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Vangelis’s Return Flight to the Cosmos

The synth pioneer and Oscar-winning film composer, who died last week at age 79, saw his work as part of something bigger than all of us

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The first time I talked to Vangelis, the Oscar-winning composer of Chariots of Fire, he was in a recording studio in Paris. (I was calling from L.A.) I asked if he lived in Paris, and he said, “No, just passing through.” Where do you call home? I asked. “Well, that’s a difficult question,” he chuckled. “Could be London, could be Paris ... could be anywhere.” Could be outer space? I joked. “Oh yeah,” he said. “That’s every day.”

There was something extraterrestrial about the man—whose body died in Paris last week at age 79—and it wasn’t just his music. In his later years, Vangelis became more and more obsessed with space travel, writing music for NASA missions and a piece for Stephen Hawking’s funeral that was literally broadcast into the heavens. When I interviewed him back in 2016, he kept steering the conversation away from my silly earthbound questions about Blade Runner and into the cosmos.

“For me,” he said, “music is science more than art. And it is the main code of the universe. But that’s a big subject.”

It was hard to keep up with him when he got going on cosmology, but I was informed that was all he really cared to talk about anymore. So I tried. Why does your music have such a deep connection to the cosmos? I asked.

“It’s not me,” he said. “You too. Maybe you don’t know that. ... We are connected, whether we want it or not.” He talked about millions of years of memory, and not “the memory that yesterday I’ve been to that restaurant, this thing, and I did that and that and that. No, it’s the memory of the whole thing, of the universe. We are part of the universe, and the music is the code.”

At the end of our chat, he pulled a little whirring toy out of his pocket that made sounds like a baby spaceship. He giggled as he activated it and held it to the microphone. He was mysterious, but also mischievous.

This mystical philosopher, as elusive and elliptical an interview as he proved to be, was exactly what we hoped Vangelis would be. Where else would such cosmic, spacey music come from other than this galactic Greek brain? When I interviewed the very earthy directors he worked with, though, I got a slightly different picture.

“Completely assertive,” Ridley Scott said. “He’s one of the boys. Said, ‘You want a cigar?’ Yeah, yeah. ‘You want some wine?’ Yeah. OK. So we did, in his studio in London, we did that. I’d be coming in, he’d say, ‘What do you want? Chinese food?’ Yeah. He’d always ask about the food first, ’cause he likes food.

“It was always fun,” Scott said. “Always fun, never pretentious. And he’s inordinately approachable. Really nice man.”

Singer and Yes cofounder Jon Anderson, who recorded four absolutely killer synthpop albums with Vangelis in the 1980s and early ’90s, added yet another dimension to this man of mystery.

“Instant good energy,” Anderson wrote in an email about their first meeting in Paris. “As I walked in he had a longbow and some arrows, which he proceeded to fire down the very big hallway. The arrows went through the very large curtained window. I explained he could kill someone. He just laughed saying he was Greek. ‘Don’t worry, Jonny.’”

Vangelis was a bit of a shapeshifter before taking his final form as Celestial Synth Wizard, but the prophecies were there all along. Technically, he was born Evangelos Odysseas Papathanassiou on March 29, 1943, near Volos, Greece—but it’s easier to imagine him arriving in a craft from another planet. He began playing the piano and composing as a child, and his earthly parents briefly enrolled him in music school, but it didn’t take. “I was lucky not to go,” he told the Daily Telegraph in 2005, “because music schools close doors rather than open them.”

When he received a Hammond organ as a teenager, he painted it gold. “It was a totally new thing for me, so I treated it without any previous memory of other people’s playing,” he told Keyboard in 1982. “I treated it more like a synthesizer than an organ. To me it was always, ‘Find the sound possibilities.’” Later on, he played the synth like a church organist.

Rock ‘n’ roll was a waystation: Barely out of high school, he formed Greece’s first popular rock band, the Forminx, but left home during the 1967 military coup. He lived in Paris as an exiled alien, where he cofounded the prog rock band Aphrodite’s Child.

They were hugely popular in Europe, but Vangelis was restless in the confines of commercial rock. When Anderson invited him to join Yes after keyboardist Rick Wakeman left the band, Vangelis refused. “He hated pop,” said Anderson, “and much like me, felt that music is an adventure more than anything.”

He moved to London in 1974 and emerged as VANGELIS—maker of cosmic, conceptual solo albums. Heaven and Hell took the vibe of prog rock into an electronic depiction of the afterlife, alternating jazzy jam sessions with ecclesiastical choirs. Spiral was a bubbling, swirling tone poem that abandoned all acoustic and human noises and yet still resulted in ear candy.

Listening to a Vangelis album is like setting sail through an ocean of stars; sometimes the stars sing gently, sometimes you hit waves of turbulence, and sometimes you turn a corner and the firmament clears out into a giant dance floor. There are Vangelis tracks that are absolute bangers. Just listen to the sticky hook and throbbing beat of “To the Unknown Man,” which builds and builds to an ecstatic climax:

When Carl Sagan created the head-tripping 1980 PBS series Cosmos, he used some of the liquid stardust from Heaven and Hell as his main theme. Vangelis was creating the sound of the future—warbling electronic symphonies full of drama and pulsating melody, all of it soaked in so much reverb that it sounded both like church music and outer space. It was the perfect soundtrack for out-of-body drug voyages and, ultimately, the silver screen.

Chariots of Fire director Hugh Hudson had the unorthodox idea of hiring Vangelis for his staid British film set in 1924, about a pious Christian runner and his Jewish teammate. “I didn’t want it to be a heritage film,” Hudson said. Ridley Scott was developing Blade Runner when the film came out, and he loved the score.

“The music was so off-piste, as it were—if you ski,” Scott told me a few years ago. “I’m not a skier—sounds pretentious—but it was so off the idea of a pre-Second World War Olympic Games film. It was off the mark, but worked like a son of a bitch.”

Vangelis was residing in Nemo Studios, the musical spacecraft he built near Marble Arch in London, fittingly named after Captain Nemo from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. “[It] looked like, to me, it’d been an old women’s institute or something,” said Scott. “I used to go in there every night, literally as I was cutting, and sit with him till 1 o’clock in the morning, where he would, with incredible enthusiasm, show me what he’d been doing during the day.”

Blade Runner had been a fraught production, with Scott’s American crew nearly staging a mutiny and tons of studio pressure to make the film more accessible. But working on the music was pure joy.

“I’m a loose cannon,” Scott said. “That’s why I’ve usually been fairly unpopular as a director, because my methods are kind of unorthodox. And yet, by the time I did Blade Runner I’m in my 40s, I’ve got two very successful companies, I’ve done prizes at Cannes, I’ve done the fuckin’ Alien—so I think I know what I’m fucking doing, right? So I didn’t want to actually pretty well discuss anything with anybody, because I’m doing alright by myself. But when you meet another loose cannon, you trust them. So there’s two loose cannons sitting in this room, and we had a good communion of being loose cannons,” he laughed.

Scott vividly remembered when Vangelis called him over to play what he’d written for the opening shots of a fiery, future Los Angeles. “Honestly, my hairs stood on end,” Scott said, “and from that moment on I knew I was in good shape. Fundamentally, in a sentence, I’ll say he was the soul of the movie.”

“Immediately when I saw some footage,” Vangelis told me in 2019, “I understood that this is the future. Not a nice future, of course. But this is where we’re going.”

Scott also pointed out the scene where Harrison Ford’s Deckard is drunk, sitting at a piano and looking through old photos. “That’s eight fucking minutes of music,” said Scott, “and it couldn’t intrude, it had to sit there behind and doing its job, which is an emotional push and shove. ... While he’s at the piano, he goes into a reverie, and in the reverie we see a unicorn, which is a dream, right? And it’s the only bit of green you see in the entire fucking movie, so it’s kind of a green explosion of beauty. And from that he was transposed into making that an eight-minute section of dreams, and it carries right through to him meeting with Rachael, and the beginning of their communion, their coming together—carries right through that.”

Vangelis told Scott: “Watch this. I’m going to begin the music on Harrison’s blink.”

“He used to watch the actors,” Scott said. “He’d sit there all day in this huge black space by himself ... staring at the movie, and his inspiration always came from footage. Because he’s a very visual musician. And as you know, music is very visual, right? If music isn’t drumming images in your head then the music’s not working—I don’t give a shit whether it’s Bach or Mozart.”

Blade Runner was a commercial failure when it came out in 1982, but it slowly percolated as a bona fide sci-fi masterpiece, owing in large part to its stunning visuals and dreamlike tone. Vangelis’s glacial synth chords and hazy, future-noir love theme contributed massively to the vibe, and even as the music passed from sounding like the future to sounding like the ’80s version of the future, it persevered as timeless.

Jóhann Jóhannsson, who I spoke to while he was writing the score for Blade Runner 2049, admired the original score when he saw the film as a teenager in Iceland. “There’s a tremendous sense of space, and there’s a sense of monumentalism,” he said in 2016. “His use of space—artificial space, like reverbs and things like that—was way ahead of his time, and very influential.”

Jóhannsson was dropped from the sequel shortly after, and replaced by Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch. (He died in 2018.) The stated reason by director Denis Villenueve: “The movie needed something different, and I needed to go back to something closer to Vangelis.”

Hollywood came to Vangelis during its synthesizer boom, when artists like Tangerine Dream, Giorgio Moroder, and John Carpenter were giving movies a sequenced, robotic pulse. But despite winning an Oscar for Chariots of Fire, he only scored a handful of films after Blade Runner—namely Costa-Gavras’ Missing (1982), the Japanese film Antarctica (1983), and The Bounty (1984) starring Anthony Hopkins and Mel Gibson. He was simply too idiosyncratic and too restless to contort himself into the workmanlike role.

“I never thought I was going to become a film composer,” he said in 2016. “And maybe some people thought, ‘Oh yes, that’s the new career of Vangelis. He’s going to become Hollywood composer.’ Not at all. I can score a film tomorrow, and I can write an opera after tomorrow, and I can write next month a ballet, and I can do, I don’t know, a jazz record—whatever. I feel free to do whatever I like.

“I never saw myself like a typical composer that is going to live from writing scores—three or four or five scores a year, and running after Oscars,” he laughed. “I think music is much more interesting, and much more rich than to lock yourself in one kind of area.”

As synths were fading in fashion, he scored 1492: Conquest of Paradise for Scott in the early ’90s and, a decade later, Alexander for Oliver Stone—both defiantly electronic accompaniments to ancient stories. “I wanted to get in touch with the ancient times,” said Stone, “and I thought that Vangelis could get there.”

Listening to the track “Eternal Alexander” on my laptop, Stone closed his eyes and smiled. “If Alexander had been able to hear this, he would have marched all the way to fucking India and beyond,” he laughed. “He would have kept going to China.”

Stone instinctively felt that Vangelis would understand the soul of a fellow larger-than-life Greek explorer. “He gave the man grandeur and scope. Going to outer space or going to the far reaches of the universe, at that time, was the same thing ... I can watch it and it brings tears.”

Vangelis continued to make solo albums, and he also wrote music for the London Royal Ballet, the Olympics, and a symphonic oratorio, Mythodea, to commemorate NASA’s mission to Mars. From the beginning, he often added live instruments and choir to his music—but synths were always at the heart.

He watched as synth music was cast aside as “New Age,” then became commercially uncool—then became retro cool as modern software rendered those old oscillator-and-filter sounds a mere mouse click away. Vangelis always insisted on his own old-school, custom method of performance: He rigged up a bank of analog synths in a way that allowed him to play various voices in real time, like conducting a live electronic orchestra.

“I’m not using computers,” he told me in 2016. “I’ll do everything manual. I created a system which gives me the opportunity to act as fast as possible, faster than a computer, in order to obtain the final result.” He didn’t use overdubs, and simply trusted the flow of the moment. “I don’t want to involve any thought, any personal opinion the moment that I do that. And this is because I prefer to have the music as pure as possible.”

Daniel Lopatin, who produces and scores films under the name Oneohtrix Point Never, was hugely inspired by Vangelis’s sound and approach—a lyrical, soloistic voice carrying the listener through an atmosphere—and he wrote the closest thing to a classic Vangelis score for Uncut Gems, directed by Benny and Josh Safdie.

“A lot of people concentrate maybe on the Blade Runner score, which is incredible,” Lopatin said. “But his studio records—when he set up Nemo in London, and really, really found his own voice—those are the most interesting today, for me. I think they could teach us the most about where modern score can go, not necessarily his score work itself.”

Jóhannsson felt that, unlike the sequencer-heavy music of his contemporaries like Tangerine Dream and Kraftwerk, Vangelis was more of a classically romantic composer. He used high-tech instruments, but used them more like an orchestra to write sweeping, liquid oceans of melody. “I think he has more in common with a great melodist like Verdi or something like that,” said Jóhannsson. “He’s someone who has a great gift for creating very memorable melodies, and very memorable phrases—which would sound great on any instrument.”

The second time I was going to interview Vangelis, when I wrote about Blade Runner and its new sequel, he pulled out at the last minute. “He doesn’t like to talk about his personal life,” I was told by his assistant. “He is bored to talk about his career. He prefers to talk about the music in a more philosophical way. The music in connection with the sciences, the space, the man, the nature and the civilization. That is the reason why he rejects so many interview requests.”

The last time I talked to him, in 2019, he was promoting an album of piano music that he baldly made out of obligation to Decca Records. He was unsparing in his criticism of the music industry, and talked about how money ruins everything. He lamented how badly humans have treated the planet, and how it’s clearly tired of us. Once again, he kept trying to steer the conversation away from the hits in his past and onto a more ethereal plane.

“I don’t give interviews,” he said, “because I have to try to say things that I don’t need to say. And the only thing I need to do is just to make music—and that’s it.” He sighed. “Too much blah blah blah blah, you know what I mean?”

But I was very grateful for the blah blah blah I got with Vangelis. He was funny, easygoing, and kind—even as he was maddeningly evasive about the strange and gorgeous music he created. He would argue that the music does all the talking, and I’ll allow that he was probably much wiser than me on that count. And now that his corporeal body is gone, the music is still communicating.

“One of the reasons that music is so important,” he said in our last chat, “is because, deep down, people need the music. Even bad music. They can’t get away from the music. Of course, they are music. We are music. We are space. We’re everything. There’s no division.”

Tim Greiving is a film music journalist in Los Angeles and a regular contributor to NPR, the Los Angeles Times, and The Washington Post. Find him at