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Vangelis Dead at 79: Oscar-Winning Greek Composer Helped Shape the Sound of the 1980s

The Greek composer Vangelis, dead at 79, won a best original score Oscar for "Chariots of Fire" and composed the music for "Blade Runner."

FILE - Composer Vangelis Papathanassiou, right, answers a question during a press conference in Athens, June 27, 2001. Vangelis, the Greece-born electronic composer who wrote the Academy Award-winning score for the film "Chariots of Fire" and music for dozens of other movies, documentaries and TV series, has died. He was 79. (AP Photo/Aris Messinis, File)

Vangelis Papathanassiou in 2001.

AP

The composer who helped shape the sound of the 1980s as much as any other, Vangelis, is dead from Covid-19 at 79. The Greek musician used electronic instruments to play classical-inspired melodies that became instant earworms in “Chariots of Fire” and “Blade Runner.” For his work on the 1981 sports drama, he won the Oscar for Best Original Score.

Born in Agria, Greece, in 1943, Evángelos Odysséas Papathanassíou worked with pop bands in the 1960s as a producer, arranger, and writer, before forming the influential prog-rock band Aphrodite’s Child. Shortening his name to Vangelis, he got work the following decade as a composer for a series of nature documentaries, culminating in “Opera Sauvage,” his 1979 opus, which introduced some of his best-known themes. One piano-led track, “L’Enfant,” popped up many places over the next decade: as the official theme of the 1980 Winter Olympics, in a marching band rendition in “Chariots of Fire,” and in a striking moment in 1982’s “The Year of Living Dangerously.”

Perhaps because of the use of “L’Enfant” for the 1980 Games, Vangelis earned the job of scoring “Chariots of Fire,” a story about British track stars dominating at the 1924 Summer Games. His choice to compose the score for this sometimes-twee British period piece largely via synthesizer was radical — the main theme’s subsequent ubiquity perhaps obscuring the originality and daring of the work.

It not only won the Academy Award but went to number one on the Billboard Hot 100, one of the last tracks from a movie or TV score to do so. The “Chariots” main theme has played in the background as an official theme at several subsequent Olympics, including the 2012 Games in London, putting him in the company of John Williams, whose various Olympic fanfares have also become associated with the event.

CHARIOTS OF FIRE, Ian Charleson, Ben Cross, 1981. TM and Copyright © 20th Century Fox Film Corp. All rights reserved. Courtesy: Everett Collection.

“Chariots of Fire”

20thCentFox/Courtesy Everett Collection

Vangelis doubled down on his spare electronica for “Blade Runner,” Ridley Scott’s original dystopian epic. Here, it became clear the composer was as interested in composing sonic environments as he was melodies, transmuting classical, jazz, and experimental influences into something that feels like this world but removed. For a film where every frame is crammed with eye-gorging detail, Vangelis’s score was minimalist, suggesting how much this future earth has lost.

He also wrote scores for “The Bounty” and his countryman Costa-Gavras’ “Missing,” as well as Scott’s “1492: Conquest of Paradise,” and Roman Polanski’s “Bitter Moon.”

Always looking outward, he had Carl Sagan send him sounds recorded by satellites to weave into compositions for “Cosmos: A Personal Odyssey.” And inspired by his heritage, he also worked with Oliver Stone to compose the score for 2004’s “Alexander.”

Looked at with the remove of some decades, Vangelis’s work feels as essential in shaping the musical texture of the 1980s as his fellow European-turned-Hollywood-expat Giorgio Moroder. With the way he morphed older influences into something new via the latest technology, the scores of “Chariots of Fire” and “Blade Runner” capture the ’80s: a time of conservatism despite great innovation.

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