Source: Prog, nr.99, 2019-06, p.88-91
Author: Mike Barnes
The Song of Songs
“Florian was more interested in how, over the history of mankind, people gathered over religious lifestyles and then created music. And so he studied Buddhism, Hinduism, he also studied the Bible”
Enigmatic krautrock pioneers Popol Vuh continue to intrigue fifty years on from their inception. Prog lifts the lid on their enthralling career...
Out of all the groups active in Germany in the so-called 'krautrock' scene of the late '60s into the '70s, Popol Vuh were the most mysterious and enigmatic. With their exploration of the transcendental in electronic and acoustic music they had little overlap with rock, and stylistically found themselves set apart from their peers. The group's founder and sole constant member, keyboard player Florian Fricke, was musically active until his death in 2001, but he had rarely been interviewed for the UK music press and many releases flew under the radar.
But now BMG are beginning a reissue campaign with The Essential Album Collection Vol. 1 on CD and vinyl box sets, remastered by Frank Fiedler from the original line-up and latterday Popol Vuh member Guido Hieronymus. An image had formed around Fricke of a shadowy, almost hieratic figure, inhabiting a rarefied creative space in which he made his avowedly spiritual music, while also contributing soundtracks to films by the German film director Werner Herzog.
Fiedler remembers him rather differently:
"Florian was a very good worker - he could see a whole project through to a good end. He was a family man, too. He liked to cook, he liked to go to restaurants, drink wine and be in good company, laughing and relaxing. And when he had money he was very generous."
In 1969 Fiedler was a student at the Berlin Film Academy and was hired by a young woman from Munich as a cameraman for a portrait of the film director Pasolini. He went to her apartment in Munich where Fricke was also a guest.
"I met him more and more, and we started to get into deeper discussions as to what is going on in the world," says Fiedler. "We both read the Popol Vuh, the book of the K'iche' Indians [of Guatemala, which includes the Mayan creation myth]. The title was hanging in the air, and so the project's name became Popol Vuh."
Born in 1945 in Kiel on the north German coast, Fiedler recalls that as he and his young peers reached maturity they rebelled against the older generation, who they saw as being stuck within narrow ways of thinking.
"We had longer hair and smoked hashish," he says, laughing. He also recalls the liberating effect of '60s rock and pop music, particularly from England, and the thrill of seeing Jimi Hendrix play at the Star Club in Kiel. "We grew up with this evolution of rock music and a rich and colourful hippie movement," he says. "It was, in many ways, a desperate cry for freedom, certainly here in this country after all the humiliation of wartime."
Fricke had studied piano at Munich Music High School. "It was his intention to go beyond what the pop music was offering," says Fiedler. "What Florian did was a kind of a crossover between timeless classics and the new freedom of pop, rock and jazz."
To add to the newness of his music, Fricke had acquired a Moog III and began working with Fiedler in autumn 1969 on Popol Vuh's debut, Affenstunde, which was released in 1970 and named after a chapter in the Popol Vuh about the rise of humankind. Much of Side One was recorded on a two-track Revox reel-to-reel in a farmhouse near Miesbach in the foothills of the Bavarian Alps, which belonged to the family of Fricke's wife, Bettina.
The credits for the album are Fricke on Moog, Holger Trülzsch on percussion and Fiedler on 'Synthesiser mixdown'. So what exactly was his role?
"Every good artist needs a counterweight," says Fiedler. "Florian was the instrumentalist and responsible for composition, but he worked more out of his intuition in terms of getting the sounds from those four black boxes that were in front of him, and I helped him because it was so complex. I did the filtering mostly. You couldn't programme that machine, you had to move the control knobs and put the modules together with cables."
Popol Vuh's Moog music didn't sound like anyone else's - it had a strange eerie tone and there was an undulating, serpentine flow to the melodies pitched somewhere between signalling and singing, its rhythmic complexity enhanced by the use of a sequencer and echo and delay during mixdown sessions.
"It was Florian's idea for a soprano voice [effect] and to get the filtering to take it away from a hard electronic sound, to get more of a human sound. I mean, you could do things with a Moog III that really were painful. That was a problem with that machine, you had to filter to get the sound he envisaged out of it."
Fiedler feels that on the title track of In Den Gärten Pharaos (1971), "We really got that sound to the peak." Side Two of the album is a colossal church organ piece, Vuh, which Fricke recorded in a former monastery church in Baumburg, Bavaria.
Fricke guested playing Moog on Tangerine Dream's 1972 album, Zeit, but Popol Vuh's next album, Hosianna Mantra (1972) featured a predominantly acoustic chamber ensemble of piano, guitar, oboe, tamboura and a real soprano, Korean singer Djong Yan. In situations like these, when Fiedler's technical expertise was not needed, he would continue his career as a film cameraman.
Hosianna Mantra is full of melody, with a radiant sound like light shining through stained glass. It also demonstrated that even in the group's more expansive moments, Fricke was beginning to strive towards a clarity of expression.
Fricke has described his own creative process thus:
"The path to creation is like walking on a small path. It begins without intention, purposeless, yet a goal arises. I say yes and approach the goal. I forget it again, but the goal starts to be more and more alive in me and I move steadily towards it, to receive it. It is me, who is moving. This is my collaboration, my devotion, which fills my person totally with an undivided attention. And I feel the power within, focused on the goal. This is the path to a small path."
Popol Vuh evoked similar atmospheres on Seligpreisung (1973) - the first album featuring guitarist and drummer Danny Fichelscher with Djong Yun singing lyrics derived from the Gospel Of Matthew, also recorded in the church in Baumburg - and on Einsjäger Und Siebenjäger (1974).
The implications of the different religious elements in the title 'Hosianna Mantra' has prompted some to claim that Fricke converted to both Christianity and Hinduism.
"No..." says Fiedler, clearly surprised at the idea. "Fricke never converted to any religion. He was Protestant from his family, but his idea was not to worship from a religious background. He was more interested in how, over the history of mankind, people gathered over religious lifestyles and then created music. And so he studied Buddhism, Hinduism, he also studied the Bible, but he took the Martin Buber translation in Hebrew, which is much more direct and powerful than our German translation of the Latin Bible."
But Popol Vuh's music does seem religious at times.
"Yes, it seems..." Fiedler replies. "But if you also take the movie music, you get another picture of Florian's intentions."
Two of the soundtrack albums that Popol Vuh made for Herzog that are included in the current box set are Aguirre (1975) and Nosferatu (1978). The former is characterised by Fricke's use of the instrument he called the "choir organ", a Mellotron-like device that utilised taped recordings of voices. Its unearthly sound contributes to the unforgettable opening sequence of Aguirre: Wrath Of God, in which hundreds of conquistadors snake down a steep mountain pass. There are a number of variations on this opening theme, some with percussion and some with pulsing Moog, and although the album is padded out with some earlier outtakes and a lengthy, eerie Moog piece Vergegenwärtigung, none of which are used in the film, it's still a coherent collection.
Nosferatu features the ghostly ritual chorales of On The Way, which Herzog used in the film to chilling effect. Again, the album is a mix of previously released and new recordings, haunting folk-like and Eastern-sounding pieces featuring the sitar and tamboura, Eno-ish still-lifes and some uncanny electronic pieces. Fiedler recalls Moog sessions in the mid-'70s in Fricke's house in Munich for the soundtrack when he and Fricke experimented with deep bass frequencies to underpin the instruments.
Did Herzog have any input into this soundtrack music?
"He didn't," Fiedler replies. "He liked Florian's compositions so much because they fitted his intention in telling a story. He didn't check [the tape], he just came and he took it and got it to the editing table."
Popol Vuh continued supplying music for Herzog until Cobra Verde in 1987 and released new music until 1999, some of which explored Fricke's fascination with chants, breathing techniques and overtone singing, including Agape-Agape/Love-Love (1983) with Renate Knaup of Amon Düül II as one of the vocalists. Fricke also recorded the multi-vocal I Am One With The Earth, a limited pressing solo album recorded in an old basilica in 1983.
In 1995 Fiedler and Fricke branched out, making a movie, Kailash: Pilgrimage To The Throne Of Gods, about the sacred Tibetan mountain, which eventually came out as a DVD, a soundtrack CD and a CD of unheard piano tracks in 2015. Some of this material was reworked for Shepherd's Symphony, which also featuring Guido Hieronymus on keyboards and guitar (1997) and moved towards ambient trance. In that year Popol Vuh also produced A Train Through Time, based on a drum sample of Danny Fichelscher which appears as a bonus track on Affenstunde.
Shortly before Fricke's death at the age of fifty-seven, he and Fiedler had made a multimedia operatic production called Messa Di Orfeo, which was performed in Southern Italy at the Time Zones Music Festival, firstly at Molfetta in 1998 and then the following year. "We performed in the old Rocca Malatestiana fortress in Fano with a thirty-piece choir and a gigantic movie projection," Fiedler says. Sadly, that was to be their last collaboration.
Fiedler supervises the Popol Vuh tape archive, and as well as BMG releasing the remastered albums there will be a Popol Vuh anthology including unreleased material and a release of "new Popol Vuh mixdowns in collaboration with some electronic musicians".
There is also a work in progress, now nearing completion, designed to help keep his friend's name alive.
"There are piano tracks and Moog III tracks that I gave to Guido and he composed for them," Fiedler explains. "His wife, Biljana Pais, wrote lyrics and she has a fantastic gospel voice, and so we suddenly had a project: the name is Popol Vuh Beyond and the title is Requiem For Florian. It has been an interesting experience to see it grow."