POPOL VUH

by Howard W.

Why you (the hep, feisty, aggro-addicted Y.F. reader) should care: Popol Vuh makes grandiose, emphatic, melodramatic, incantory spookadelica of the most potent sort and has been doing so since before most of y’all were more than a throbbing urge in your da and/or ma’s underpantaloons.
Echoes of their oeuvre can be found in the post-punk bad-mood music of folks like Laibach, Einsturzende Neubauten, Swans, et. al., and I can honestly say that these offspring haven’t outdistanced the Real Thang yet.
The recently released Best of Popol Vuh gives a brief summary of their film scoring for noted German director Werner Herzog, starting with ‘Lacrime di Re’ from 1973's Aguirre, the Wrath of God and ending with ‘We are aware of the Misery’ from 1985's Gasherbrun der Leichtende Berg. All this material is nothing short of stunning - plush, sensuous ‘pocket symphonettes’ woven from hypnotic modal guitars (think ‘Venus in Furs’) bleeding into haunted, brooding piano, devils’choirs, and thunderclap percussion punctuation. How Smile might have turned out had Charlie, not Van Dyke, been in the sandbox with Brian.
1991's For You and Me was largely disappointing; by-the-book aural wallpaper in a New Age style (which, incidentally, these guys do proudly take credit for inventing in the first place).
A new album, Sing for Song drives away the Wolves on the other hand, is a decisive return to form, vintage Vuh that blends dread and delight in that perverse yet perfect combination characteristic of this outfit.

This story begins in the late 1960s as the psychedelicized mind-set smacked into rock ‘n ‘roll with the same destructive-yet-fertilizing impact as an elephant turd hitting a patch of yojimba seeds. It yielded one of the great flowerings of truly popular/volk music norms of this century. As in LAD-induced synethasia, apparently granite-solid barriers began to blur, then dissolved between perceptual modalities, in this case rock ‘n’‘roll and other musical idioms. Rock musicians in America and Great Britain discarded their previously cherished stylistic xenopohobia and began to greedily riffle through the aesthetic glossaries of genres outside their ken for fresah ‘n’ bizarre elements of melody, riddim, texture and even basic instrumentation in their search for more penetrating and expansive means of musical expression. This led to various bastardized colloquialisms which - for better ‘r worsen - are still with us; to wit: jass-rock = fuzak, blues-rock = Thorogoodian underarchiever boogie woo, and country-rock = almost all contemporary C&W made by Nashville’s under 40-set.
Concurrently, the rockers’ interest in non-rock idioms encouraged the practitioners thereof to, in turn, try their hands at integrating their respective aesthetic canons with the R ‘n’R format: electric instruments, a big, simpleton beat, radio-friendly song lengths, etc. (Ibid., Tribute to Jack Johnson, Electric Mud, and the first Charlie Daniels Band album). The phenomenon bore real strange fruit abroad where there was no indigenous rock heritage and thus little conditioned rockist sensibility to limit imaginations, and approaches to hybridization and extrapolations thereon. Thus they tended to be more unpredictable and extreme. It got real strange in Germany.
Florian Fricke was a young, classically trained composer living in Munich at the time. After studying at the Freiburg Conservatoire, Fricke was working at writing operatic music when his dabbling with primitive synthesizers, and friendship with Munich rock musicians such as Tangerine Dream, brought him to the attention of a major label in Germany, who were looking to get into the rock business via homegrown psychedelia. This was the beginning of Popol Vuh.

Your Flesh: So, how did Popol Vuh get started?
Florian Fricke: Essentially, Popol Vuh began in 1968. I lived in Munich at the time, and was working with the first Moog synthesizer, the big machine. As rumors of my work spread through Munich, more and more musicians came to visit me. Then I began to build the group with a man named Holger and Frank Fiedler who came from the Film Academy in Berlin; this guy helped with the technical side of things.
My original idea was to compose operas, but very soon record companies got interested. One company, United Artists was happy to talk with me and I quickly had a deal. After recording the first two records with the big moog (1970's Affenstunde and 1971's In der Garten Pharaos), I changed my musical style and did more music without electronics, pulling together an actual group with Conny Veigh on vocals and Gong Yun on guitar. With this line-up, I made three of four albums that were to become the foundations of the New Age genre of music. After these, I began making music with more rhythmic emphasis. At that time, 1975, Renate Knaup Aschauer an Daniel Fichstecher joined the group. They came from Amon Düül II, who had split up. I’m still playing with these people.
Your Flesh: Was Popol Vuh part of the German psychedelic scene?
Florian Fricke: No, I wasn’t really aware of many of those groups, but I did work together with Tangerine Dream in the studio and had known members of the Munich-based Amon Düül II even before they started playing with me, who were part of the local community in that city.
Your Flesh: You hooked up with Herzog in 1972, early on in your career. How did you first meet him?
Florian Fricke: Herzog was in Rome in the studio to dub his film, Aguirre, the Wrath of God. He was looking for Ennio Morricone. He was trying to find a composer for the movie, but he didn’t find anything that really fit with his movie. Herzog was talking with a young actress over wine and pasta and she said, “The only solution is to call Florian from Popol Vuh”. He called me and the next day I flew to Rome. I talked with Herzog, watched the movie, came back to Munich the following day and wrote all the music for it in one afternoon. From that time onwards, there’s been a good working relation between us.
Your Flesh: Could you describe how you actually work with Herzog?
Florian Fricke: It’s always the same. The music is done when the movie is finished; it has to be ready very quick. I always have to work day and night in the studio tot get it done on time.
We have the same sense of intuition. Herzog will try and convey a basic, essential message that lies beneath the surface with his films, and I try to have my music flow from the depth of my soul. So that’s the reason we are friends in our art.
Your Flesh: Is there any difference in your writing for films and your other compositions?
Florian Fricke: I have done a lot of music (over a dozen albums since 1972) that has nothing to do with the soundtracks. The way I compose for each is very different. Sometimes I start just playing piano. Sometimes I sing a melody by myself without any instruments; it’s very easy sometimes - melodies fly to you like a bird, unbidden. But you are absolutely making art, creating music any way you do it. The particular inspiration is very important to my manner of composing. I’m not searching for particular music. Usually when the music does come to me spontaneously, that’s when it’s really good.
Your Flesh: Do you like to work in particular places or kinds of places?
Florian Fricke: Yes, that’s always been the case. In the early days, it was a studio in the park in Munich, Bavaria Park. The studio was huge, with very high ceilings and lots of wood. It had wonderful acoustics. Today I work in a smaller studio but with more advanced technological equipment. I work together with an excellent musician, Guido. He really knows his way around the recording studios and handles alle the technological details.
It’s very important when you’re working in the studio that you can feel the spirit of the music. This is the kind of studio I work in, a special kind of studio. I’ve noticed that many young pop musicians are not in touch with that spiritual element of music; the atmosphere of a studio is not so important to them. They’ll be playing video games, watching TV. However, to me the feel of the studio is very important.
Your Flesh: Over the years, you’ve taken many trips abroad to exotic locales like Tibet, Northern Africa and so on. Was this doing musical field work in preparation for your own composing, looking for inspiration?
Florian Fricke: When I am walking through the Himalayas, I feel at home, that life is as it should be. My first journey abroad was to the Himalayas and I was seeking to learn the Throat singing technique of the Tibetans. Once I arrived, I got lucky and met a bunch op people walking through the mountains who purified rooms with their singing. I spent a lot of time travelling with them through the mountains. Since then, I’ve been teaching the throat singing technique in Germany for many years... Without making much money!

   From: Your Flesh, n29, 1994, p.44-46