The myth and majesty of Vangelis’ timeless Blade Runner soundtrack

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Given the impact and enduring appeal of the original, it’s not surprising that the soundtrack to Blade Runner 2049 would be one of the new film’s major challenges. Sidestepping the controversy, Nick Soulsby pays homage to the musical genius and cult mythology of Vangelis’ original 1982 soundtrack, which arguably remains the greatest score in sci-fi history.

Glass shatters. Full-length panes burst in a glittering sea-surf spray as a bloodied figure — the hunted replicant (simulated machine humanoid) Zhora — hurls herself forward through shop windows, in one of the most haunting dystopian visuals from the 1982 film Blade Runner. While it’s an arresting image, the overall impact – the ability to forget we’re watching collapsing sugar or synthetic resin – is boosted by wedding the image with sound effects and music. Cinema, a product of the human capacity for story-telling and for reading meaning into content, isn’t a purely visual medium; it relies on the interweaving of audio and visual elements. At its finest, cinema audiences don’t even need to look at the screen to imagine what’s occurring, sound’s ability to manipulate emotional responses and to create mental associations is all that’s needed.

Vangelis’ soundtrack for Blade Runner remains one of the relatively few soundtracks to establish an enduring reputation as fine music in its own right. Vangelis, by mid-1981 when he was first invited to view a rough cut of footage from Blade Runner, was at the peak of his fame as a solo artist, following a half-decade long run of successful albums. On 29th March 1982, a month prior to submitting his compositions for Blade Runner, he would crown his career as a creator of movie soundtracks (which began as far back as 1963) by winning an Oscar for his work on Chariots Of Fire. His work on Blade Runner took place in the midst of a truly auspicious moment for the Greek composer, and he fully lived up to the expectations placed upon him.

Soundtracks are a substantial additional outlay for a film. Many, as a consequence of cost, float along on of-their-moment pop songs that barely relate to the events occurring on screen. It’s cheaper, and easier, to simply buy licenses than to compose specifically for a film. Otherwise, a lot of music consists of made-to-measure cues churned out over a matter of days, at most a few weeks, with only one or two themes of substance.

Vangelis was a truly different proposition: his work extended from sometime in mid-1981 through to April of the following year. In that time he composed, arranged, performed and produced each aspect of the music, creating a work of art that reflected a singular, unified vision of his own. This, of course, influenced the work present in the movie, but was also responsible for the final form of the soundtrack.

Vangelis didn’t want to release a record robotically, logging the sonic aspects of someone else’s film. Instead, he conceived of the soundtrack as a full Vangelis album, a coherent suite. This is a major factor in the soundtrack’s favour: it works as a standalone release and not just as an accompaniment to visuals.

Quality, however, is not the sole factor in the allure of any album. It’s never just about the music. Blade Runner retains a mysteriousness, which began when, for reasons never clarified, Vangelis’ soundtrack was not ‘officially’ unreleased for a full 12 years.

This absence created a vacuum. Curious fans of the movie, of Vangelis’ work, of the cutting-edge of electronic music composition, filled that vacuum with their dreams of how the compositions may have developed away from the film’s sequences. Various enterprising individuals spliced together lo-fi reproductions of what could be heard within the film itself. A 1982 bootleg leak emerged, wreathed in aura-building rumours that the film’s sound engineers were complicit in its release. In an example of the power of bootleg recordings, for over a decade fans were able to be a part of a secret history, acquiring illicit recordings steeped in the power that comes from knowing someone apparently didn’t want anyone to hear them. It was a talismanic object acquired only by the lucky, the devoted or the enlightened.

Having permitted unsated expectations to endure for so long, Vangelis finally released an album in 1994. I say ‘an’ album because the 12 tracks (one hour of audio) that Vangelis carefully selected to create his album clashed headlong into fans’ hunger for more. It was clear from the day of its release that this was only a small portion of the music created. There were already bootlegs available with additional tracks not seen here, while anyone watching the film was able to log a list of compositions still hidden from view. Again, resisting closure, a final reckoning, was an accidental masterstroke in that it ensured an open-ended thirst for more.

This instability of definition wedded the soundtrack irrevocably to the film itself. Ridley Scott, the director, had similar trouble allowing the film to assume a settled state. Pre-release screenings of Blade Runner featured extra scenes, the theatrical release existed in two versions, the nineties saw a new director’s cut emerge – this was then followed by a (supposed) ‘Final Cut’ in 2007. The last event led to Vangelis being invited to release his own revised and expanded cut of the soundtrack: a three disc indulgence consisting of the 1994 ‘original’, a further 45 minutes of music, plus an entirely new suite ‘inspired by’ the film. Inevitably however, the release still failed to encompass all the music from the film. It simply reconfirmed Vangelis’ conception of the soundtrack, meaning the specific album he designed.

Stepping away from this tangled web, does the music deserve this lavish attention? It’s easy to respond in the affirmative. Vangelis’ work was deployed selectively and carefully, always serving to heighten the mood. Consider how, as Harrison Ford’s character Deckard prowls the darkened entry to an apartment where the replicant Pris is hiding, the music impersonates the hoot of owls, thus mimicking the clichéd aural backdrop of a spooky night-time forest while in this most urban setting. It called attention to the absence of nature: the only animals present are declared fakes — the first to appear, many scenes earlier, being an owl. The timing too is immaculate. Deckard is about to enter an apartment in which the only life consists of dolls, robots, manikins, a place populated only by forgeries.

Vangelis cleverly chose to adopt the film’s aesthetic as his own. The film wielded futuristic sci-fi to film noir detective drama and action, owing much to psychological thrillers or horror. The most obviously jarring example of how Vangelis simulated this approach was his commissioning of the ragtime jazz song ‘One More Kiss’, which he positioned at the very centre of his album of cutting edge electronica. Initially intended to be performed by Demis Roussos, Don Percival (an artist manager and sometime musician) sang the demo as a guide, but did so in such a quavering tone that it sounded like it had been beamed in over the radio from some distant era. Needless to say, Vangelis took advantage of the serendipitous accident. And he would go further still, wedging a composition he created in 1980 into the soundtrack — ‘Memories of Green’ featuring a Steinway Grand played over the effects from a computer game called ‘UFO Master Blaster Station’ — thus binding the soundtrack into his own past, into the overall arc of his own development.

Roussos contributed vocals to the discombobulating ‘Tales Of The Future’ where language, the means of communication, is used to emphasise the ‘alien’ qualities of the environment. Roussos was raised in Egypt and could sing in Arabic, but this wasn’t enough. Vangelis was so determined to create a world of incomprehensible strangeness that, while the lyrics sound similar to Arabic words, all are corrupted into meaninglessness with the exception of just two lines which translate as: “Tell me my dear? Tell me my mother?” Furthermore, this meshed with the film’s visual language, in which the elite occupy buildings resembling the Pyramids at Giza overlaid with circuitry, while the predominantly Asian populace scurry about in the dark streets.

The film’s aesthetic was, predominantly, an amplification of late seventies-early eighties New York. Times Square was a stew of triple-XXX commerce, dereliction of both property and people, uncollected trash and graffiti, the unusable and the too-often-used pressed up alongside a delirious art scene which partied away behind the scenes. Vangelis’ soundtrack copies this sentiment: lush artificial beauty adulterated by threat or nostalgia. As an example, ‘Love Theme’ plays against a queasily disquieting scene in which Deckard orders the replicant Rachel — a character who cannot feel love, who can only impersonate arousal — to acquiesce in and encourage her own seduction. The lounge jazz vibe, the sleazy saxophone, has been further treated to speak directly of a plastic forgery of a love scene. In another tightly conjoined merging of scene and music, columns of cyclists weave by an ancient engraved column, while harp strings glide a magical air… Then the sound follows the camera, overwhelming the harp with a throbbing machine as two replicants enter a door. In the room beyond, a slow pulse, like a hospital ventilator, hisses over the sound of a distant warning klaxon. It’s a lab constructing artificial eyes, and their creator may not survive the visitation.

Vangelis’ personal development is visible in the soundtrack’s extensive deployment of percussion instruments. In the film a gentle shiver of bells or of a wind-up toy’s chimes tends to signify the unseen presence of the replicants, but he still created some truly majestic synthesiser fanfares, each deployed at very specific points. He creates hymnal glory that celebrates the rare beauty that existing within the film: when Deckard’s transport lifts him above the always-night of the streets to a visible sun, or when the cameras hover high above the grim streets so the poverty doesn’t spoil the view. The synthesiser, harbinger of a strange future of simulated sound, emphasises the artificial division we’re witnessing in which only the (apparently Caucasian) elite have the right to see the sun or to see untainted beauty.

The final track on the album, however, provides the rejoinder. ‘Tears in Rain’ is the famed death monologue of Rutger Hauer’s character Roy Batty. In the moment of his demise, the suggestion is, having already demonstrated his humanity, his mercy, his capacity to love, it is he who has earned the privilege of seeing beauty, that he is something better than the humans present within the film. “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 accompanying music is gentle, without being cloying, it offers up a remnant of hope, that even the artificial can become something deeper, something that resonates with emotion.

The dominant instrumental tone of the soundtrack, the synthesiser, belongs to a different age, but heard in 2017, having been re-invoked and re-tooled by artists across the spectrum, it feels just as prescient. Vangelis’ use of dialogue from the film was exceptional in 1981-1982, but today might seem commonplace, until you notice the way the voices echo distantly in the kind of cold void that Burial has made core to his aesthetic. The hum of machines now evokes ‘dark ambient’ artists like Sleep Research Facility.

The soundtrack to Blade Runner remains a singular achievement; a soundtrack that invoked the past and the future, that remained suspended like Shrodinger’s cat in a state of unresolved being, that plays ancestor to an impressive clutch of modern musical forms while simultaneously sounding like a product of the modern age, or the first fruit of music yet to come.

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