Pioneering Composer & Synthesist Vangelis Dead At 79

Pioneering composer and synthesist Vangelis has died at the age of 79.

According to a report by The Guardian, Vangelis died Tuesday, May 17, in a hospital in France where he was being treated.

Vangelis (29 March 1943–17 May 2022) is one of the true icons of synthesis, reaching success in the worlds of rock, pop, film scoring and classical music. He was best known for his soundtracks to films like Chariots of Fire and Blade Runner.

Born Evángelos Odysséas Papathanassíou in 1943, he got his start with the groups Forminx and Aphrodite’s Child. The Aphrodite’s Child album 666 is notable as an epic and adventurous double-LP concept album.

In the 70’s, Vangelis developed a style of real-time composing, using multiple keyboard, alongside percussion and acoustic instruments, to create full arrangements. Using this approach, Vangelis composed scores for a series of nature documentaries, including L’Apocalypse des Animaux, La Fête Sauvage and Opéra Sauvage. He also launched his solo career with the album Earth, the first of dozens of albums to follow.

Vangelis achieved mainstream global success in the 80’s. His 1981 soundtrack to Chariots of Fire was unexpected and memorable, and not only did its theme reach number 1 on the US charts, but the soundtrack was awarded an Oscar.

For many synthesists, the highlight of his soundtrack work is his score to the science fiction classic Blade Runner. Vangelis combined the power of the Yamaha CS-80, and other synthesizers, with acoustic instruments and vocals to create a soundtrack that perfectly captured the complex multi-cultural dystopian world of Los Angeles, 2019.

Vangelis continued to score ‘A-list’ films throughout his life, including smaller films like Missing and epics like 1492: Conquest of Paradise and Alexander.

Vangelis was a composer of huge range and interests, and his solo albums reflect this. They combine a huge range of styles, ranging from rock to classical music to ambient to new age. We’ve characterized his music as “symphonic electronic”, because of his use of synthesizers and acoustic instruments to create richly orchestrated compositions that aren’t classical, but have a symphonic range.

His futuristic music was long-associated with space exploration. His 1976 album Albedo 0.39 takes inspiration from astronomy. His music was used as the soundtrack to Carl Sagan’s famous PBS series, Cosmos. And several of his most recent albums, including Mythodea, Rosetta and Juno to Jupiter, grew out of collaborations with European and US space agencies.

In addition to his solo and soundtrack work, Vangelis collaborated with many artists and in many styles. With Jon Anderson, he release several pop albums, including the hit Friends of Mr Cairo. With Irene Papas, he released a pair of albums that feature electronic orchestrations of traditional Greek music. And his later work featured several collaborations with opera stars, including Kathleen Battle and Jessye Norman.

The Vangelis Approach To Real Time Orchestration

A key aspect to Vangelis’s style is the fact that he composed his music in real time, creating full orchestrations with whatever instruments he had available.

Here’s an early example, from 1971, where a bare-chested Vangelis improvises with painter Georges Mathieu, as part of a multimedia performance:

Note how he uses an organ, a beat-up Clavinet, a recorder and some percussion instruments to improvise arrangements that have an almost orchestral feel.

By the mid-70s, Vangelis was working in a similar manner, but with synthesizers.

While some musicians of his time used electronic instruments to imitate orchestral instruments, resulting in ‘uncanny valley’ sound, Vangelis chose to create orchestrations with synthesizers as one part of an expanded palette of sounds. As a result, his arrangements are immediately recognizable as orchestral, though his sound palette is more broad than a traditional orchestra.

Vangelis was very interested in using synthesizers expressively, too, which is reflected in his extensive use of the Yamaha CS-80 in his mid-career work. The CS-80 features polyphonic aftertouch, which let Vangelis play the synthesizer more expressively than was possible with other synths. The CS-80 is all over his soundtrack to Blade Runner, where it is used to create both epic orchestrations and reflective leads.

“My interest in it was not to create a symphony orchestra,” he said, “but to go further than that and do things that the symphony orchestra cannot do.”

Here’s an improvisation from the early ’80s, about the same timeframe as his soundtracks for Chariots of Fire and Blade Runner:

Vangelis did eventually embrace a more imitative approach in his arrangements, especially in his later soundtrack work.

Here’s an example from his later career, where you can see Vangelis preparing his rig, trying out some sounds, and then improvising a completed orchestration. Watch how he uses a custom MIDI system to create his sound palette and then uses a huge array of pedals to bring sounds in and out of his arrangement. And note how he uses tempo, dynamics and orchestration to make his arrangement expressive:

34 thoughts on “Pioneering Composer & Synthesist Vangelis Dead At 79

    1. The world has lost a musical legend not just a synth pioneer. Heaven’s been waiting for him to get up there RIP old friend.

  1. Amazing musical gift to the world.
    The music that poured through Vangelis will continue touching the lives of millions.
    I shall celebrate Vangelis.
    Such a musical hero for me.

    1. There are persons sent to this earth through whom harmony togetherness healing is spread through the earth
      by their mere presence on earth thereafter that which pours through them.

      Vangelis was one such person.

  2. What truly gutting news, French media outlets have noted that he was being treated for Covid-19.

    He and fellow pioneer, Jean-Michel Jarre, are singularly responsible for introducing me to electronic music and what I consider the nascent stages of electronica. The first time I heard either artist, I stopped and could not move whilst the music surrounded me and pulsated within every cell in my body. I was transfixed and transformed.

    A giant amongst giants.

    1. Whilst most will cite Blade Runner, to me his truly mastery was Chariots of Fire. The futuristic sound that accompanied Blade Runner made sense, yet to lend his sound to a period piece like Chariots of Fire was simply brilliant and that is an understatement.

      He made a movie and story-line based on the 1920’s feel every bit as relevant and immediate. What an amazing talent.

      1. I have not even seen the movie Chariots of Fire and every time I hear it I see a bunch of people running. That’s how powerful this theme is and how it is implanted in our culture

      2. Yeah, I would say Chariots of Fire made a bigger impression on me than Blade Runner when I was a kid, though the latter is brilliant too.

        Some of his music from [i]Albedo 0.39[/i] was used in the original Cosmos TV series and it was just perfect for the purpose. Maybe it’s the nostalgia but that one is my favorite album of his, with a wide variety of styles including really great jazz fusion (and the best PWM lead synth solos I’ve ever heard).

    1. Christian, what a profound and moving phrase, “create invisible connections”. Thank you for encapsulating such complex emotions so succinctly.

  3. Sad news. Definitely a massive influence on me and my love of synths. Happy we still have his music, which will in some way let his memory live so much longer.

  4. Sad to see him go. Chariots of Fire on my parent turntable is what made me fall in love with synthesis and sequencing. So thankful for his influence.

  5. Being a greek living abroad, I can sense my country in his music. He was a humble and warm hearted person, experiencing music in a direct and metaphysical way. His death closes the cycle of great modern greek composers: Manos Hatzidakis, Mikis Theodorakis and Iannis Xennakis.

  6. Anyone who plays a synth owes him a certain debt, including me. His work is an indispensable part of the musical landscape if you’re even mildly interested in how synthesizers can serve many creative goals. Unique is the right word. You learn a lot from hearing how he paints orchestrally. Its an entire style on its own and just as worthy of occasional emulation as Tangerine Dream’s.

    His passing is naturally sad, but my extensive Vangelis collection says otherwise, a bit. After all, he left a large, awesome footprint, including the blueprint for how to do right by a CS-80.

  7. IIRC Synthtopia used to have a picture of the CS-80 on the front page. Vangelis is probably the greatest reason why that synth is so revered.

    He’s also partially to blame for my interest in synthesizers – and music in general. Thanks a lot, Vangelis. 😉

  8. I still love the one-man Vangelis orchestra. “Sure I’ll improvise a soundtrack, just give me a minute. OK, here it is.”

  9. A lifetime of inspiration for me. May your story echo through long trailing reverbs, for the rest of time.

  10. Fantastic words from the comments here! That is a rarity and it feels AWESOME that we can all agree on this titan of our field of passion.

  11. We’ve lost WAY too many synth pioneers in the last couple of years. At least their music and inspirations live on.

  12. As one reviewer noted, how wonderful when we can all agree. Maybe this will help bring unity to the synth community. And to also be more respectful of each other’s differences of opinions. I was very young. And had not seen the movie Chariots of Fire. Nor had any idea about it. But I heard the music of Chariots Of Fire for the first time on Casey Kasem’s American Top 40. It sounded to me like the soundtrack to life itself. A race perhaps? Or more about the “Human Race.” So majestic. So eloquent. So timeless. So human. Vangelis, like all of his works, was able to bring emotion to…..anything…..and everything through his music. Thank you, Vangelis. May we all get to experience our own rich tapestry of a moment…..and make it last a lifetime.

  13. His spirit and music will always be with us. My condolences to his family and friends.

    I’ll hold your music close to my thoughts and spirit.

    RIP Sir!!!!

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