.39”, “China”, and “Spiral” — all of them recorded at his own private Nemo Studios in London, on an ever-expanding array of keyboards (and percussion instruments). Tracks from those albums are not just familiar to every electronic music aficionado, but were often used as theme music for TV and radio programs across Europe.

It must have been around the time of “Spiral” that he acquired the Yamaha CS-80 that became a prominent part of his signature sound — a beast of an instrument that I once spent a very happy hour with, one that pushed purely analog technology to its limit and offered the player unheard-of expressive response, being both velocity-sensitive (like a piano) and polyphonically pressure-sensitive (e.g., you could apply vibrato to one note out of many by pressing down harder on it after the initial keystroke), aside from the ribbon controller and other accoutrements.

His best-known tracks follow a pattern of a tuneful melody — or two contrasting but related “call” and “response” phrases — being repeated for several instances, starting out sparsely then building up with ever more layers of “orchestration” on each successive pass. (This became something of a style convention of popular electronica.) Harmony was usually tonal or modal — occasionally venturing into territory one associates more with Chopin or Rachmaninov than with your typical electronic musician.

Vangelis’s music was well-suited to soundtracks, and it is with the movies Chariots of Fire (for which he won an Academy Award) and Blade Runner that he made his name in that field.

He continued to write and (especially in Greece) perform. He was a skilled improviser (many of his more atmospheric tracks appear to have been improvised) who memorably answered, when the Keyboard Magazine interviewer asked him about his creative process: “If you think about how you breathe, you choke”.

Unlike many electronic musicians who heavily rely on sequencers, Vangelis preferred to play as much as he humanly could by hand. Here he can be seen improvising in the more neoclassical style of his later works, on a keyboard setup custom-developed for him:

Here is a classic 70s Vangelis track that showcases his classic sound, “Pulstar”.

And here he is with Jon Anderson, performing their hit “I’ll Find My Way Home” on Top Of The Pops.

May his memory be for a blessing.

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