Blade Runner – Vangelis
Vangelis’s effervescent soundscapes effortlessly convey the alienation and longing at the centre of Scott’s classic sci-fi.
Published on March 29, 2013 | Filed under Audiodrome: Music in Film
Blade Runner

Born in Greece, 1943, Evangelos Odysseas Papathanassiou – that’s Vangelis to you and I – began his extensive musical career performing in prog-rock bands such as Aphrodite’s Child, before branching out into a successful solo career. An early pioneer of electronic based music, myriad collaborative projects and film scores inevitably ensued. Soon after Vangelis won an Oscar for his elegant and rousing score for Chariots of Fire in 1981, he was approached by director Ridley Scott to compose the music for sci-fi noir, Blade Runner. With its astounding realisation of cyberpunk aesthetics and noir-tinged narrative, Blade Runner is a groundbreaking and highly influential film; but one that was a critical and commercial failure upon its release in 1982. Vangelis’s score, which has been described as ‘symphonic electronica’ because of the orchestral manner in which he utilises his trademark synthesizers, is one of the most melodic and emotive soundtracks ever to grace a sci-fi movie. Given that Blade Runner is essentially a story about what it means to be human; the score underpins the more spiritual aspects of the narrative, imbuing certain moments with incredible pathos and tragedy. It is as much a part of Blade Runner’s continuing allure as Scott’s breathtaking visuals and the provocative themes – such as identity and isolation – which course throughout its rain-drenched running time, still generating debate all these years later.

Blade Runner

When composing for film, Vangelis allegedly refrains from reading scripts beforehand, preferring to watch cuts from the film and improvise in his studio, allowing himself to simply react to what he views on screen. A true artist, he usually prefers to use his first take whenever he can, as he believes this is a more honest interpretation than rerecording music again and again. The composer’s London studio was kitted out with dozens of synthesisers and several TVs to ensure that while he was at work, he was able to view scenes from Blade Runner from any position in the studio. Apparently the rough cuts of the film contained no timing information, which meant that neither he nor the editor knew when a scene was to begin or end; Vangelis simply allowed the music to emerge organically out of his initial response to the images. As well as an array of synthesisers, the composer also incorporates and modifies various acoustic instruments, including strings, piano, harp, bells and brass.

Blade Runner’s score serves as the heart of the film; it pulses, drones, shimmers and resonates out from the images, sometimes even seeming to have an onscreen source, so in tune is Vangelis with Scott’s vision. The synthesised, effervescent soundscapes effortlessly convey the alienation and longing of the artificial beings yearning to live life. During the sprawling and bluesy Blade Runner Blues, Vangelis masterfully evokes the sound of lone saxophone with a sensuous synth composition, while Tales of the Future boasts strangely Middle Eastern exoticism and plaintive vocals courtesy of Demis Roussos. Damask Rose appears in a similar vein, with haunting chanting, koto (a Japanese stringed instrument) and an ever-present drone hovering beneath proceedings. Equally ethereal vocal work appears on Rachel’s Song courtesy of Mary Hopkin, who dispenses beatific, wordless cascades over a wash of trickling, plinking synths and gently tinkling bells and chimes, as the piece gradually builds to a heart-melting, longing melody. Similarly melodic is Memories of Green with its fragile piano motif and resonating electronic flourishes. This track is actually from Vangelis’ 1980 album See You Later but was included in the film score at the request of Scott.

Blade Runner

Elsewhere The Love Theme, with morose sax (courtesy of Dick Morrison) playing over gently roiling synths, ebbs and flows along with the scene where Deckard and Rachel unite in quiet passion, while Blade Runner (End Title) closes the album – and indeed the film – with a sense of energy – and given Deckard and Rachel’s ambiguous exit; a sense that perhaps events are far from over. Various extracts of dialogue are sprinkled throughout the album, appearing especially powerful on the introspective beauty of Tears in Rain, which includes that immensely evocative soliloquy by Batty moments before his life slips away: “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched c-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.” The inclusion of bells on this track lends it a strangely spiritual feel; perfectly fitting given the scene it plays over.

Despite the promise of a commercially available soundtrack album in the credits of the film, it was well over a decade before anything official was released. Many bootlegs of varying quality were available. The soundtrack I own is the first official release of the score from 1994, though several other official editions with varying inclusions and omissions have since become available. Most of the tracks found on the 1994 release are from the film, however it also contains a number that were composed by Vangelis but never appeared in the film. Likewise, several compositions that appear in the film are, sadly, not included on this release. That said it’s still a hugely evocative album which has stood the test of time, sounding just as unique, and perhaps more importantly, emotional, now as it did then.

For your listening pleasure, I leave you with Love Theme. And yes, our owls are very expensive.

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James is the author of Dario Argento (Kamera Books) and a monograph on The Company of Wolves (part of Auteur’s Devil’s Advocates series). He currently contributes to Exquisite Terror and Diabolique, and has also written for Film Ireland, Eye for Film, Little White Lies and The Quietus.
James Gracey