Interview with Vangelis Katsoulis


The long-awaited compilation Sleeping Beauties of the genius Greek composer Vangelis Katsoulis is finally out this week. We talked with him about his hard way to the dream, his career, combination of live instruments and synthesizers in his work, hobbies, Athens and more.

Tell us about your youth, some special memories from childhood? What was your favourite subject in school? Who did you want to become?

There are no fond memories from my childhood. My parents hindered my inclination and my interest in music. This was one reason why my childhood was not happy. In school my favorite subject was physics and this went well together with my interest in technology. Later, all this made me feel so much familiar with music technology, which became an essential part of my music. When I was 14 years old I wanted to become a conductor. When I became 21 I started composing music and I realized I want to become a composer.

How you were involved into music? Who influenced you? Who were your musical teachers, icons, guides?

When I was young, my mother’s sister, who is a poet, offered me the chance to become familiar with classical music. I just needed to enter the concert hall only for once to fall in love with classical music. When I first heard the sound of the symphony orchestra I realized my life was going to become different. My influences, my icons and guides, everything belongs to classical music. My piano teacher in Germany encouraged me a lot and this was rather decisive.

Piano teacher in Germany… How did you get there?

As I said earlier my parents didn’t want me to become a musician, so I went to Germany to study medicine, but away from their influence, I discovered again my love for music. I decided to quit medicine and I studied music at the University, where I was lucky to have this great piano teacher. My love and my interest in classical music was broadened and extended in 1968, when I first had the chance to listen to some beautiful jazz recordings. Jazz really broadened my horizons and later, together with minimalism, became a basic element of my compositional explorations.

You collaborated with many musicians, and with whom the work was the best, the hardest? Did you work with son of Stockhausen?

I had the chance to work with musicians like Tomasz Stanko, Markus Stockhausen, Arild Andersen, Paul Wertico, Paolo Fresu, Bendik Hofseth and Vassilis Tsabropoulos and this was a huge experience. Yes, sometimes it was hard, because when you play or record with a musician like Arild Andersen who has such an excellent taste in music, you unavoidably become more eclectic and much more demanding.


Tell us about your career, your milestone records. Your records are different: some are fusion jazz with acoustic arrangements, some are synthetic canvases full of unusual sounds. How you combined it in your career?

My music career started in 1975. My first compositions belonged to the music avant-garde. Jazz and minimalism became soon fields for exploration and when I first met the musicians I just mentioned, I started becoming more and more interested in jazz and improvised music. I recorded four albums with these musicians (“Through the Dark”, “Silent Voyage”, “An Unbearably Short Glance” and “The Exile of Dreams”) and these are among my best recordings. I also composed music for the movies, for theater and dance and this required flexibility and an appetite for exploration. I must confess that I easily get bored within a certain kind or style of music and I always find it very refreshing to try new things. It’s just part of my nature.

Why didn’t you mention your synthetic records as your best? Where’s Sleeping Beauty?

You’re probably right. It was just a personal evaluation, but I know that people have really loved albums like “The Sleeping Beauty” and I admit, whenever I listen to it, I get surprised with its sound. It seems so fresh and modern after a quarter of a century….The truth is that in my jazz records I just added the jazz element on what was already there in my previous synthetic compositions. Of course this was only the beginning. Later this combination led me to new paths and opened new perspectives.


Which of your own soundtracks are you most proud of?

It’s funny, but I felt so well when I had to compose the music for a series of documentary films for the TV called “The Secret Life of Birds”. In this occasion I had the chance to be almost totally free and spontaneous and this is the reason why I produced a lot of beautiful music, with many good ideas. Later I reused some of these ideas and explored them further.

Pick a movie where you see the perfect combination of picture and sound?

I would pick a Rumanian film that I once saw, which had no music at all, but I cannot remember the title. I anyway admire the soundtracks which I do not notice at all, exactly because they do their job so well, that I do not notice their existence.

Tell us about Utopia, what was the concept behind it? How it come together?

Utopia is an independed label, founded in 1989 by Th.Papadopoulos and me. The concept was to produce records of top recording and aesthetic quality with artists who could not find what they needed in big record labels. We released records and CDs by artist like Tomasz Stanko, Vassilis Tsabropoulos, the groups Iskra, Page One and East Vision, but also Dimitris Petsetakis, Kyriakos Sfetsas and two albums with my own music. The cover artwork was usually done by my wife and me.


Tell us about two upcoming releases you mentioned earlier: “Sleeping Beauties” and “Sing As If Nobody’s Listening”. First is reissue, second-new material. How you did select pieces for the first one? What is the sound of the second? Where/when did you record the second one?

Ok then, I’ll tell you about three upcoming releases. The “Sleeping Beauties” is mainly based on older unreleased material and this is what the title suggests, but the album contains also new pieces I composed for this record. I helped the guys from Into The Light records select the pieces, but I allowed them make the final decisions. The most important issue among things I do recently is the revival of my record label Utopia. We already released four new albums and among them is a new album with my own music. It’s a studio recording of my opera “Orfeo”, which was commissioned in 2006 by the Greek National Opera. The other release is “Sing As If Nobody’s Listening”, an album where great artists have contributed their music, but the idea of the album is that they will remain unknown. I believe it is a very special, intriguing and beautiful album. It has a very diverse material with big contrasts and surprises and it was all recorded in my studio with the exception of one live recording. I must say I find the Utopia projects extremely interesting and in the future I intend to invest a lot more time and energy into them.

Was meeting with Into The Light guys and growing interest to your music the turning point for you to decide to revive Utopia label?

I guess everything contributed to the need to revive Utopia, but the main reason for doing this is the big crises of the music and record industry, which is a world-wide crisis and, as I believe, calls for action. Now Greece faces an economic crisis, but I decided that I do not want to remain inactive in such a situation. Utopia wants to prove that we can obtain perfection, do the best, even if the conditions are far from being the best.


What time of the day is the best for you to create?

Anytime is good when there is inspiration, but inspiration is something one never knows when it comes and how long it’s going to stay. That’s why one should always take advantage of these rare moments.

Do you listen music these days? What records you loved in youth? What do you respect the most today?

Yes, I do listen to music when I drive my car and a lot more during summer vacation. I always want to be informed about new releases as much as possible, but there are times when I need to listen to music that I really like. In my youth I used to like The Rolling Stones, The Doors and later Pink Floyd, King Crimson and Mahavishnu Orchestra. Today I love the albums of the Keith Jarrett trio as well as a lot of what we call European jazz. All the stuff which comes from labels like ECM or ACT.

How music is born? Can you describe the process? Do you hear music in your dreams?

Yes, sometimes I do hear music in my dreams, but I’ve never been able to get up and write it down on paper. To compose music I usually need to stimulate my appetite with some music, so I hear records or CDs. The more I like what I hear, the more I get inspired and what I create is also good.


Can you describe the way you feel/hear music/sounds? For example: do you imagine it as something physical, are the sounds colourful in your mind?

No, I don’t see any colors, but yes, sounds and especially loud base sounds have undoubtedly a physical quality. They make us vibrate and I like this. When I compose music and work with sounds I like to hear quite loud and this makes me feel the music more intensely and get totally involved.

How do you spend your free time? Any hobbies?

Either I do not have any free time, or all the time I have is free. By saying this, I mean that what I do in life is what I really want to do and this makes me experience time as one thing. Free time does not exist for me, because it implies that the rest of the time is……what? I very much enjoy playing classical piano music and I just do it for my own pleasure. Sometimes it’s also fun to do something completely different, like becoming… a farmer. Don’t be surprised! I truly do it!

What are your favorite places in Athens? Parks, cafes, streets?

I must say I do not particularly like big cities. I live in an area out of the city and I prefer to be out in the country, no matter if this is Greece, or any other country, although I prefer the southern part of our planet. I also love Cyclades islands in Greece and I visit them often.

Where do you get inspiration for your work?

Usually the inspiration comes from inside. Most of the times it’s a subject which occupies my mind for a long time and then comes out in my music in a very natural and inescapable way. Some other times it comes from outside and it’s something that attracts my attention or is able to move me.

What is the philosophy of your life?

There are many philosophies, but only one life.

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Words by Sasha Tessio & Artem Super Ikra.
Cover drawing by Sasha Tessio.