Popol Vuh

After his musical studies (München, Freiburg) Florian Fricke (Lindau, 23 february 1944 - Munich, 29 december 2001) established himself first as a journalist for the Süddeutsche Zeitung, writing on music and film. Assisting Eberhard Schoener for his musical contribution to the 1970 World Exhibition in Osaka, he came in contact with the Moog III. Impressed by this instrument, he decided to buy one for himself. The Moog opened doors to new musical territories Fricke was eager to explore. When he asked Frank Fiedler to join mainly for technical assistance and Holger Trülzsch as a percussionplayer, Popol Vuh was born. Some of the first results on the Moog found their way to the soundtracks of  ‘Wintermärchen‘ (Ulf von Mechow), ‘Antartarctica’(George Moorse) and ‘Auch Zwerge haben klein angefangen‘ (Werner Herzog). The name ‘Popol Vuh’ indicates another fascination. Together with his friend Werner Herzog Fricke was inspired by the holy book ‘Popol Vuh’ of the Quiche Mayan Indians.

Both elements show how Fricke as a member of the young post-war generation in West-Germany, was seeking for new points of departure in many respects. With his universalistic approach, he found inspiration in non-christian as well as christian spirituality. Also for musical inspiration Fricke crossed literally many borders during his life.

United Artists became the first recordcompany to release an album. In 1970 ‘Affenstunde’, a Moog-dominated album with percussion and environmental sounds, saw the light. At this stage Popol Vuh shares an interest for electronics and music that is not focused on the anglo-american popparadigms with bands like Tangerine Dream (‘Electronic Meditation’, 1970) and Kraftwerk (‘Kraftwerk’, 1970).

The Moog is already less present on their second album ‘In den Garten Pharaos‘(1972). The title track is a lenghty Moog-piece. However the other track on this album ,‘Vuh’, is  dominated by the organ of the church of Baumburg. After this album Trülzsch leaves Popol Vuh. Fiedler also, but he returns from time to time in later years and becomes involved again especially in the last phase of Popol Vuh.

With ‘Hosianna Mantra’(1973)  another radical step is taken. Fricke surrounds himself with new musicians like Conny Veit (guitar), Robert Eliscu (oboe) and Djong Yun (voice). Turning to an acoustical outfit, the human voice and songstructures become key elements. The album marks the beginning of  an impressive creative outburst that would last for more then a decade. Popol Vuh develops a music in which rock and spirituality are convincingly intertwined. Religious rock as it was never heard before and seldom after.

Important during this phase were the contributions of former Amon Düül II drummer and guitarist Daniel Fichelscher who makes his first appearance on ‘Seligpreisung’(1974).  With his blistering and inspired guitarwork Fichelscher made his mark on many of the Popol Vuh albums. An album like ‘Letzte Tage, letzte Nachte’(1976 ) would be impossible without him. Also this album would be impossible without multitracking, a technique that Popol Vuh was heavily dependent on. This album shows Popol Vuh from its most rockiest side. But even here it is evident that a remarkable spiritualism defines the music as it did throughout the existence of this band. In a down-to-earth way Fricke wanted his music to be a ‘healing force’, an ‘uplifting experience for the human soul’. Speaking of these aspirations the musicpress didn’t fell at ease and consequently Fricke often felt misunderstood. This was strengthed by the fact that Popol Vuh didn’t lead the live of a common rock band. They were very seldom seen on stage.

In reaching an international public the soundtrackwork for Werner Herzog was important. The international success of  ‘Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes’ (1973) brought many people a first introduction to the music of Popol Vuh. Four more soundtracks would follow between 1976 and 1982: ‘Heart of Glass’, ‘Nosferatu’, ‘Fitzcarraldo’, and ‘Cobra Verde’, plus several documentaries. Sometimes Fricke explicitly composed music for a movie, like the famous ‘Aguirre’-theme, played on a mellotron-like instrument. At other moments already existing - but not necessarily released - music was used.

Fricke directed a few films himself. In 1981 he realized his dream for a oratorium: ‘Sie still wisse ICH BIN’. An oratorium is a religious piece of music meant for non-liturgical purposes. For the first time Fricke works intensively with a big choir. The accompanying film is made up of  static scenic tableaux shot in Israel. Photomodel Veruschka plays the role of a prophet-like figure.

Although the Moog was soon to be put aside, electronics make a come back later in the career of Popol Vuh. With ‘Cobra Verde’(1987) and the albums that followed, Fricke played  synclaviers, samplers, etc. This combined well with the wish to create music that would appeal to a younger audience. Under the influence of his son Johannes, Fricke created two albums (‘City Raga’, 1995; ‘Shepherds Symphony’, 1997) incorporating techno-influences.
The music that would lead to the ‘City Raga’-album was used for another film by Fricke, ‘Kailash’, that was shot by Frank Fiedler. It is an audio-visual poem evocating a pilgrimage to the holy mountain Kailash in Tibet.

From early on Fricke was also interested in breathing therapy. Inspired by the dutch psychologist and breaththerapist Cornelis Veening and by eastern singing techniques, Fricke developed his own therapy named ‘Alphabet of the Body’. Most extensively this influence is integrated in what would become the last Popol Vuh album ‘Messa di Orfeo’(1999). It is a live recording of an audio-visual installation consisting of a chanting choir, a recitating voice, sounds of bees and electronics, situated in so-called ‘Good Rooms’. In earlier music of Popol Vuh this influence was reflected in the pieces where instead of singing chanting is the case, like the ‘Yehung’-chant in ‘We know about the Need’ on ‘Spirit of Peace‘(1985).

Undeniably Fricke was a musical and spiritual visionary. The music of Popol Vuh touches on  many styles and influences. And that is why it is fair to say that they were musical forerunners in many ways: ambient, trance, electronic, ethno-fusion, psychedelic folk, raga-rock. All these influences served in a process for creating a deep human music. This makes Popol Vuh a unique example of religious inspired music, documented on more then 20 albums. They were released on many different recordlabels resulting in a sometimes confusing backcatalogue. Between 2004 and 2006 the SPV-label rereleased the most satisfying edition of  almost all of the Popol Vuh albums to date, all of them remastered by Frank Fiedler.

Dolf Mulder