What do you think of while you listen to music? Do you have an education in music, and think of the composer’s strategies? Do you think in words at all? I never do, and I suppose that would make me incompetent as a music expert.
I just like to fall into a reverie.
With some music, my thoughts simply drift, and I daydream. I’m usually surprised where I end up. By some sort of obscure means, the music unchains me from my self and frees me to visit places in time.
If the music is very familiar, I will find myself drifting into the music itself.
I have just fallen into one of my idle drifts of thought. I’ve been rediscovering my love for the ambient film music of Vangelis tonight and it always ends in abstraction for me. Give me a history book or foreign cinema, and my mind digs deep into the material. It analyzes. But music forces my brain in the other direction where pure abstraction awaits with open arms.
I betray my ignorance. I have much ignorance to betray.
Nevertheless, Vangelis has given me a wonderful evening. My thoughts have predictably wandered off into fields of pure sensation, but because his film scores are so closely associated with the movies he composed them for, my abstractions at least have a visual context to them.
Music is a pinnacle of civilization. It is a vision of the Ideal. Mankind has brought forth emotion, found ways to notate it, devised instruments to give it sound, and found notes to express the voices of those instruments. Sometimes things just can’t be expressed with words.
They can only be expressed with music.
Scientists say we only use a small percentage of our human minds. I think music has its best existence in those parts we do not otherwise employ. Over the years, it’s possible that I’ve had my wisest and most profound thoughts while listening to Vangelis. I just couldn’t put them into words.
His music has surely helped formulate my sense of life. It has given me much calmness and tranquility. It has provided me with emotional fuel.
I’m going to sample some of his music tonight for those who aren’t intimate with his works, and hopefully this doesn’t chase you off. I’ve even created the embedded music videos you will see. If you own headphones, please use them. Dim the lights.
It’s worth your time, folks.
This is the kind of art that makes you believe in God.
Vangelis Papathanassiou was born in a seaport town in Greece, a child prodigy who by the tender age of six was not only giving public performances, but was playing his own compositions on the piano. Extraordinary for a young child without any formal musical training.
He already had a successful career in rock bands before being hired to compose the soundtrack to the 1981 British movie Chariots of Fire. With his virgin attempt, he positively revolutionized the art of film scoring and inspired a whole new generation of composers. He pioneered the style of symphonic electronica by using synthesizers in an orchestral fashion. I’ve best heard his sound described as Synthtopia.
Both he and the film walked away with deserved Academy Awards.
The movie was based on a true story of two British sprinters competing in the 1924 Olympics who became the fastest runners in the world. Long considered cinema’s greatest sports film, it wasn’t really about sports at all. These men are essentially proving themselves, their worth, their beliefs, on the track. Particularly touching was Scottish missionary Eric Liddell who would later die in an internment camp in occupied China at the end of World War II. Liddell famously refused to compete in his specialty, the 100 meter sprint, because it was scheduled for a Sunday. A deeply devout pastor, he could not, in good conscience, run on the Sabbath. Luckily for history, and movie audiences, one of his teammates selflessly relinquished his position at the 400 meters event which allowed Liddell to compete. As a sprinter, he was not expected to challenge for a medal at this longer distance.
But with faith in his heart and wings on his heels, Eric Liddell shattered the world record, and has since become the embodiment of the Olympic ideal, whose deep convictions are a symbol of heroism and sportsmanship. At the end of his young life, the British government negotiated his release from the internment camp on humanitarian grounds, but he gave up his place to a pregnant woman and stayed, even though he was gravely ill.
In a voiceover that explains why a man pushes himself beyond his limits, he tells his sister:
“Jenny, I believe God made me for a purpose. But he also made me fast . . . and when I run, I feel his pleasure.”
A very religious film, I scored free tickets from a local church and watched this in a packed movie theater on it’s initial release and let me tell you, people still know a transcendent experience when they see one. I can attest to that. There wasn’t a single dry eye in the house.
Both the album and theme topped the Billboard charts in 1981, an extremely rare accomplishment for instrumental music. People forget that this was a #1 song on the radio.
Chariots of Fire has become a musical landmark and one of the 20th century’s most recognized compositions. Muscles flex with every note. This music has the power of lifelong dreams, the imminence of the moment, and an unmatched passion for truth and God.
It’s no mystery why the theme has been featured in every Olympics for the last thirty years. What is a mystery is why the 2004 Olympics in Athens failed to invite their most famous native artist to perform the immortal anthem at the opening ceremonies. It was an obvious expectation and a perfect showcase. Even Vangelis expected it. What a tragically missed opportunity. I’ve created this video to show what might have been.
The year following Chariots of Fire, Vangelis scored two more films. The first was Ridley Scott’s science fiction classic Blade Runner. The movie tells the story of genetically engineered organic robots called Replicants, visually indistinguishable from humans, who have been banned on Earth and must be hunted down and exterminated by special police operatives known as “Blade Runners. One such operative, a burnt out expert played by Harrison Ford, reluctantly agrees to take on more assignment but finds himself falling in love with an experimental female Replicant who believes she is human.
One of cinema’s most opulent and imitated visual feasts, the movie creates the futuristic world of Los Angeles that’s just as memorable as Fritz Lang’s silent masterpiece Metropolis. Dark, unimaginable skyscrapers tower over streets that are clotted with humanity like a Third World bazaar.
Vangelis’ musical score mirrors the movie’s film-noir retro-future with a soundtrack that expands the aural senses and features a visionary, devastatingly beautiful love theme that has absolutely haunted me for thirty years.
Oh my, the things I’ve done in the dark to that famous wailing saxophone.
The second score Vangelis composed in 1982 was for the critically acclaimed film Missing about an American father’s search for his kidnapped son in South America. Talk about poignancy and mastery of raw human emotion, this music utterly captures the anguish of losing a loved one.
In fact, we played this theme at my father-in-law’s memorial service. It’s that intimate.
Even after all these years, it can still produce that inevitable lip quiver. It’s about love and pain and loss and all the things I want to believe in. Everything gushes out when I listen to it. If there’s a more lush and heartbreaking farewell to life than this, I can‘t recall it.
Let me die with Missing in my head.
In writing this, I tried to do a little research on Vangelis and found a mysterious thing. For an artist of his stature, very little is actually known about his personal life. Not that I particularly care, but some information might help provide an essence of his personality. He rarely gives interviews, has never had children, may have a couple of ex-wives somewhere, never actively promotes his music, and strangely, it isn’t even known what country he lives in. Apparently, he chooses to “travel around” rather than settling down in one specific place.
But one almost expects Vangelis to be different. After all he marches to a different drummer. Vangelis the pioneer, the Edison to the electronic age, shaper of ethereal melodies that stir the spirit of adventure in us all.
Falling into another drift of thought, my attention has suddenly been drawn to the internet radio playing through my headphones. This pop classic is sheer ecstasy, a rainbow, and an uplifting example of Vangelis’ songwriting before he became the film industry’s most sought after composer.
At this moment in my ears:
Home be the temple of your heart. Home be the body of your love. Just like Holy water to my lips.
He wrote Donna Summer’s religious anthem State of Independence as a spiritual high. The diva of 70’s disco has always had a fine voice, but she didn’t really contribute anything special. It could have been anyone singing. It’s the song and signature sound of Vangelis which are so startlingly good. With the click of a keystroke, I adjust my volume settings and the power surges:
Faith, yeah, yeah, yeah, oh . . . Yeah, yeah, yeah, oh . . . Be the sound of higher love today.
Somehow, from that old analog equipment, this composer was able to create a sonic architecture that absolutely sparkles and remains vital even today. It’s my hope that you all listen to these videos with an appreciation for the music. Unfortunately, they offer only snapshots of a greater portrait.
Vangelis is a visionary. His music has always had a timeless quality.
Listen to his Hymne. Written in 1979 and used in his Chariots of Fire film score, you get the sense that this music is ancient and has somehow been listened to by countless shepherds, balladeers and lovelorn dreamers throughout history, only to be buried in time until being discovered by Vangelis. This is the sound of innocence that can blend minds and souls.
Ten years after working on Blade Runner, director Ridley Scott reenlisted Vangelis to write the score for his epic 1492: Conquest of Paradise. The subject is, of course, one of the most celebrated figures in history, Christopher Columbus. The movie was timed to coincide with the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ discovery of the New World. What had prevented Europe from expanding across the unknown seas was essentially superstition and a strong impulse to leave things as they were. Since the destruction of the Great Library of Alexandria more than a thousand years earlier, mankind had lost its accumulated knowledge and wrongly believed the world was flat. Sail across the ocean and you’d fall off. That was an impulse that Columbus was unable to accept.
Such a voyage of exploration requires courage and failed hopes and aspiration. Vangelis also gives it angelic choirs and a profound sense of destiny.
My last musical offering tonight is the score to Oliver Stone’s Alexander (see my previous two blogs). It was a natural marriage between history’s greatest man and the world’s greatest composer. For Vangelis, this also had to be an irresistible opportunity for Greek patriotism.
After all, this movie lured him back to writing after a 12 year absence.
Vangelis’ music has always had far reaching implications. It inspires, elevates and heals the human race, and it has pushed the boundaries in how it shapes sounds and builds a world around them.
These are just a few examples. Search out his catalog. It is massive and stunningly impressive.
The University of Athens recently bestowed Vangelis with the esteemed title of Professor Emeritus. The boy who never received formal training now stands as a National Treasure for his exceptional contributions to the musical education of the Greek people, and for spreading the message of Hellenism throughout the world.
Maybe his most fitting honor is that we’ve named a planet after him.
After all, his art sounds like it was made in Heaven.
I’ve always felt that Vangelis has the unique way of making you feel that he is taking the very pulse of the universe through his keyboards, liberating themes that have been frozen in time and space for eons. His is the soul shivering music of the ages.