Vangelis, who makes his North American concert debut tonight at UCLA's Royce Hall, would be very happy with the ancient Greek saying, "In chaos lies fertility." He's a modern Greek, for one thing. And he's decidedly chaotic.
Born Svangelis Pappathanassiou, Vangelis is best known here for his Academy Award-winning score for the film "Chariots of Fire," a rather daring musical departure from an otherwise meticulous re-creation of post-Edwardian England entering the twilight of Empire. Its musical references were post-modern, dissociative. They extrapolated the lyricism and demanding rhythm of sport and put them in a context that transcended historical moment.
His film scores also figured heavily in Costa-Gavras' "Z" and the futuristic "Blade Runner." But film is an incidental concern for Vangelis. Daily he sits at the center of a number of keyboards and synthesizer consoles, like a captain at the controls of a great liner plunging through an ocean of sound. That, apparently, is the source of his joy and daily exertion. The rest is dross.
The dross, as a rule, includes very occasional concertizing--he's done five in 12 years, according to his producer Larry Mason. And the interview process, for which most performers are preeningly prepared, is as welcome to him as a customs interrogation.
At first, Vangelis was willing to devote about 20 minutes to talk about his life and music, and no photographs please. And if at first that seemed like a manifestation of noblesse oblige, it soon became clear that he's not comfortable or especially experienced at talking about himself to the press (a refreshing departure in an age where a majority of performers enjoy nothing more).
Though his interview had been scheduled in advance, he had also booked an immediate dinner appointment, for which he was dressed in a black jacket, black leather pants with a silver belt, a white shirt and a striped tie hung at half-mast--his grudging concession to decorum. His English isn't the best--though he's spent the past 12 years in London. But after a tentative start, sitting amid synthesizer equipment that took up half his large hotel bedroom (a keyboard lay at the foot of his bed), he began to settle in and unfold. He even submitted to a fresh photography session.
"I was born in Greece," he said. "My father was in property, but he was a great lover of music. I started at the piano at the age of 4. I've been composing and performing for as long as I can remember." (Asked his age, he replied, "I'm 3,000 years old." Later, Mason said Vangelis is 42, which seems closer to the mark.)
"I think it was inevitable that I get into synthesizer music," he continued. "I always wanted to deal with sound more than anything else. I couldn't get the sounds I wanted out of the piano. I went to Paris when I was 20 and was a huge success immediately. The synthesizer, which came into being around 15 years ago, was an extension of what I had been experimenting with earlier--electrical music. I don't believe you can replace conventional instruments--they give you a vast amount of colors. But the synthesizer was a great challenge. The tools you use are not as important as what's in you , what you do."
For all his lifelong devotion to music (he does little else, admittedly, besides paint and socialize with small groups of friends), he doesn't consider himself a musician in any formal sense. He doesn't read music, for one thing. He doesn't read books either--or so he said, unapologetically.
"Music to me is as vast as nature. It'd be sad, to me, if we had to deal with direction, or style. Music is not something that's written. Everything that's noted down comes after the music is created. It's an indication. Music is immediate, wild, unpredictable, multidimensional. It's what the language of the artist is, more than any other language."
Vangelis was starting on a roll amid the clutter and the discreet intrusions by one of his several factotums--one hesitates to use the word roadie in such ethereal company. His blue eyes lit up his somewhat weary features.
"Every day I learn something about the synthesizer," he said. "I'm not intimidated by it. After all, human beings are much more complicated. We are the oldest computers alive."
Vangelis, who admits to being a loner, still has no trouble with working in films, where the composer by necessity cannot afford to be noticeably intrusive. In fact, the general tenor of his music fits the modern sensibility in that, stylistically, it often juxtaposes the harsh, mechanical scurrying rhythms of contemporary urban life against the deeper, more liquid strata of emotion.