By: Al Horner
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35 years ago, Blade Runner and its iconic Vangelis score captured the imagination of a generation of electronic musicians. On the eve of its eagerly awaited sequel, artists old and new explain how electronic music’s obsession with Deckard’s dark, neon dystopia is stronger than ever in our new mini-documentary.
Directed by: Kamil Dymek
Produced by: Anoushka Seigler and Al Horner
Additional production by: Claire Lobenfeld
Written by: Al Horner
Blade Runner returns to cinemas this week, with a new sequel among the millennium’s most anticipated blockbuster movies. But for a generation of electronic musicians who grew up fantasising of C-beams glittering near the Tannhauser Gate, it’s like it’s never been away.
Ever since director Ridley Scott’s ground-breaking original, starring Harrison Ford and scored by Greek composer Vangelis, wave after wave of artists have mined the science fiction classic for inspiration. Blade Runner’s influence has infiltrated pop, hip-hop and beyond – but it is electronic musicians who have proven most gripped by the film’s murky vision of a future metropolis where the line between what is human and what is artificial is dangerously blurred.
From Massive Attack and Goldie to Boards of Canada and Dillinja, plenty have sampled it. Even more have referenced it, or carried an atmosphere indebted to the film’s world. In 2017, electronic musicians continue to find inspiration in its neon dystopia, pointing to a movie that wasn't released when many of them were born as a key influence.
The movie, an adaptation of Philip K Dick novel Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?, told the story of Rick Deckard, a police detective specialising in the hunting down and “retiring” of humanoids, known as replicants, after violent uprisings among these AI machines. As important as the film’s plot, however, was its mood – an intense, opulent paranoia that pervades every corner of the dark, neon-lit Los Angeles seen onscreen. Vangelis’ music was key to this atmosphere of beauty and dread.
Since its inception, science fiction cinema had experimented with electronic instruments to help build the impression of eerie alien planets and futuristic vistas. 1951’s The Day The Earth Stood Still saw composer Bernard Hermann use theramin to give an otherworldly feel to its tale of a visitor from outer space. 1956’s Forbidden Planet meanwhile, was the first ever film set entirely in space, and used a score entirely made up of electronic sounds. By 1981, composer Wendy Carlos was using electronic synths to add a futuristic edge to Stanley Kubrick’s controversial classic, A Clockwork Orange.
Blade Runner was different, though. For Ridley Scott’s film, Vangelis used electronic instruments including the Yamaha CS-80 and Roland VP-330 VocoderPlus synthesiser, to create a rich, melodic score that was equal parts grand and anxious, fusing Greek and world music elements. It was also largely improvised. Vangelis refused to read a script, insisting on composing by simply watching VHS tapes containing footage and making up melodies at his bank of over 12 synthesisers based on the emotion each scene made him feel.
The result was a musical accompaniment to Blade Runner that has become as renowned as the film itself. “It sets an atmosphere that’s delicate and powerful,” Denis Villeneuve, director of Blade Runner 2049, told FACT for our new documentary, Do Androids Dream Of Electronic Beats? “It’s a piece of art that’s at perfect equilibrium, aesthetically and musically.”
Its eerie echoes and spacious synth noises were from the cutting edge of musical technology: the first ever digital reverberation machine, the EMT250, was built only five years earlier in 1976. The digital reverb used by Vangelis, the Lexicon 224-X, was released in 1978 and allowed sounds to decays for as much as 70 seconds. These cavernous echoes were vital in creating the impression of a vast and unsettling metropolis and planet, floating in an even vaster outer space.
“You get swamped by all these amazing ideas,” says Gary Numan of experiencing the film and its score, likening its influence to a sponge in a bath. The English electro-pop pioneer released Strange Charm in 1986, an album heavily influenced by Blade Runner that included a track which sampled replicant character Roy Batty’s now-iconic speech from the end of the film. “Consciously or unconsciously, it becomes such a part of what you love. It’s all gonna come out at some point.”
Blade Runner’s story is one of push-and-pull between man and machine – the same conflict at the heart of electronic music, an art form in which human emotions are expressed solely on machines. Maybe this is the reason for the affinity electronic music holds for Blade Runner. Whatever the reason, and whatever success of this new sequel – electronic music seems certain to replicate the style and sound of that world for decades more to come. As we explore in the above film, it’s not time to die for electronic music’s obsession with Blade Runner yet.
Photography: Getty images
Designer: Rober Brodziak