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.