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Vangelis’ Blade Runner: Tales of the Not-So-Distant Future

written by: on September 29, 2011

Anyone familiar with the making of Blade Runner will tell you that the film was not an easy process. It saw many interpretations and many different manifestations, which have been debated hotly over the years. The soundtrack, too, has been a point of controversy, seeing many “truths” before arriving at its current form. The official soundtrack promised in the credits of the film seen first in theatres never happened. That is to say, it was released featuring many of the songs from the film in chronological order with the names of scenes—but played by a symphony orchestra. It’s not hard to see why fans were so incredulous when the producers took out the element of the score that made it most memorable. The release was so poor that it inspired a number of bootlegs and fan-edit recordings of the original, more than six of note, that were distributed at sci-fi conventions of the day. It took nearly 10 years after the release of “The Director’s Cut” before an official, Vangelis-approved incarnation emerged. Even then, it was watered down with new songs, some featuring vocal performances that never appeared in the film, which might be an injustice but is still better than nothing.

When Greek composer Vangelis was brought on to do the soundtrack for Ridley Scott’s next film, he was three interpretations deep into an ongoing myth of the future. Blade Runner is based on the Phillip K. Dick novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. It’s set in a dystopian Los Angeles, where the Tyrell Corp. has created synthetic human beings called replicants—used as off-world slave labor, “pleasure models” and warriors. With the release of the sixth generation, Nexus, replicants have become “more human than human,” resembling them physically in every way, as well as being “superior in strength and agility and at least equal in intelligence to their genetic engineers.” When a contingent of their product revolts and returns to Earth with the intent of finding their creator, washed up Blade Runner Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) is charged with “retiring”—not “executing”—the rogue replicants.

Blade Runner was shot in an extreme noir aesthetic: Venetian blinds, ceiling fans cutting through heavy haze, incessant rainfall and, of course, the unending night. Deckard isn’t the most morally upright of persons himself: He’s a heavy drinker, a paranoiac who is alone and given to fits of violence.

Noir was already a heavily rooted tradition in Hollywood, having developed a distinctive soundtrack all its own. Vangelis was tasked not merely with emulation, but the conception of a new world’s sound. As the opening crawl of the film rolls by, a single, soft note plays on the synthesizer, quivering before a long descent into the warlike crash of bass drums. This prolonged cycle repeats over and over, spelling “dystopian” before we see a single shot of the overwrought city. Scott, rather than try and explain how the world became this way, pans briefly over a jagged industrial sector before throwing the viewer right into the thick of it—a job interview in a dismal office of Tyrell Corp. Vangelis, too, succeeds here by immersion, plunging the audience headlong into a world that seems as if it has always existed. When the police finally catch up to Deckard, he’s getting street food in Chinatown, and they place him “under arrest” to get him to the station. In one of the most iconic scenes of the film, the squad car ascends (“Spinner Ascent”), Deckard eats noodles while dreamy chimes sound, and strangely melodic chords trade over a black, rain-soaked cityscape full of fiery exhaust and larger-than-life video billboards.

In the emotional test administered to determine whether a being is replicant or human, the telltale trait the Blade Runners search for is empathy. We see the test in the job interview and shortly thereafter in Deckard’s examination of Mr. Tyrell’s assistant Rachel, a replicant so impressively “human” that it takes more than one hundred questions—and tests for pupil dilation, blush response, heart rate—for Deckard to determine whether or not she’s a machine. From that point on, during his hunt for the four rogues, Deckard can’t take his mind off the mysterious, sad and beautiful Rachel—herself unaware that she’s a replicant.

“Memories of Green,” a previous album release, plays while Deckard returns to his apartment. It’s a soft little piece played on untuned piano, minimalist and explorative but also, like an old ballad, strangely familiar. He fixes himself a drink, undresses and eventually dozes off sitting at the piano, playing a note over and over that he hears in his dream. The imperfection of an out-of-tune piano, coupled with the dreariness of the space itself, forces the listener into the room with the detective. In the scene he’s not alone—he’s being paid an illegal visit by Rachel, who is mutually mesmerized by Deckard. They exchange stories about the past but Deckard, somewhat loose with alcohol, scolds her, telling her all her memories are a fabrication—programmed to match those of Tyrell’s niece. In this vulnerable moment, with her hurt and storming out, Vangelis lends a little synthesized tenor, a premonition of “Love Theme” as Deckard looks out from his 98th-floor balcony.

Only later do we hear the actual “Love Theme,” a lilting tenor sax solo (Dick Morrisey) over synthesizer—again meshing the real and the artificial. There’s incredible layering when Rachel sits at the piano herself, playing some sheet music, Chopin’s “Nocturne 13.1.”  Finally, a radio can be heard playing Don Percival’s old-timey hit “One More Kiss, Dear” in the background when the two first embrace. All songs are in the same key; not one contradicts another.

To achieve the unfathomable space and size of the world, Vangelis employs an incredible amount of reverb on his keyboards.

We feel the city of 104 million people, and by the same stroke, detached from all of them. The flawless aesthetic of Vangelis’ sounds stirs in the audience that loneliness, just as much as Scott’s visual storytelling. Through the effortless synthesis of so many genres—noir, sci-fi, and classical composition—the soundtrack achieves a strange urgency. The weird, brasslike tones of the melodies convince you of their means, even as they play. A sound so synthetic, where false and perfect forms of acoustic instruments have been adopted, hints at a future where even human beings are replaceable with machines. The melodies are at once woeful to a time so bleak, and yet full of wonder at the awesome and terrible ingenuity of mankind. It’s why they still resonate with listeners, even today.

The legacy of Blade Runner’s sounds helped launch Vangelis’ career. He was already known for films such as 1492: Conquest of Paradise and Chariots of Fire, but with Blade Runner, he became an ambassador of the future. His songs would later appear in Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos” series. The belief that synthesizers were the imminent direction of music was relatively new by 1982 (perhaps first alluded to by Kraftwerk a decade earlier), but thereafter became the norm. Vintage-inspired visions of the future need synthesizers and more than a few artists continue to work in that vein, which traces its lineage back to Vangelis. Listen to “Love Theme” today and one practically expects Dan Bejar to jump in and start spouting off. This retro-future aesthetic has been employed by dozens of artists since: Billy Idol, Front Line Assembly, Sonic Youth (who specifically listed influence in Sister and Daydream Nation) and continues to creep into palettes.

For a film that truly transcended its genre, Blade Runner is not just a murder mystery or a cyber-punk drama; it digs deeply into the age-old question of what it means to be human. From its strictly scientific study of empathy, it’s also a meditation on memory. Can what exists of us in pictures precede what has happened in our mind? How can we hope to store a lifetime of experience in a small bodily organ and then how do we access and decipher what it keeps? For all the replicants’ superhuman ablities, they have a single fail-safe check—a four-year lifespan. Mortality. When Deckard realizes he has fallen in love with Rachel, a machine, all the while grappling with the prospect he himself might be one, we remember what Gaff tells him after having retired Roy Batty: “It’s too bad she won’t live, but then again who does?”

With a new sequel (or prequel) in the works, and considering the amount of time, energy, debate and re-envisioning that went into making the original, one can only wonder if Vangelis will again be called on to help rebuild a vision of the future. How will it have changed in 20 years since its first envisioning—as we draw nearer and nearer November 2019?