Popol Vuh founder Florian Fricke died in December. Guitarist Gary Lucas salutes a pioneer whose music affected his own life


     The camera swoops godlike through the clouds, zooming in on a line of Spanish conquistadors threading their way carefully down a Peruvian mountainside, like a line of soldier ants. In the 8th Street Playhouse in Manhattan’s West Village, I sit crouched in the darknes, spellbound by this celluloid spectacle, my ears filled with the sound of a heavenly choir chanting a wordless, dirge-like hymn to what sounds like the darkest forces of Nature, a hymn that soars to the peaks of the Andes, shaking the rafters of the cinema. Underpinning the awesome majesty of this hypnotic vocalese is a mournful minimalist guitar figure that repeats insistently in a kind of tidal ebb and flow, at one with the angelic swirling soundscape. The year is 1978. The film is Aguirre, The Wrath of God. I am about to have my eyes forced wide by the genius of director Werner Herzog. And my ears opened forever by the ineffable beauty of the music of Florian Fricke and his group Popol Vuh.
     I have come to treasure every soundtrack Fricke supplied for the singular visions of Herzog ( six in all: Aguirre, The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, Nosferatu, Heart of Glass, Fitzcarraldo and Cobra Verde). The man seemed born specifically for the role of translating Herzog’s mysterious Weltanschauung into the most brilliant, heartstopping film music ever. It is at once medieval and modern, sacerdotal and wordly, an aura of incense mingling with the poisoned perfume of Herzog’s garden of unearthly delights.
     Realising the group formed an important chapter I’d somehow missed in the Krautrock saga, the soundtracks prompted me to seek out as many pre-Herzog Popol Vuh releases as I could. At that point I was fairly well versed in the German Progressive music canon, but Florian Fricke and his shadowy, mystical group Popol Vuh (their name derived from the creation story of the Quiché Maya) had eluded me - up until that fateful screening.
     Originally a trio, Popol Vuh were founded in 1969 by former music critic Fricke, the classically trained son of an opera singer, in Munich. In 1970 the group could boast the first ever German usage of the mighty Moog III. Oddly enough, they began their performing career with well received appearances in 1971 on the formerly British music dominated TV programme Beat Club. 
     Popol Vuh’s 1970 synth classic Affenstunde (literally Hour of the Monkeys - perhaps a prophetic prod to Werner Herzog for the ending of his Aguirre film), featured the original great trio line-up of Fricke on moog, Holger Trulzsch on percussion and Frank Fiedler on synth and mixdown. Since that first album, Popol Vuh have gone on to release nearly 30 official albums, remixes and compilations, on vinyl and CD (Affenstunde alone has been rereleased in eight different configurations on myriad labels worldwide).
     With its spacious, glowing music, played on a bastardised church organ and retrofitted with tape loops of voices and other instruments, including a homemade Mellotron-like instrument, Aguirre’s transcendental main title theme, ”Lacrime Di Re” (“The Tears Of The King”), remains for many the eternal Florian Fricke calling card. But for me his greatest, most numinous composition is his opening-title music to Herzog’s 1978 recreation of Murnau’s silent vampire classic, Nosferatu - a piece known as “Höre, der du wagst” (“Listen, you who dare”), which plays as the camera lingers on opened sepulchres, their mummified contents beckoning and grimacing in a rictus of death.
     These two Fricke themes - among the finest film music ever composed - so burned themselves into my brain that I felt compelled, commanded, even, by some unknown spirit to cover them on solo guitar, in my own style, on two of my own albums. I recorded both pieces at home, live in my living room, on a extremely gloomy, snowbound whiteout of a late afternoon winter’s day, in an absolute trance. Fricke’s music has, and continues to exert, a profound effect on me.
     The excellent 1993 Best Of Popol Vuh Cd compilation on Milan contains excerpts of most of the best bits from all the Herzog films, plus some more of their ‘greatest hits’, and is heartily recommended to all Popol Vuh beginners. It includes the main title music from Fitzcarraldo, whose Orff-like feverish choir and over the top bass percussion will give your neighbour a heart attack, if you crank it up loud enough. But after this, I most favour the early music of the primal, pre-acoustic Popol Vuh trio, particularly their second album, In den Gärten Pharaos (In The Garden Of Pharaoh ). Fricke, Fiedler and Trulzsch seamlessly meld the natural sounds of lapping water, eerie sci-fi electro-shrieks and theremin quavers, and assorted Turkish percussion into an audio vortex, a whirling maelstrom of spacy ethnic-sounding passages, some of which got recycled in Nosferatu.
     Even better is In Den Gärten’s side two: the 19 minute “Vuh”, recorded live in a cathedral in Baumberg, Bavaria, where Fricke holds his own in a monochordal tranced-out jam with startling affinities to The Velvet Underground’s epochal “Sister Ray”. Like John Cale, Florian keeps the superior firepower of his organ in reserve, choosing his moments carefully to surpirse and overtake his confreres in a Sun-Tzu kind of strategy. The 1983 CD reissue of In Den Gärten on Celestial Harmonies adds the Aguirre theme to the package and closes with a breathtaking solo piano meditation by Fricke entitled “Spirit Of Peace”, which seems to emanate from some other realm. Florian Fricke was definitely hotwired to the cosmos - it’s delicate and dreamy without succumbing to any namby-pamby Windham Hill horsehit. The real New Age starts here.
     And thus we come to 1973's Seligpreisung (Beautitudes) and 1974's Einsjäger & Siebenjäger, both Kosmische Music releases. For many, these are the classic Popol Vuh albums. They’re coiled, devotional mantras that unwind with inexorable logic; in the best Prog tradition, their numerous movements, time changes and harmonic shifts climax grandly or merely sputter out in media res.
     With texts drawn from St Matthews Gospel, the former album delineates Fricke’s ecumenical spirit if nothing else; and the latter codifies the most rockist phase of Popol Vuh, with Daniel Fichelscher’s raga-guitar heroics to the fore. Eastern music was a constant throughout Fricke’s career: in 1976, for instance, he recorded an album called Yoga with a number of Indian musicians.
     His subsequent recordings introduced a kinder, gentler sound palette, often bringing in sacred texts and employing ethnic instrumental combinations. He never totally abandoned his electronic roots, and his later 90s albums included loops, drum machine beats and found sounds. Still, the acoustic piano beckoned - in 1990 he actually released a solo album devoted to Mozart, played straight on a Bösendorfer.
     Sadly, Florian Fricke died on 29 december at his home in Munich, following a stroke that befell him just before Christmas. A three volume trilogy of past work is still in the planning stages; however, the first album of this, a remix/reissue enitled Future Sound Experience, has just been released on Mystic Records. But to hell with titles, provenance, reutilisation/recycling of the past in the continuum of Fricke’s oeuvre. It’s the spectral (truly a justified adjective here) ability of this haunting music to blur the boundaries of time and space that makes me mourn the tragic loss the world of music has suffered with his untimely death. - Florian Fricke, musician, composer, born 23 February 1944, died 29 December 2001

-This article first appeared in The Wire issue 216 February 2002. Reproduced by permission. www.thewire.co.uk 

- Gary Lucas' versions of "Aguirre (Lacrime di Re)" and "Listen, You Who Dare" can be found on his "Skeleton at the Feast", "Beyond the Pale", and "Improve the Shining Hour" albums, now available for download through iTunes and other digital portals.