In high school, that dismal
place to which every teenager is sent to break scholastic rocks
in the hot sun, under the watch of men highly reminiscent of Dick
Cheney, one had to look hard for fun in the classroom. Ah, but there
was Shakespeare. The Bard was a gleeful subversive. Who didn’t
giggle at the mention of “maidenheads”? I was always
partial though to the clock in Julius Caesar. It wasn’t
hard to imagine a couple of old school British hams decked out in
togas noting the chimes of an incongruous timepiece. What does it
all mean? The anachronism, in Shakespeare’s assured hands,
served two purposes. On the one hand, it acted as a pre-Brechtian
jab across the fourth wall, calling attention to the artifice of
the drama. On the other hand, the same punch challenged the audience
to consider the relevance of the play to life outside of the theatre.
don’t often think of the anachronism in modern cinema. In
a postmodern age, nothing is incongruous. Bogie, resplendent in
his tux from Casablanca can be electronically resurrected
and put on a spaceship to Mars and we wouldn’t bat an eye.
Occasionally, a surprise comes along. For
example, Oliver Stone has signed the Greek composer Vangelis to
score his next film, Alexander the Great. With Stone at
the helm, the picture is sure to be a hyperventilating epic, bigger
than life, than history itself. Why would Stone commission a score
from a man who works almost exclusively with electronic instruments?
It does not compute, as it were.
are old hat in Hollywood. They make it easy to sweeten an orchestra
while lowering the cost. Thanks to digital sampling technology,
anyone can imbue a score with a bit exotica, a gamalan here, a Shakuhachi
flute there. Indeed, the synthesizer has thrived precisely because
it no longer sounds like a synthesizer. Any of the old trademark
sounds of a synthesizer come as standard patches on samplers so.
Likewise, new software technology like ProTools and Garage Band
allow composers to cut-and-paste scores from pre-made loops and
a business as heartless and often headless as the motion picture
industry, every artist intent on survival must either find a niche
or make one. Vangelis has certainly done that. He has scored other
sweeping historical pictures like The Bounty (1984) and
1492 (1992) to great effect. So it is perhaps wise to look
at the way Vangelis composes to understand how he has managed to
be such a recognizable presence.
Papathanassiou was born in 1943 in Volos, Greece. His earliest musical
experience involved doctoring the guts of the family piano. Such
adventures might have dissuaded him from more formal study of music.
By the age of six, he bade farewell to the music teacher forever.
As a teenager, he played in a number of pop bands in Greece, a knock-around
existence that culminated in the unlikely stardom of "Aphrodite’s
Child", a trio that specialized in emotional wrought bubblegum.
In 1968, the band escaped to Paris from the coup in Greece but they
were finished before the decade. Vangelis stayed in Paris where
he began to collaborate with the French filmmaker Frederic Rossif.
was a documentarian who specialized in impressionistic wildlife
cine-essays, perfect venues for a multi-instrumentalist anxious
to leave pop music behind. Rossif used very sparse narration, often
with an elegiac conservationist tone (“Listen well, one day
all the animals imprisoned, humiliated, domesticated by man will
go far away from us to live once again in the promise of a savage
party”) leaving plenty of room for Vangelis to experiment.
Indeed, the scores for Rossif that have been released on audio disc
(Apocalypse Des Animaux, La Fete Sauvage, L’Opera Sauvage)
attest to the fealty of composer
to the philosophical intent of the filmmaker yet also reveal the
latitude such non-conventional cinema allowed. The amazing thing
about these scores is the speed at which they were composed. One
has to return to silent film era to understand Vangelis’ unique
method. In those days, pianists and organists either improvised
on the spot or mined the current hit parade. The talkies killed
their business. Movie music was atomized into cues, often afterthoughts
to the main production.
refuses this model. After screening a film a couple of times, surrounded
by his arsenal of keyboards, he improvises a complete soundtrack
in one pass. As he can neither read nor write music, the recording
tape is his score. By playing “live” to the film, there
is little room for egomaniacal impositions on the essence of the
film. There is a true and binding dialogue between Vangelis and
the frames, manifest in the moment. It is an organic product that
breathes on its own in and with the film.
Flush with cash
after landing a record deal with RCA, Vangelis purchased an old
girl’s school in 1975 and converted it into his private sound
laboratory. And museum. Not only was he an obsessive collector of
keyboards, he kept on hand a menagerie of percussive and string
instruments. This was long before the advent of the sampler in which
sounds could be recorded digitally and then triggered from a keyboard.
has been said that Vangelis owes his Oscar to Giorgio Moroder who
composed the soundtrack to Midnight Express, a winner at
the Oscars the year before because. How ironic that Midnight
Express was conceived and edited using existing music by Vangelis,
pulled at the last minute due to contractual problems. The same
music, I might add, that Carl Sagan used to great effect in his
television series Cosmos. Moroder was best known as the
producer/svengali of Donna Summer. But such a label does him a disservice.
On Summer tracks such as “I Feel Love” and his own Eurodisco
epic “From Here to Eternity”, Moroder injected real
sensuality into rhythmic electronic music that had previously been
the domain of German stiffs like Tangerine Dream and Kraftwerk.
His score for Midnight Express is rife with that sensuality
– very 70’s, very hedonistic, very reckless yet vibrant
and feral. The pulse of the age is in the music.
score for Chariots of Fire was revolutionary precisely
because it was able to speak to the moment yet shuttle us back to
1924. How is this possible? After all, the title theme, with its
throbbing bass, clattering percussion, rousing synthetic horns and
romantic piano lead has been reduced to a Hallmark Card that haunts
lite FM radio, dentist’s offices, wedding chapels and cancer
But heard inside
the film, Vangelis’ music is incandescent because it is so
well situated in a larger musical structure. Period music abounds
in this film. Glee club songs, Gilbert and Sullivan ditties and
even Parry’s towering ode to Britain, “Jerusalem”
appear. This is the music of the England in which the characters
exist – music of churches, fraternities and theatres, institutions
constrained and informed by the fading light of Empire and the gentlemanly
delusions of the 19th century laid to rest in the bloody muck of
WWI. Nostalgia is always shadowed by melancholy.
music of Vangelis belongs to their interior worlds -- their ambitions,
their doubts, their convictions. And we see them ennobled by it.
Lydell (Ian Charleson) runs in a race at a country fair held near
his Scottish hometown. The music has the lilt of a local hymn yet
also voices Lydell’s flailing ecstasy in competition. Abrahams
(Ben Cross) wins the 100 metres in Paris. The race is shown at regular
speed and then is repeated in slow motion accompanied by the theme
music particular to the character. It is little more than a figure,
a riff, rendered on a sonorous electric piano. In the background
is a synthesized gull-like sound, reiterating at various rates.
Simple, yes. But as Francis Rimbert, long-time collaborator of French
electronic musician Jean Michel Jarre has noted, Vangelis is a mystic
-– he can play three notes and it’s beautiful. In the
very next shot, we are in the room of Abraham’s trainer barred
from the competition because he is a professional. He listens rapturously
as the strains of a band striking up the British national anthem
reaches his window from across the street. The two sons of immigrants
have triumphed, one on the inside looking out, the other on the
outside looking in.
rich deep end of this score is courtesy of live timpani and trap
drums, not to mention a titanic Steinway grand. Indeed, it is the
acoustic elements of Vangelis’ instrumental ism that provide
the portal through which the electronics bristle and surge across
the years. One does not require suspended disbelief. We never feel
the anachronism because it is effectively not there.
At the film’s
conclusion, when the thundering organ playing “Jerusalem”
swells with the choir, it could well be Vangelis at the keys of
a cheap toy organ that he has modified to sound epic. We don’t
know and we don’t care. The illusion is complete.
Blade Runner (Director’s Cut)
critics and academics have hailed this film as an exemplar of post
punk or cyber-punk cinema. Yes, the production design of the film
exploits a mishmash of visual tropes from Los Angeles 1945, 1982
and 2129. Yes, there’s a detective working the margins of
a society dominated by technology. I would argue, however,
that the score to Blade Runner is certainly punk if not
in body then spirit. When I think of the Sex Pistols, I imagine
that pivot scene in 2001 A Space Odyssey, where the ape
throws the bone into the air and the match cut reveals a space station,
playing in reverse. The Pistols tried to take rock back to the cave.
They were reactionaries, moving against the bloated and the banal
of the music industry. The synthesizer, once the domain of experimental
classical music, was part of the problem. Bands such as Yes and
ELP were using it to either fulfill their musical pretenses or to
provide sonic filler when pretenses failed them. Their music was
horribly white and antiseptic thanks to meticulous musicianship
contrast, the punks championed filth and noise. Their songs were
provisional constructs that could self-destruct at any moment. Knowing
how to play an instrument was not only unnecessary; it was unwelcome.
Mistakes, bum notes and sundry audio fuck-ups had an air of revolution,
a refusal of marketable perfection. Two years before he composed
the score for Chariots of Fire, Vangelis released “Beaubourg”,
a “suite inspired by the futuristic architecture of the Centre
Pompidou, that singular Parisian edifice dedicated to modern art".
It is a record that detractors call unlistenable because it has
no discernable melodies. Yet this is the point. One is forced to
engage the work, to go looking inside the abstract expressionism
of the sound, to listen actively for the secrets in the noise. Thus,
the score for Blade Runner is an extension of this sensibility –-
the imposing yet beautiful netherworld between random noise and
images that capture the essence of Vangelis’ score are not
in this film. Rather, one must consult the outer and inner sleeve
of his 1980 release, "See You Later". The former features
a young reedy Asian woman surveying a bleek washed-out landscape
through a pair of futuristic glasses. The latter is even more compelling:
a woman carries a child limp in her arms through a greenhouse.
They are both wearing gas masks. One is hardly surprised that the
centerpiece of the album is a track called “Memories of Green”.
As Vangelis takes a moody and bluesy ramble up and down his beloved
Steinway as it is fed through a cheap effects pedal, a studio assistant
plays “live” an early version of a Gameboy (That old
punk svengali Malcolm McLaren is in the process of co-opting the
second “wave” of punk in what he calls “chip music”.
Old 8bit Gameboys are now reprogrammed to play music, a reaction
against ProTools and the fetish of analogue synthesis in techno).
Occasionally, Vangelis dispatches a discreet squall of sample-and-hold
white noise. The overall effect is mesmerizing – the music
seems at once futuristic and old, as if the composer, like the dazed
fugitive in “The Pianist”, happens upon a piano in the
midst of post-apocalyptic ruins. Moreover, there is a real tension
between harmony and dissonance; neither has the upper hand. The
piano appears and then disappears into the ether of beeps and sirens
removing both the unconvincing happy ending and the dreary hardboiled
narration from the Director’s Cut, Ridley Scott did Vangelis
a huge service. Imagine what damage would have done to Jerry Goldsmith’s
dissonant, brooding score for Chinatown had Polanski caved
into a happy ending? Los Angeles, at any age, is not an uplifting
place so why should it sound like it?
gone, Deckard (Harrison Ford) is just another replicant. The film
seems less a fiction with protagonists and plot than a documentary
about humanoids and the world they’re forced to live in by
nefarious humans. Vangelis is our emotional guide through the sonic
jungle of the film. Every moment, machines and gizmos are chirping,
beckoning and inquiring, producing an oppressive din. This of course
is part and parcel of the hegemony of the Tyrell Corporation. But
Mr. Tyrell is no ordinary tycoon. He enlists a motley crew of anachronistic
artisans and craftsman -– a broken down Chinaman in a South
Pole anorak, a sleazy Middle Eastern bar owner and a dog-yeared
whiz kid -- to do his bidding in genetic design. Everything about
their work seems jerry-rigged or fly-by-night, not surprising when
you consider their respective laboratories, testaments to the ongoing
decay of the city and the lack of first rate manpower.
Thus the most
compelling moment of Vangelis’ score can be found in the sprawling
Dickensian apartment of J.F. Sebastien when Roy appears to tell
Pris the bad news that they’re down to two. Pris has been
softening up the shy J.F. In the background, a cuckoo clock squawks
its wisdom. What sounds like a worked over music box begins to play,
barely breaking through the chatter of J.F.’s toys. When Roy
arrives, the music box melody is lost for a moment as he relates
the recent demise of Zora and Leon. Pris replies “Then we’re
stupid and we’ll die.” Roy reassures her with a kiss
and the music box theme returns, this time richer and more poignant.
In this one brief sequence, Vangelis quietly and expertly expresses
the existential malaise of these three unfortunate creatures who
have little time to live. Circumstances are beyond their control,
both inside and outside of their bodies. None of them had a childhood
nor will they enjoy golden years dozing in the sun. The music is
a wistful eulogy, from the toys to them.
The one piece
of technology that does not speak until it is spoken to is the piano
shipwrecked in Deckard’s apartment. Neither Deckard nor Rachel
know how to play it. Rachel wonders aloud if she can or if she is
merely reproducing the music lessons (a tip of the hat to the old
truant Vangelis?) of Tyrell’s niece. There is a gallery of
antique photographs atop the piano. Relatives of Deckard’s
or more memory implants? Why this pointless evocation of the 19th
century drawing room? The anachronisms of the piano and the photos
speak to a world long gone when people had control over noise and
their inner thoughts. Memory and imagination could thrive. In that
sense, “Memories of Green” is the siren song of ghosts,
speaking to an uncertain past. When Deckard takes the Polaroid of
Leon’s apartment and starts dissecting the thing with the
help of a bleeping black box, we see the obliteration of the interior
world by the mastery of technology. Nothing is unseen, nothing unknown,
no mystery. No memory.
Quincy Jones has noted that black musicians had no interest in the
synthesizer until the pitch bend wheel appeared, making experimentation
with the “blue note” possible. Nobody knows more about
this than Vangelis. The perennial flagship of his arsenal is the
Yamaha CS-80, a relic from the late seventies. But at the time of
its release, it was the apotheosis of analogue synthesis. Weighing
more than 200 lbs., the CS-80 featured a weighted keyboard that
mimicked the subtlety of a piano’s action. The electronics
allowed for the real-time adjustment of many different parameters
and effects. Also onboard was a ribbon-controller, which sat just
above the keyboard. For Vangelis, this one feature was a godsend,
allowing him to flirt with utter sonic chaos one moment, only to
slide his finger along the ribbon to release an entirely opposite
voicing of rich, melodious strings.
Blade Runner score was a valedictorian moment for the CS-80.
By 1982, it was fast becoming a dinosaur. Yamaha failed to follow
up on its promise, choosing instead to produce synthesizers that
produced sound based on algorithms. From a performance standpoint,
this was a disaster. The new machines allowed very little modification
of pre-set sounds and what modification was available could only
be accomplished by scrolling through time-consuming menus on a tiny
LCD screen. The sound was too clean, too bright. Everybody bought
the same machines and used the same presets. The synthesizer became
little more than a souped-up organ, perfect for new wave and arena
rock music of the 80’s. Only in the later part of the decade
would old synthesizers reappear in the warehouses of Chicago and
Detroit where techno was being birthed.
The Vangelis Legacy
could say that Vangelis has considerable blood on his hands. The
success of The Chariots of Fire soundtrack proved that
there was money was in the synthesizer outside of rock. Yanni and
John Tesh and countless other purveyors of audio anesthesia owe
their lives in the New Age and Lifestyle bins of record stores to
Vangelis. Indeed, the subdued yet uplifting tone of the Chariots
soundtrack arrived as just the moment when millions of people needed
it: the eighties and the nineties would be a long hard psychic slog
and people would need soothing sounds to cope with the va-va-voom
of stock market booms and bust.
Chariots of Fire served as the touchstone of one generation’s
sonic therapy, Blade Runner fit the bill for another. Dozens
of chill-out and trance mixes by various Djs (e.g. Paul Oakenfold’s
“Another World”) use tracks from Blade Runner
both for atmosphere and gravitas. Blade Runner, as mentioned
earlier, is the apotheosis of analog synthesis that carries with
it the alluring oppositionality of the film’s cyberpunk ethos.
It is quintessentially “old school”. The shifting, ambiguous
categories of the current electronic scene music – ambient
techno, downbeat, etc. – reflect the quixotic attempt of youth
culture to maintain some sort of taxonomy for itself while staying
one step ahead of the music industry. Blade Runner stands
outside of that system and as such merits reverence.
Neal Gabler notes in his book, “Life, the Movie”, many
people in the developed world have turned to the cinema less for
validation of their own experiences than for clues how to live more
like cinema. Much of current electronic music is really lifestyle
music -– music for sipping martinis in lounges, music for
dancing in clubs, music for chilling at your space age bachelor
pad. The overarching yet unspeakable collective imperative is that
life is a production that must be scored for potential viewing.
Mitchell, in his review of Lost in Translation, notices
signs of a generational affectation of loneliness. As Charlotte
(Scarlett Johanson) admits to Bob (Bill Murray), “I’m
stuck”. Kevin Shields’ score has very little to do with
the middle aged travails of Bob. Shield’s music is an articulation
of Charlotte’s momentary dislocation from America and her
seemingly more permanent dislocation from her husband and his tolerance
of the stupidities of their generation. The self-conscious crosstalk
between the melancholic, tonal score and the sound design of the
film (the whispered, manicured hush of the hotel, the ringing of
phones and fax machines, the incessant clicking of cameras, talking
billboards, chiming arcades etc) deeply echoes Blade Runner’s
moody portrayal of urban hyper-mediation. The future is here,
alive and well in Tokyo. And youth have to live with it, much to
their mopey chagrin. Indeed, when Charlotte takes a bullet train
ride to Kyoto, the sequence is accompanied by the French band Air’s
“Alone in Kyoto”. The music begins with random electronic
noise from which emerges a guitar and a ringing gong-like lead.
This is modern life in globalization. The familiar and the exotic,
noise and music.
wait, haven’t we seen or rather heard this before? Chris Marker’s
1982 cine-essay Sans Soleil spends a great deal of time
exploring Tokyo as a site of “hyperdevelopment”. He
takes us to temples and arcades and trains, all the while allowing
the chaos of Tokyo to fill the soundtrack. Behind that wall of sound
is another front of noise, the product of an analogue synthesizer
constantly unleashing squalls of random notes and the occasional
hint of melody.
the film, Marker also visits Africa, long considered chronically
“underdeveloped”. The trickster synthesizer tags along,
unflagging in its chirps and gurgles. The central thesis of the
film, it seems, is the inconsolable and unbridgeable gap between
the first and third worlds. In Blade Runner, Vangelis’
score articulated the existential quandary of individuals, replicant
and human, fighting for breathing room in a corporate world so ruthless
and dominating that it had given up on the planet as a human project.
The future of man is in space. Earth is left as a graveyard of progress.
Marker’s film is profoundly melancholic because Japan, caught
between feudal heritage and modernist ambitions, races onward into
an uncertain and uneasy hybrid of the two. The “climax”
of the film involves a vintage stock footage of kamikaze pilots
dive-bombing American battle ships. The images have been run through
a video synthesizer, rendering the old black-and-white footage vivid
red and orange. In the background, one hears Sibelius’ “Valse
Triste” played by reknown Japanese synthesist Isao Tomita.
It is as if we were watching a moment of cultural fission during
which the old Japan annihilates itself and the modern is born in
the primal violence of the explosions. The final image of the film
is brief – a hand unplugs the synthesizer (a vintage VCS3)
and holds the pin in the air. But what is the gesture? Triumph?
Defiance? Or admission of defeat?
is the true legacy of Vangelis’ score for Blade Runner.
The synthesizer, far from being inhuman and cold, acts as the synapse
between incompatible ideas and conditions. Marker, so fixated on
memory and history, continues to use the white noise of the analogue
synthesizer as trickster, confounding the process of making sense
of a world that so often rebuffs these efforts in strange and beautiful
Buy the films mentioned in this article
Timothy Dugdale teaches in the Department of English at the
University of Detroit Mercy.