Vangelis, the self-taught, Oscar-winning Greek composer who piloted a dashboard of synthesizers through the New Age and into the cinema, most notably with catchy, cosmic scores for “Chariots of Fire” and “Blade Runner,” died May 17 at a hospital in Paris. He was 79.
“Chariots of Fire” (1981) was Vangelis’s first studio feature, and it won him an Academy Award — besting John Williams’s traditionally orchestral “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” “Chariots of Fire” also won an Oscar for best picture, for its crowd-pleasing story of English runners representing their country in the 1924 Olympic Games, and opened with an iconic image of the young men running in slow-motion along a beach.
Vangelis’s score — fronted by a buzzy anthem soaring over an insistently pulsing rhythm — defied the film’s period trappings with its space-age palette and poplike tunes.
“It’s an electric texture that at first seems oddly modern for a film so painstakingly accurate in its ’20s setting,” pop music critic Richard Harrington wrote in The Washington Post at the time, “but the neoclassical mood and moment are triumphant: One is swept along with the runners, and it’s easy to find oneself suddenly breathless.”
Vangelis also, perhaps, was swept along with the runners.
“I try to put myself in the situation and feel it,” the composer told Harrington. “I’m a runner at the time, or in the stadium, or alone in the dressing room … and then I compose … and the moment is fruitful and honest, I think.”
The score brought Vangelis international fame, and the soundtrack became the fastest-selling LP at the time. Its theme remains one of the most recognizable — and parodied — in film music history.
He cemented his cinematic legacy the next year with “Blade Runner,” drafting a grand, glacially advancing opus for Ridley Scott’s neo-noir sci-fi film — a failure in its day that went on to become a classic and inspire a 2017 sequel.
Scott visited Vangelis every night as he was cutting the film in London and remembered vividly his reaction when he first heard the composer’s musical idea for the opening shot, a stunning aerial of a future Los Angeles broiling against the night sky.
“Honestly, my hairs stood on end,” Scott told The Post in 2017. “He was the soul of the movie.”
The “Blade Runner” score filled Scott’s cluttered city with giant swells of elegant, electric chords, and attended Harrison Ford’s replicant-assassin with a sad ballad for saxophone and synthesizers. It became an exemplar in the genre and continued to influence bands and film composers decades later.
Vangelis began his musical career in rock-and-roll, first as a songwriter and organist for Greece’s first popular rock band, the Forminx, which he formed in high school. He moved to Paris after the 1967 military coup in Greece and co-founded the progressive rock band Aphrodite’s Child, which released three successful albums that collectively sold more than 20 million copies in Europe.
“It was too sophisticated for the group,” he said of their ambitious album “666,” in a 1974 interview with the magazine Sounds. “I realized that I couldn’t follow the commercial way anymore; it was very boring.”
The band split in 1974, and Vangelis moved to London to make solo albums — including “Heaven and Hell,” “Spiral” and the more avant-garde “Beaubourg.” The band Yes invited him to join when their keyboardist Rick Wakeman left, but Vangelis, as he told Keyboard Magazine in 1982, found the group incompatible.
He made several albums with the band’s lead vocalist, Jon Anderson. Billed as Jon and Vangelis, they produced two hit singles in England: “I Hear You Now” (1979) and “I’ll Find My Way Home” (1981).
In music stores, the composer’s solo work was shelved in the burgeoning New Age genre, with peers including Mike Oldfield, Jean-Michel Jarre and Tangerine Dream. A key difference between Vangelis and his contemporaries was melody.
“Vangelis is the master of the sweeping, melodic statement,” Paul Haslinger, onetime member of Tangerine Dream, told NPR in 2016. “Whether you like this opulent, symphonic sound or not, the melodies catch — and if you’ve ever tried anything in music, you know how hard that is.”
While others were experimenting with modular, sequenced rhythms, Vangelis played his synthesizers like a church organ, drenching big melodies in massive, artificial reverb to create the feeling of sound in a cathedral. He also devised a system that allowed him to play multiple synthesizer voices at once — turning his keyboards into a full orchestra — and typically recorded pieces in one pass.
“I won’t even rerecord a thing if I play a bum note,” he told Beat Instrumental in 1975. “Making music is like making love — it’s not good unless it’s honest and spontaneous.”
His music connected the sacred space with outer space — a quality that made it a natural fit for the movies, where many of his fellow “cosmic synth” artists migrated. His first efforts were for French documentaries and the 1970 film “Sex Power,” and his album music provided much of the score for Carl Sagan’s 1980 PBS series “Cosmos.” In 1982, he scored “Missing,” Constantin Costa-Gavras’s Oscar-nominated drama about an American writer who disappears in Chile amid the 1973 coup that brought the Pinochet regime to power.
In 1992, Vangelis teamed up again with Scott for the Columbus epic “1492: Conquest of Paradise.” Its infectious anthems blended electronics, choir and primitive instruments, and the soundtrack conquered the European pop charts. His last major score was for Oliver Stone’s ill-received “Alexander” (2004), about Alexander the Great, the Macedonian conqueror of the ancient world.
Outside of film, Vangelis wrote two scores for the London Royal Ballet in the mid-1980s, and he continued making solo albums through the 1990s and 2000s. He provided music for high-profile special occasions, including for the Olympic Games in 2000 and 2004.
In 2001, he wrote a symphonic oratorio, “Mythodea,” to commemorate NASA’s mission to Mars — a production staged in the ancient Temple of Zeus in Athens and criticized in the Greek media because it cost $7 million, half of which was supplied by the state government. In 2016, he released a now-retro synth album, “Rosetta,” inspired by the European Space Agency’s probe mission of the same name.
“For me, music is science more than art,” Vangelis told NPR. “It is the main code of the universe.”
Evangelos Odysseas Papathanassiou was born in Volos, Greece, on March 29, 1943, and grew up in Athens. His father was “in property,” he told the Los Angeles Times, and was “a great lover of music.” Vangelis began playing the piano at 4 but received little formal training.
He soon started composing, and he experimented with sound by “playing” kitchenware filled with different amounts of water. He received his first Hammond organ as a teenager and painted it gold.
After moving to London in 1974, he built his high-tech Nemo Studios — named for Captain Nemo from the Jules Verne fantasy-adventure novel “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.” He also began going by the name Vangelis because, as he told Sounds, Papathanassiou was “impossible to fit” on record sleeves and hard for English speakers to pronounce.
Vangelis granted few interviews and, in them, revealed little personal information. Survivors include his partner of 30 years, Laura, and her daughter, Melia.
He was recalled by friends as a fun-loving bear of a man with a hearty appetite for cigars, wine and practical jokes.
Anderson, recounting his first meeting with Vangelis in Paris, told The Post: “As I walked in, he had a long bow 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, and he just laughed, saying he was Greek. ‘Don’t worry, Jonny.’ ”