蒸気の前に: Αφιέρωμα στον Βαγγέλη, or A Tribute to Vangelis

I know it’s been a recurring motif where I apologise for not writing as much here. It’s also been a recurring motif where I explain that when I do write, it’s worthwhile. I hope this is the case more so than ever.

The word is spreading worldwide that Evangelos Papathanassiou, better known as Vangelis, died on 17 May 2022. He was 79. Now … I know there have been many tributes made and will be made about him in the immediate aftermath of this news. Because of this, I know this is just one of many (and deservedly so). But all one can do, to paraphrase Leo Tolstoy, is add our light to that great sum of light. And thus, I offer my own personal tribute.

I have described him as a musical father figure. It’s an audacious claim, I know, and not a unique one either. But I hold to this because more than any individual, he has had a consistent and deep impact on me musically, creatively beyond music and personally. There are many aspects of me that do not in some way involve Vangelis and particularly his music. Ever since I heard it through my father’s music library, he has indirectly helped guide me through the passage of time from childhood through adolescence into adulthood and to the present day, where I am on the cusp of the middle age. Because of the prevalence of his music, it helped me in crucial areas. For instance, the extensive use of his music in Carl Sagan’s Cosmos is what made me interested in, well, the cosmos … and knowledge in general. His tribute to El Greco would lead me to Byzantine ikonography and, in time, would even lead me to be received into the Orthodox Church. Finally, while my music is mine and no one else’s, it would have sounded much different if it weren’t for Vangelis. It has been compared to it – rightfully so – and there’s a reason why.

Now to go beyond just this mere individual, there is no denying the deep impact Vangelis has made in music, especially in the realm of electronic music. He was a significant key figure in helping to make the synthesizer and other electronic-based instruments a serious and worthy choice of instrumentation and not just a mere novelty or “flavour of the month”. He did it by emphasizing that it is ultimately music that should prevail. He had an ear for sound and for melody, which I found out a while back that it was due to his mother singing arias and various other “lieder”. Combine it with an adventurous and restless creative spirit, it’s no wonder he went into the atomic world to the stars and beyond. Basically, he helped make electronic music into a serious artistic expression. And many artists who enjoy and revel in working with synthesizers are forever grareful and indebted to him for this.

And this definitely includes vapour.

Now, I talked already about a certain film including its music. But the man has one of the most eclectic and diverse oeuvres you can imagine. Sure, he is known for grand works that could be described as “symphonic electronic” or “orchestral synthesizer” or any number of adjective combinations. But he could also evoke jazz (fusion variety), pop, music of particular geographies and some not easy to describe. One of his chronic frustrations was expected that others expect “the same thing” from him. To his credit, he didn’t and especially when it could have really stopped him.

The beginning of the 1980s was really the decade for him. Sure, a lot of the groundwork was laid out during the 1970s with a move from Paris to London where he established the legendary Nemo Studios. But the 1980s was the great payoff. Chariots of Fire is the obvious one, winning an Academy Award for Best Original Score. Then, there’s Blade Runner, which was praised for sure but was part of a film that wasn’t received as well at the time but was reappraised later. But you also had Antarctica, which was, for a while, the largest grossing film in Japan until Spirited Away. There was also Missing, the Costa-Gavras film about the disappearance of Charles Horman during the Chilean coup of 1973, which won the Palme d’Or at the 1982 Cannes Film Festival. There was even The Bounty, which gave another take on the “Mutiny on the Bounty” story. Between this and working with Yes vocalist Jon Anderson on several albums, he could have been a large superstar. But also in 1984, there was the beginning of what could be interpreted as a deliberate attempt to show that he can do more than just score films. Soil Festivities, Mask and Invisible Connections were his last albums released through Polydor and they are all closer to art/classic music than say pop or film music (though it certainly works in that realm with the right scene). But there were two albums that, I think, could be seen as a critical milestone in informing what vapour would become.

Direct ended being the only album issued through Artista in 1988, funny enough the same year as Software’s Digital-Dance, another adopted vapour album. Like that album, the cover seems to be dripping with a e s t h e t i c. Also like that album, its sound comes more from the emerging digital-based realm. But this album has more stylistic daring, dipping its toes into “cosmic pop”, “cosmic rock” and even a bit of the operatic. This was also a showcase of a custom MIDI-based setup where he could realise more quickly and effortlessly his own desire to create a complete and fully-realised work spontaneously. It was very much of its time in a lot of ways, but has also proven to work in other times too. Yet, with the cover and the sonic arrangement and the stylistic diversity, I can’t help but hear this as an underrated proto-vapour album.

In 1990, he released his first album through Eastwest in Europe (Atlantic through the United States) and it was The City. Whereas Direct was a bit nebulous and abstract in its concept (if there was one, apart from maybe showcasing the new aforementioned setup), this was very clear in what it was illustrating: a day in the life of a modern city (mostly European with some hints of the Asian). This also continues utilizing more of those digital-based synthesizers, which now dominated the electronic music sphere. But in the end, it does what I have always loved about his music: the ability to take you into another world. This is another album that reflects its time quite well but has also proven itself in other times too. And once again, this album seems to fit right at home with the vapour realm

Many artists affiliated with the vapour tag – by choice or by coincidence – could cite Vangelis as an influence in varying degrees from passing familiarity to deep impact. For myself, it was deep. But it started with sensing that he knew the power of music, particularly its ability to take you into another world. He had given me many keys of which I had used throughout my life. But he also, in his own way, told me that I could make my own. Because of this, I am forever grateful to him.

Memory eternal and many thanks … father.

蒸気の前に: Blade Runner

(You probably knew this was a long-time coming, either from me or from someone else)

2019. For thirty-seven years, that year would be associated with one film based on one book that had quite the tumultuous production history, a poor box office performance, a mixed response from critics and audiences at the time, a fruitful after-life thanks to dedicated fans and the fiercely creative and would even spawn a golden sequel that may be end up being a clever artistic recurrence if there ever was one.

The great thing about talking about this film is I don’t have spend time giving the background on it as 1) there’s plenty of information out there, 2) I kind of did it anyway in the first paragraph and 3) chances are very high you already know most of it. But what I do want to divulge is how this film is a part of the foundation, if not a cornerstone, for this particular art movement/music scene. Of course, I will touch on the obvious ones, but I will also make an effort to go deeper.

Obvious connections are obvious. You have a film based on a daring and evocative work of speculative fiction that was strongly informed by a particular visual aesthetic that was around for a decade or so prior and it was all expertly realised by a visionary director working with an imaginative yet thoughtful futurist, a hard working and perceptive cinematographer, an inventive production design team and visual effects team, a well-chosen cast, assembled by a poetic editor and – what I think is the icing on the cake – scored lovingly by a key figure of electronic music. (And yes, I know there are many more I have not explicitly implied here.) If you are of a creative bent, there is plenty to glean from the film alone and it’s no surprise there have been plenty of works – music and otherwise – that have been compared to Blade Runner to where the very title – as observed by another creative influenced by this film – immediately creates a whole world.

Then there’s what the film actually depicts, which was a future from the standpoint of 1982. While the heart of Los Angeles is not the Tyrell Building and the washed masses (remember, there’s plenty of rain) do not speak a weird amalgamation of German, Japanese, Spanish and Hungarian (look at what Gaff calls Deckard), our real 2019 does not seem entirely incompatible with Blade Runner‘s 2019. Hell, even during the film’s silver anniversary, I jokingly noticed the crosswalk feature in some urban intersections where someone tells you to “cross now” or “don’t walk” (not exactly in those words but close). And if not in specific technology, the general mood is there.

Finally, we get into the thematic ideas. Both book and film, in their very particular ways, explore what it means to be human and in a two-fold manner: can the non-human ever be human and can the human ever lose “being human”? The film explores the latter a bit more memorably than the book does (and in large part due to the recently “retired” Rutger Hauer’s portrayal of Roy Batty) and the latter question will always be up for discussion until the end of ages. But what Blade Runner brings to this classic philosophical dinner table discussion is the role of new technologies combined with industrial markets and various centralised power structures in this metaphysical situation.

So what does this have to do with vapour? Well, there’s plenty. As I said earlier, if you were of a creative bent, you would be aware of Blade Runner would find some facet of it appealing. Both the means and the time period of its production make it ripe for the plucking for sure. Granted that the influential/inspirational status was going on long before vaporwave was even a thing. But considering the ages of many of these artists, who were either barely born, soon to be born or yet to be born, this is a case where many of us will never know a world where Blade Runner wasn’t there.

What’s interesting to me is for a world that is so shining yet dark, packed yet sparse, as well as boisterous and often damp, it is beautifully compelling. I don’t feel this way with most cities, including and especially the real Los Angeles. But Blade Runner’s Los Angeles 2019 is so inviting, I wouldn’t mind living as a street musician. Apart from the soundtrack, I think it reflects a kind of contemporary melancholia that is appealing to those prone toward the melancholic. It is an awareness of a spiritual eclipse amongst material opulence. But sooner or later, the moon must move out of the way.

Even if I’ve said this before, it bears repeating: I believe music acts as a key to other worlds. If you listen to music, a whole universe envelops you like a warm duvet. But if you know how to make music, you are now a key master. And if you have an impulse to make your own way through a rainy Los Angeles 2019/2049, why not use music as the means to do it? But music is not merely a form of escapism. It can be – for listener and/or creator – a means of reaching understanding about … something. It can lead to an answer but also, just as easily, to more questions. You can find serenity in the ways things are or provide courage to change things.

And so as we start to move away from 2019, remember that moments will be lost in time like tears in rain. But it makes holding onto them while we have strength all the more important.

蒸気の前に: Introduction

Before I publish the first proper article under this category, I want to give this new category a proper introduction.

I remember this guy proposing a series of YouTube videos called “Influences of Vapour” where he would go into the various precedents before vaporwave became a thing (even when it was even more nebulous than it is now). However, that has seems to have fallen by the way way way side. Not evading an opportunity if seen, I decided a long time ago now that maybe I could take on that task in a different form. And thus I present a new category of articles called 蒸気の前に or “Before Vapour”.

As I’ve said, both explicitly and implicitly, I do not believe there is nothing new under the sun and thus what we often think of as new carries a lot of precedents, precursors and previous incarnations. I think it’s fascinating to uncover those, not so much to mock something for making the claim they are wearing new clothes (when they don’t), but to dispel the presumption that “this is unfamiliar”. Human beings have not changed all that much in the eons of working to be a civilised – or at least an organized – species. Recurrences are to be found through the years and beyond our lifetimes.

Welcome to “Before Vapour” // 「蒸気の前に 」へようこそ