Interview in Status magazine, June 2002.
Volos, Athens, Paris, London, Oscar, "Mythodea", space. Vangelis Papathanasiou's journey was long, difficult, fascinating and dreamlike. Nikos Mouratidis met him many times and Vangelis, in one of his rare interviews, said everything, or almost everything, exclusively to STATUS.
By Nikos Mouratidis
One aspect of happiness is having a dream and fulfilling it. One aspect of unhappiness is having no dreams and 'splashing' in the stagnant waters of the daily routine.
Little Vangelis Papathanasiou from Agria near the city of Volos understood, from the first moment that he saw his small hands (he was only 4 years old then) on the piano keys, what he wanted to do, write music.
Little Vangelis Papathanasiou mooned about the sky for hours from the classroom during lessons that bored him.
Little Vangelis Papathanasiou loved summer nights, when the universe made a cycle over his small head, and his big green-blue eyes filled with awe observed the stars. It was then that he felt that music comes from the sky.
The child's journey from Volos to space was long, tough, fascinating, filled with deep emotions and bitterness. Filled with love and inspiration. A journey that every traveler of this world would be fond of. He may not have been an aircraft pilot or an astronaut but Vangelis Papathanasiou made it to Planet Mars and the asteroid no.6354 was named after him.
Vangelis Papathanasiou's appeal to the whole world and his attraction to the universe led the Minor Planet Center of the international astronomical union at the Smithsonian Astrophysics Observatory to name an asteroid after him to honour him. The asteroid no.6354 is called and will be called forever 'Vangelis'. Close to it - in astronomical distances that is - there are small planets called Beethoven, Mozart and Bach. The world of the universe, the world of music and the world of ancient Greek mythology is the world of Vangelis Papathanasiou. Welcome.
Give us an explanation about this special personal world of yours.
Science and mythology were the topics which fascinated me since my early childhood. I listened to such stories from my family and the people around me. And that is how I started to remember. With the passage of time I realised how important it is to remember - remember as deeply as you can. It is certain that inside us - all of human history, and at the same time all the codes of creation and the evolution of the universe - are ingrained. Uranus and Gaea, the battle of the Titans and the battle of the Giants, the snatching of Europe, the Argonauts and the golden fleece, Theseus and Minotaur, Hercules, the Sirens and the Nymphs, the red planet Mars with its two children (satellites), Deimos and Phobos, Athena's olive tree, the nine Muses who harmonize all these, and then some more, were and are some examples of the areas where I wander, as is the music I write. And each time I remember, I discover and I reveal something else.
Mythodea is a small part of these areas; a small part of my relationship with memory, which can be more powerful than learning, if we allow it to work inside us.
Last summer, while watching Mythodea at the Temple of Zeus, we felt as if we're traveling from ancient Greece into space, and back to Earth again. A journey to the Universe.
The universe is within us. We are the Universe!
Mythodea, for those who haven't understood, is a composition selected by NASA for its mission, 2001 Odyssey, to Mars. Peter Gelb, director of Sony Classical, tells us from New York: "When I first heard Mythodea I was in ecstasy with its filled with rhythm and power themes, and with no further hesitation I suggested it was recorded immediately. Having a very big orchestra and chorus, the final recorded result can be compared with Mahler's choral symphonies, as far as the power of magnitude of the music is concerned. The televised broadcast from the Temple of Zeus had a worldwide appeal. It's a great contribution (historical surely) to the world of classical music". The composition, which was presented on June 28th last year by the Greek Cultural Heritage Society and sponsored by the Ministry of Culture, provoked numerous reactions by the ...usual suspects of our culture life. Nevertheless the concert was given. The first ever grand concert to be given in the sacred ground of the Temple of Zeus, after 1600 years. And we, living in Athens for so many years, entered, walked around and enjoyed this monument. The concert was broadcast to the whole world, released in DVD and CD with a cover showing the monument. What impresses me is that from the day it was released till now, it's on the Top 10 Billboard in Greece, making a pass through No.1 and becoming platinum.
How does it sound, Mr. Papathanasiou, that your choral symphony is competing worthily with great names of pop, rock and dance music?
Although record companies have the tendency to put things in small boxes, guiding the public to a predefined market, it seems that the system doesn't always work like this. The fact that Mythodea, a choral symphonic composition, is 'competing', as you mentioned, with other types of music is encouraging and it proves that the public, despite of the pressure of choice, reacts.
In a time when record tags are common, Vangelis is a scientist that uses music as a tool and always stands at the limits of musical creation and revelation. After all in many hospitals worldwide his music is used for curing reasons. From the start of Vangelis' career, his music puzzled everyone. It couldn't be classified. What kind of music did he compose? It was electronic for sure. But what kind? Techno, Ethnic, New Age, Classical, Minimal?
When the faceless gigantic international companies try with every means of advertisement to train the public what to do, how to do it, where to do it, what to do with it, what to eat, what to drink, how to dress, what to decide, how to decide, when to decide etc etc, it's not a simple case, as you may understand. The system is a enormous jaw that devours everything and turns it into money. "So, money is the goal". To make it easy for us, Mr Mouratidis, they create tags of their own conception and choice. So, when we enter a store, either a provision or a music store, it's easier to buy, to buy and to buy (useless things most of the times) and feel totally satisfied. As you may understand, music, that divine gift, didn't escape the jaws of the Beast, becoming a product to consume like the all other. What about the artists, you may wonder? Unfortunately, most of the times they follow this policy, and usually become more greedy than the multinational companies. Sadly that's the reality. Fortunately, there are exceptions and reactions.
On the way to meet him the other day, one lovely spring night, when the smell of sour orange trees in the air, I was thinking how much strength somebody needs to have in order to enter and 'fight' in the global arena and even impose his way and viewpoints. Vangelis did it and Greece was his starting-point. I read some articles in english books, and soon I came upon the phrases: "We, in my country...", "The Greek philosophers...", "Greece has offered important teachings and eternal values..." So, is Greece a motive power to his inspiration and creation?
No man on this planet is not moved by his country. So do I, being born in a land that, apart from its unique geographical place and its climate, has created such history, philosophy, science, culture and epics of such magnitude that haven't and won't be ignored by anyone all over the world. Such a legacy is the motive power for our future. Unfortunately, it has been turned into a burden for some people. You see, these values - more seasonable than ever - will exist forever and continue to inspire and this ...annoys many.
In 1982 when he won the Oscar for his music in "Chariots Of Fire", he dedicated it to Greece - When Melina Mercouri [note: Minister of Culture] asked him to give two concerts for the Acropolis Museum, he gave them uninterested. - When ERT asked him to compose the theme of the news, he took again no money [note: he only took a tin pot of olive oil] - When the National Gallery of Greece asked for his help to buy El Greco's painting "St. Peter", he made a CD "A Tribute to El Greco", playing a leading part in the campaign to purchase the painting. - In the summer of 1997 he designed, directed and co-ordinated the whole of the opening ceremony of the IAAF World Championship at the Panathinaiko Stadium of Athens, without getting paid - In 1999 he composed the music for the presentation of the emblem of the Olympic Games in 2004 along with the music of the logo that will accompany the emblem of the Games, without getting paid - In May 2000 he composed the music, designed and directed the Olympic Flag relay artistic ceremony during the closing ceremony of the Olympic Games in Sydney. Of course getting no personal payment again. Something must be happening not being paid when he does something for Greece. If you ask the woman in charge of his productions, Mrs. Fouli Manolopoulou, she gives an enigmatic smile.
"Not only does he not get any personal payment, but numerous times he pays from his own pocket. And I have proofs for what I'm saying. He was accused of taking 1 billion drachmas for Mythodea. He didn't get a dime. 1 billion cost the arrangement, the production, the symphonic orchestra, the chorus, the technicians, the construction of the prefab theatre etc etc. Vangelis didn't get a dime. He contributed from his pocket too for things off the budget. And don't tell him I told you that, because he'll kill me. And as for all the things he's done for the Olympics, let's not talk about it"
All these that he's done for the Olympics have contributed to the belief that the opening ceremony of the Games would be a job for Vangelis. However the Organization 2004 had a different opinion.
It was a big surprise for all of us indeed, Mr. Papathanasiou, that you weren't assigned to organise the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games. Were you surprised?
(He smiles; he smiles, but I understand from his look that I shouldn't ask him all the questions I had in mind to ask him about 2004, and about the people that manage such a great national matter as if it's their business)
At least give me an answer to a question of mine. Were you informed by the Organization 2004 that you wouldn't organize the ceremony or did you read it on the papers?
By people close to me, who had read it on the papers.
Since Vangelis is so familiar with Greek mythology, he should know that Greece is just like Saturn, who ate his children. And Greece prefers to eat Vangelis who is its child rather than all those who little to do with Greece, tradition, culture and its dream. We asked the Minister of Culture, Mr. Evangelos Venizelos, about the assignment but Mr. Venizelos, ten days after our question, hasn't answered.
Nevertheless, Mr. Papathanasiou, do you keep abreast of what has been done so far concerning the Olympics? Do you reckon that everything is developing well?
Not having any virtual access to the inside of the Organization 2004, I can't answer this question, but having a good faith I will agree, as all the Greeks do, with what we're being told, that is "everything is going fine"
Everybody is referring to 2004 as a bet. What exactly do you think this bet is? Does it have to do with the organization, the aesthetics, with what will remain to the city of Athens, with how Greece will be projected abroad... with what?
It's not appropriate to set the Olympics Game on the level of a bet, because a bet comprises a great possibility of failure regarding the assigned duty, or, even more important, it means we're far from the values we gave birth to. Game and endeavour, gamble and ideal are different.
Vangelis makes himself comfortable on the sofa, I light up a cigarette. We're relaxed and the conversation flows pleasantly. We drink water with many ice cubes and listen to new pieces of music. The music he wrote for the World Cup, the official anthem of the World Cup 2002, that Japan and Korea co-organize; two countries in the same geographical place with big historical, political and cultural differences. However the composition managed to 'bond' masterly the cultural elements of these two countries, because Vangelis used in it traditional musical instruments from the two countries.
Mr. Patrick K. Magyar, Chief Executive Officer of FIFA Marketing Ltd, told us about Vangelis: "I'd like to express my sincere congratulations and my admiration for the excellent piece of music that Vangelis Papathanasiou composed as the anthem of the FIFA World Cup. Frankly, by listening to it I felt a shiver of excitement. Without doubt, it's the best composition of classical music ever done for a sport event."
But what surprises me the most is the music that he composed for William Shakespeare's "The Tempest", for the National Theatre of Hungary. A music totally different from what he's composed so far. A music that takes you back to the time and atmosphere of the play. "The Tempest" was chosen as a inaugural play of the National Theatre of Hungary in the new modern theatre which was built in Budapest in 18 months.
Within this period they managed to build the most technically perfect and modern theatre in the world. Vangelis' music for the play had an legendary impact on the cultural society of Hungary. We contacted the Director of the National Theatre of Hungary, Mr. György Schwajda, who told us that: "We, the Hungarians, were once fortunate to have Beethoven compose music for a hungarian play. Now, history repeats itself. I'm grateful that Vangelis Papathanasiou agreed to compose music for the "The Tempest" because I believe he's the greatest composer of the 21st century.
You haven't composed music for a film recently. Are there any future plans?
Despite of the constant proposals I have, I haven't found yet anything appealing enough. We shall see... (he smiles)
What happened to the idea of a film about Socrates' life with Sean Connery starring and you writing the music?
I think that making a film about the life of Socrates is something positive, essential and seasonable for of times. Being acquainted with Sean Connery and appreciating him deeply, I thought, because of his talent and exceptional personality, that he could play Socrates on the silver screen. When I proposed it to him his response was affirmative. He knew Socrates like many million people all over the world and he wanted to learn more about him. At the same period, it was made known to our country from an article in the french newspaper "Le Monde" that Sean Connery was willing to play Socrates. Later, we met in Athens and continued our conversation, with more details, and I had the chance to show him the places where the great philosopher lived. The film is not a Greek production, but it'd be right and positive for our country to participate somehow. Then I thought it'd be good to make some contacts; I talked with people in charge and, as you may understand, the "Socrates" issue is left in uncertainty, like many other ones of significant matter for our country,
Recently, we read in an interview of Hans Zimmer flattering mentions to you. Although in Hollywood you're competitors, he stated that he admires you. Has a Greek colleague of yours ever stated something good for you or are you been looked on unfavourably?
Anyway, you don't appear on TV, in the society news and generally where all the busybodies go. Not even at the Megaron. Do they regard you as a snob? Maybe you're not in their circle.
I never had nor have the intention to snob anything or anybody. Simply, every one of us chooses the way and the place to trace his course.
I had met Vangelis many times in the past, but now for this article we had to meet frequently. I enjoyed it because I had the chance to observe him better, to get to know him more deeply and to try to see how an artist of his magnitude can be so modest. One day we went to Mikrolimano to have a lunch and two young couples offered him a bottle of wine, along with their congratulations. Vangelis blushed. He acted like a shy little boy. These things are not easy to find in the circles of the celebrities, who are overwhelmed with vanity and narcissism. Vangelis is modest indeed. He doesn't talk easily, he doesn't give interviews, he doesn't have PR, he doesn't show off... He likes staying at home, seeing some friends, playing music for them (while you talk to him, he stands up and goes to play one or two pieces and you think to yourself "My God, Vangelis is playing for me!") He fancies painting and watching Greek classic films.
What's the role of painting? Is it one kind of escape, a kind of mental need in order to relax? Do you paint often?
I started painting from my childhood. For me painting, just like music, are two things that I'm concerned with, that move me, trouble me, that I'm entranced with... In other words, they form my way of living in a daily basis. I can't imagine myself without one of these two. Of course there is difference between painting and music.
What is the difference?
Music goes through me, while painting flows from me. In other words, the sound pre-exists while painting needs the man to exist. Well now he raise another issue "about objective and subjective approach to the creation" and maybe he will discuss it some other time.
It's known that you're mad about Greek classic films and Costas Hatzichristos [note: old Greek actor]. Why? What do you find in these films?
Old Greek movies, apart from the company that kept me all these years and still do, mainly when I'm abroad, is merely a treasure. In spite of the technical defects because of the filming techniques or the cost of the production etc, remain a treasure because they comprise something very authentic. And of course with the participation of unique talented actors who still touch us now. They were the ones that derived from daily life's joy, sadness or even misery, but of "native origin"; because the domestic one has a special power and when it's not snobbed, due to foreign influences, it can blossom and be loved by everyone beyond what's fashionable and what's not.
Hatzichristos is like a traditional song: eternal! If every country derived from its cultural heritage and not, as usual, from the anglosaxon trend, the world would have been more creative, because in nature heteromorphism exists and not homomorphy which is promoted more and more and razes everything to the ground.
You seem a self-contained man. What are your criterion for making somebody a friend?
Selflessness and respect; don't you think it's a effective way to make a friendship?
Another thing I like asking famous people is about the future. I want to know what he thinks and how he plans his moves. Vangelis looks like he is interested in plans for a more glorious career in the future. He thinks out alone whatever he wants to do. Completely alone. He doesn't share it with anyone. It seems he does what he feels like, apart from the laws of the market.
Eventually, a musician of your magnitude, composes music only with commission or you still have to sit at the piano and write music... because you can't do without it?
From my early childhood I was closely connected with music. Discography came up, and if it ceases to exist, I will continue even more dedicated to my musical course. I compose music the same way I breathe. Should I have waited for a commission to breathe, I would have become extinct a long time ago.
He speaks so self-possessedly, calmly and exuberantly that he looks like an ancient Greek literary. He has such calmness in his eyes and tone of voice that you think that never and nothing can disturb his thoughts and ideas.
Mr. Papathanasiou, do you still have dreams and ambitions or do you feel everything is fulfilled for you?
I prefer dreaming at night. Although ambition is a dangerous characteristic, the system tries to move us towards that direction. Scientific research and need to offer are my spark and motive power of everything I do, and unfortunately this is something I've paid many times. I never thought, after all I was young when I started, of becoming well-known and working with record companies. These came up later on, and I tell you in confidence that this is something I can easily live with. It may sound odd but that's how it is. All this course of mine gave me the chance to invest for my researches and to be able to offer what I afford without interest - although some people don't believe it. There is no greater satisfaction than offering to the land you were born in.
Yes, but doesn't the land you were born in owe you something? For example, in 1992 the French Minister of Culture, Mr. Jack Lang, gave you the title of "Chevalier des Arts et des Letters", and recently the French President gave you the highest title, the Knight of the Legion of Honor, recognizing your contribution to Greek and European culture. Wouldn't you like some similar to happen in Greece, that you love so much and promote worldwide?
Although I reckon that Greece doesn't owe me anything, I make no secret that there is no greater honor than being honored in your own country, but even greater it is when your country regards you as useful.
Anyhow, it's true that Greece isn't accustomed to awarding and honoring the people that love and work for their country. As far as medals are concerned, we are a bit ungenerous and we have a complex with them. Even now there are a few that doubt the lifework of Hatzidakis, Melina, Charouhis, Irene Papas and many other...
This happens everywhere in the world. There is saying: no one is a prophet at his land; in Greece we've gone beyond moderation.
Some months ago I made a 2-hour radio special to the work of Vangelis Papathanasiou, which I had in mind from the day I watched Mythodea. I wanted to unfold his dream not in words, like the ones seen in an interview, but with music. So, I sat down and listened to most of his records again, to refresh my memory. That was it. I became passionate! Because I comprehended what this man has done from the beginning of his career till now. Since then, I searched for some of his records that I didn't have, and now I listen to his music all the time. I thought of interviewing him but I didn't dare to do it because I know he almost never speaks. I searched for some of his interviews and found one given to STATUS, exactly ten years ago, March of '92. Because nothing on Earth is coincidental and many times contacts are made without our knowledge, the phone rang, and it was the guys from STATUS to ask me if I'd like to interview Vangelis Papathanasiou. I was left speechless! No flying from fate. I searched for more articles about him before asking him to meet, and then I understood why he doesn't gives interviews. Should you gather all the articles written about Mythodea, you go mad! Before the show, inaccuracies, calumnies, venom, ironies, sarcastic comments and a thorough research about the money were only published. After the show, the same people wrote praising articles and some brave ones even apologized. When a piece of art is concerned, money is not an end in itself. It is for solving practical matters.
Were you disappointed to hear Mikis Theodorakis say that we're giving a billion drachmas to Vangelis Papathanasiou whilst he wouldn't give such a sum even to Beethoven?
I am deeply sadden when I hear such mean statements. But, if you can remember, I answered to Mr. Theodorakis that, firstly, neither he nor I manage the state funds and decide, and secondly, if I was responsible of the management of the state funds I'd offer him more than this. Many were said and written that period. Some of them were guided, some malicious and some aimless; just to create an impression of unreasonable misuse by me. You know, there is a saying: Say it many times, something will remain.
Of course, after a few months, Mikis Theodorakis himself asked you to orchestrate one of his compositions, which he designated for Olympic Anthem. What do you think of this?
An act of surrealism or lack of moderation.
Finally, I'd like you to outline the portrait of a Greek man. How does it sound this word to your ears? What do you think are the genes that make a Greek man?
Greeks have outline their portrait through the pass of the centuries. What is left for us is to compare and discover if we continue to act accordingly, in order to keep this title of knowledge and honor.
Mr. Papathanasiou, to conclude I'd like to thank you for all of our meetings and for this interview of course.
You're welcome. Have a nice summer.
The statements of: Peter Gelb, Patrick K. Magyar and György Schwajda were made exclusively to STATUS.
Photography by Stathis Zalidis
Interview by Nikos Mouratidis
Translated from Greek by Stratos Spyrou