How Vangelis became a synth and electronic music legend

(Image credit: Rob Verhorst/Redferns)

Greek composer Evanghelos Odyssey Papathanassiou, better known to the world as Vangelis, loomed large in the field of electronic music and film scores.

Over his lifetime he released 29 studio recordings, 28 compilation albums, 12 soundtrack albums and 42 singles. And yet most of his film score work was never released, and he often said he had much more music ‘in the vault’ than he ever released.

Many people only know of him through his biggest releases, like the theme from Chariots Of Fire, the soundtrack for Blade Runner, and his pop releases with Jon Anderson from Yes. But his work is deep and varied, as you’re about to find out.


As a child, Vangelis was exposed to the piano, which he took to with complete abandon. Starting at the age of four he played for himself, never taking lessons, as he recalled. “My parents tried to get me the best musical education, but I never responded to teachers and so I am self-taught,” he told the Melody Maker in 1974. “Also, as soon as I started to play, I started to compose, and all my life I have never played anybody else’s music.”

His earliest professional experiences included playing in a band called Aphrodite’s Child, who had many hits in the late ‘60s. Yet this was not satisfying for Vangelis: “Every record that we made went to number one,” he explained to Melody Maker, “but I couldn’t stand the pressure to conform to what everybody wanted the group to be. It was like being in prison.”

While the band was out touring, he composed and recorded their final record, a double album entitled 666, released in 1972. Here is where we first find the signs of the artist he was to become.

The music reflected the growing prog-rock movement, and was one of the very first concept albums to be released. Standout tracks include The Four Horsemen and Altamont, reminiscent of Frank Zappa in the orchestration. 

An important part of Vangelis’s music making is his penchant for improvisation. An early 1971 clip (see above) shows him performing at an art event where he and the artist both created spontaneously. He has some percussion instruments and a small recorder, plus a Hammond L-100 organ, the very first model of the Clavinet, the Clavinet 1, and the Ondioline (obscured, but to his right in the setup).

Through the use of various tape delays he gets many textures from the organ that sound like string ensembles and synthesizer pads, years before those instruments existed.

After the break-up of Aphrodite’s Child, Vangelis moved to France and did sessions with various pop artists, and started scoring a number of short films.

Most notable amongst those was a series of animal documentaries, starting with L’Apocalypse Des Animaux in 1971. Here we hear a non-western music influence, and his palette of keyboard sounds started growing, although this recording was still pre-synthesizers

During his time in France, Vangelis released his first solo album, Fais que ton rêve soit plus long que la nuit - a rare recording since it was only released in France and Greece - and a second solo album (considered his first, commercially) in 1973, entitled Earth. A standout track from that album is Let It Happen, where we hear the addition of Fender Rhodes electric piano, and some early use of synthesizers.

Finding Nemo

Jumping forward a few years, Vangelis moved to London and built his first studio, dubbed Nemo. It is here that he created some of the most successful music of his career. And his gear list grew exponentially, as he started exploring synthesizers in earnest. 

During these years he released now-classic albums such as Heaven and Hell (1975), and Albedo 0.39 (1976). Especially on Albedo 0.39 we can hear the overt use of synthesizer timbres and sequencers: standout tracks include Pulsar, and Main Sequence

Two other albums recorded in Nemo during this time are Spiral and China. Spiral marked the first appearance of the synth that Vangelis most came to be known by: the Yamaha CS-80. Of it he was to tell Electronics and Music Maker in 1984: “It’s the most important synthesizer in my career - and for me the best analogue synthesizer design there has ever been.”

Discussing it in further detail with in December in 2016, he shared: “In order to play the CS-80 you have to really perform. Which means that you have to learn how to play it. Exactly what you have to do with a conventional instrument.” 

His love affair with the instrument was legendary: he owned eight of them over his lifetime! There’s a rare film clip of him demonstrating what the CS-80 is capable of.

There are so many great tracks on Spiral; let’s draw your attention to but a few. Spiral and 3+3 both feature great use of sequencers alongside the live-played keyboards, while To The Unknown Man is the best example of the highly melodic sense that became Vangelis’ trademark. 

China was a bold release for its time, incorporating the influence of Chinese musical instrument timbres and compositional styles. It has sold over 60,000 copies, making it one of Vangelis’ biggest hits. There’s a cool clip of Vangelis during the creation of the album. Some favourite tracks include Chung Kuo, Yin and Yang and Himalaya.

In 1979 Vangelis was contacted about using a piece of his music, L’Enfant, for the title sequence of a movie to be called Chariots Of Fire. He told the director the piece didn’t fit quite right (even though the film was already edited using that music), but he would compose a new one that would be perfect.

He came back with his now iconic track, and you can hear how it kept the pulse of the previous music, but was now a much more majestic piece. It went on to win an Academy Award - a first for an electronic piece of music.

Shortly after that, director Ridley Scott contacted Vangelis, asking him to create a decidedly electronic and adventurous music score for a new movie: Blade Runner. The music that Vangelis created for that 1982 film became legendary in the field of film scoring, combining unique synthetic textures, majestic CS-80 brass tones, and real sound manipulated through a newly-acquired EM-U Emulator sampling keyboard.

The main theme is a classic, yet shockingly the studio refused to release Vangelis’s electronic score and reworked the music for a traditional orchestra. The original music did not get released until 1994.

Other personal favorites include: Blade Runner Blues, Tears In Rain and End Titles. You’ll find a great analysis of the music on the Nemo Studios website.

Yes, man

Considering how most of the music Vangelis made was artistic instrumental, some may find his partnership with Yes vocalist Jon Anderson a surprise. Anderson is said to have heard Vangelis’ early album, L’Apocalypse Des Animaux, in 1971, and sought him out when Yes were looking for a replacement for Rick Wakeman (before the recording of their album Relayer).

While Vangelis decided not to join the band, they found in each other kindred spirits, and began making music together, with Jon first appearing on the album Heaven and Hell (1975), singing the song So Long Ago, So Clear.

Over the next decade they made music as Jon and Vangelis, releasing a number of classic albums that had songs that placed well on the pop charts. These hits included I Hear You Now (1980), I’ll Find My Way Home (1981), He Is Sailing (1983) and Italian Song (1983).

Vangelis continued his successful scoring work in the ‘90s, a standout being 1492: Conquest Of Paradise for the film by Ridley Scott. In it we can hear how much more orchestral his sounds and production were becoming.

Top songs are the main theme, and the hauntingly beautiful Monastery Of La Rabida. He continued releasing solo albums as well, including Voices, which featured a couple of vocalists, Caroline Lavelle and Paul Young

A choral symphony entitled Mythodia was first composed and performed at a concert in Greece in 1993. Vangelis later resurrected it when he was signed to Sony Classical in 2000. It was recorded with a full symphony orchestra and choir, and released in 2001 as Mythodea, with a tie-in to the NASA Mars Odyssey trip.

Another concert was held in Greece, with 224 musicians and singers performing the work along with Vangelis.

Vangelis’s fascination with space and space travel continued; he released Rosetta in 2016, dedicated to the Rosetta space probe mission of 2004. The trailer showcases the project, including a lot of great footage of Vangelis performing at his custom controller setup, as well as on his beloved Yamaha CS-80. His final recording, Juno To Jupiter, was also related to space travel: this time the NASA trip around Jupiter.

Unique in his output was the 2019 release titled Nocturne: The Piano Album. It consists of a number of new tunes/improvisations, as well as re-workings of some of his better-known compositions performed at the piano with synthesizer backing. It’s a beautifully lush recording, showcasing his strong sense of melody and romantic nature.

Vangelis's musical style

Vangelis differed from other artists known for creating music using synthesizers in the 1970s. First and foremost, he always released original music, as opposed to recreating classical scores as was the trend in those early days (Wendy Carlos, Tomita, etc.). His electronic timbres tended to be warmer and lusher than Tomita’s, and he never created the kitschy and cute sounds that were all too often explored in those early days of popular electronic music. 

As Vangelis’s career progressed he showed a decidedly romantic and melodic character to his music, with beautiful, clear melodies and lush, expressive backings. While a couple of his albums from the late ‘70s might be considered in the same realm as that of French synthesist/composer Jean-Michel Jarre, with their use of arpeggiated sequences and concise melodies, Vangelis soon moved further towards his overtly romantic and near-orchestral music.

Considering how well respected Vangelis was as a composer, it’s interesting to note that he did not read or write music, and almost all of his famous works were started as improvisations. He did not mark hit points for his movie scores; he simply played to the visuals.

Of his method, he told NPR in 2016, “I prefer to have the music as pure as possible. Most of the time you have the first take, you don’t even have overdubs. I don’t want to say, ‘Oh yes, this is good, this is not good, I have to do it again.’ I don’t want to do it again. I want to do it once. It’s no good, I do another one.”

Equally interesting are his thoughts on the synthesizer, and its design. “It doesn't replace acoustic instruments; it can do different things and can extend things, he told Keyboard Review in 1992. “But, of course, during the first years of the synthesizer, they started making silly weird sounds; they played classical music backwards - all that was really marketing. Synthesizers aren’t for that; they're to somehow be closer to nature.

“Although people may think ‘closer to nature’ means an acoustic instrument, I don’t believe that. It’s as close to nature as you can be. It doesn’t matter what instrument you use. People say synthesizer music is very cold. But that’s not the synthesizer; well, it’s partly the synthesizer if it’s a bad instrument but mainly it’s the musician behind it. The difference is that with acoustic instruments the player has the ability to put in this precious thing we call soul. But that’s what I'm trying to do with synthesizers.”

As synthesizers migrated from analogue synthesis to using sampled waveforms and digital synthesis, Vangelis was able to more closely recreate the timbres of the known orchestra, and his music moved more in that direction. He continued exploring different synthesizers throughout his career, and this surely is the near-definitive list of gear he used over the years. 

For a period starting in the mid-’90s he had a custom controller setup developed that allowed him to call up presets in various synths using large buttons with custom icons on them. Alyseum created this custom MIDI system, from specifications requested by Vangelis especially for his playing needs. He used 17 foot pedals (16 volume and 1 sustain), allowing him to play live calling up sounds and layers freely.

This video shows him performing using the system; notice him using the many pedals to fade in and out the desired sounds he wanted in real-time. 

In some photos taken in his studio a few years before his passing, he had a number of very new instruments on hand. These included a Korg Opsix and Modwave, an ASM Hydrasynth, both a Moog Matriarch and Moog One, and an Arturia PolyBrute, along with some Eurorack gear. So, he never stopped exploring new sounds and instruments.

These are a few excellent resources for learning more about Vangelis and his music: