The Transcendent Music Of Popol Vuh
Florian Fricke in 1969
By Gary BearmanMy introduction to Popol Vuh was through a 1988 article in a short lived UK magazine called Strange Things Are Happening. The article was entitled "Deutsch Nepal - A Fleeting Dabble In German Music 1967-1975." This was perhaps a far kinder way to refer to a genre of music more popularly known as "krautrock." The writer spoke in gushing tones about this magical sub-genre, which was a combination of '60's psychedelia, '70's progressive rock and a certain enigmatic German weirdness that resulted in some of the most cosmic and odd music ever recorded.
Part 1 of 4
The description of Popol Vuh was brief, but utterly alluring, especially to my nineteen-year old mind, hungry for new and exciting sounds outside the mainstream:
"Tracing the history of Popol Vuh is not easy. There are a LOT of records. Popol Vuh have two distinguishing factors: the progress made between album 1 and album 50,958 most groups try to do between three albums; and nobody, but nobody gets CLOSE to sounding as individual and majestic as Popol Vuh."
"... Florian Fricke is Popol Vuh, is off his head and is totally brilliant. If you've seen the films Nosferatu, Fitzcarraldo or Aguirre, you'll have noticed the ominous gothic chants of Popol Vuh. It really is genuinely haunting music that stays with you. Fricke is carving his own groove and should be left undisturbed, but admired by millions.1"
Naturally, I went on a mission to hear these cosmic sounds for myself and find out what the fuss was all about. I did the only thing I could do in those dark, pre-Internet days. I scoured record stores, went to record conventions and finally started obtaining catalogs from obscure mail order companies that advertised in the back of Goldmine magazine. Back then I had to pay a pretty penny for obscure out-of-print import titles to the U.S., but once I got hold of my first two albums, Aguirre and Spirit of Peace, I was hooked for life. Majestic indeed.
Like Robert Fripp, the only stable member in every incarnation of King Crimson, Florian Fricke was the central and guiding figure of Popol Vuh for their entire recording career. Fricke was born February 23rd, 1944 in Lindau on Lake Constance in Germany. He started to make music when he was 11, and when he was 15, he went to the Frieburg Music College; studying grand piano, composition and conducting, but by 19, he was happy to be free of the constant practice that school demanded. Fricke said, "Only after I finished my schooling did I know exactly what I wanted to do in music. That's when I started to do what I had already done often early on; compose, with emphasis on pieces I wanted to release. That was a long road, from when I was 11 to when I was 26 when my fist LP came out.2"
In the interim, he worked as a film and music reviewer and a maker of short films. This is where he met director Werner Herzog, and he even had a role playing Chopin in his early film Signs of Life.
Fricke traveled extensively, with the encountering of other cultures and religions being very important to him, even though Fricke himself didn't claim to prefer any one religion over another. When once asked about his hobbies outside of music, he said, "Greek philosophy, ancient texts and learning to understand what humankind is. Those are my hobbies. 3"
The musical themes of Florian Fricke and Popol Vuh covered most of the world's major religions (as well as some of the minor ones too), approached with a certain pagan exuberance, yet maintaining respect and reverence for them all. In fact, the name Popol Vuh itself comes from an ancient Mayan text containing mythological narratives and the story of Creation. The book was very important to Fricke who said, "When I read the book for the first time, I got ideas all of a sudden by which I was able to define other old books. I found a key in the book of ‘Popol Vuh.' I was able to understand the way people in the very early days described the creation of Earth and the way of human evolution. I was touched like by a thunderstorm. 4"
Fricke added, "No one really knows what Popol Vuh actually means. It translates as ‘The Book of Counsel.' But because Vuh also means something like ‘sun,' you could translate it as ‘a gathering under the sign of the sun.' That would be another way to define it, and that should reveal a few things. 5"
While the music of Popol Vuh would sometimes skirt the boundaries of 70's progressive rock and krautrock (in which categories they're often lumped in with), they sounded like no other groups from those genres. In fact, they sounded like no other groups from any genre, and yet Fricke has been referred to as one of the founding fathers of electronic music, of ambient music and even new age music.
Hearing the totality of their work, I would be hard pressed to disagree with any of those assessments, as their music was rich, varied and spanned many genres, often before such genres even existed. The single thread that goes through all the incarnations of Popol Vuh, however, regardless of the particular style being explored, is a transcendent not-of-this-earth, music-of-the-spheres quality that is very provocative.
Fricke himself was not keen on easy categorization. He simply wanted to make music that touched people's souls. He reluctantly labeled his music as "magic music6" and said that "Popol Vuh is a Mass for the heart. It is music for love. 7" Again, there is no way to disagree.
The release of Popol Vuh's 20-plus prolific recorded works, at first on album, and later on CD, has followed a ridiculously complex, circuitous route. While this article is meant to be comprehensive and talk about each album, it will not be an in-depth comparison of every single edition of every title, as some titles have seen one or two releases, and others have received as many as a dozen or more in various formats. Still, collecting all of their material is a lot easier than it was twenty years ago.
In 2004, the German label SPV announced they would be releasing no less than 19 Popol Vuh titles, which they did over a two-year period. This was not the first attempt at a comprehensive re-issuing of Popol Vuh's recorded works, and while no one, not even the out-of-print French Spalax label have been completely successful at the task, SPV have released the lion's share of them. The great advantage of the SPV releases is the collaboration of the Fricke family, especially Fricke's son, Johannes and daughter, Anna. Because of this, all titles have been remastered and contain one or more bonus tracks unavailable anywhere else.
What follows is a chronological distillation of each album of original material, as well as some of the more controversial titles, and in the telling will unfold the story of Popol Vuh. Mostly, however, it's about the music itself, about the life's work of a group of artists, with Florian Fricke at its epicenter, who created a rich tapestry of expansive and transcendent music that truly does deserve to be "admired by millions. 8"
Electronic Beginnings (1970-1971)
Everyone has to start somewhere, and as would be their trademark throughout their career, Popol Vuh did not choose the safe, commercial route, starting their career from a radically unique angle.
In 1969, only two people owned Moog synthesizers in Germany; one being Florian Fricke, the other being Eberhard Schoener who introduced the Moog to Fricke. Even though Watler Carlos released his successful Switched-On Bach album shortly before the release of Affenstunde, it is believed that Affenstunde is the first album using a Moog synthesizer composed of completely original music.
Fricke had no manual on how to use his large Moog III synthesizer, but practiced day and night experimenting with what it could do. Fricke said, "It was a great fascination to encounter sounds that were until those days not heard before from the outside. It was the possibility to express sounds that a composer was hearing from within himself, which in many cases are different from what a normal instrument could express. Therefore, this was a fantastic way into my inside consciousness, to express what I was hearing within myself. 9" He also said at the time that, "The music that you create with a Moog covers the entire range of human emotion. 10" He would later abandon this point of view, and would go as far as to say that all electronic music was cold and unemotional, especially when compared to what could be achieved with other instruments, but that was all part of Fricke's journey, the opportunity and flexibility to explore, to abandon one direction and choose another.
On Affenstunde (which translates as "monkey house"), a landmark electronic album, Fricke is joined by Frank Fiedler on "synthesizer mixdown" and Holger Türlzsch on percussion. Fricke described the double meaning of the name Affenstunde as "the moment where the human being of a monkey turns into the human being of a human kind. 11"
The album starts with the sound of chirping birds, before we are catapulted into an alien Moog landscape, which while no doubt was revolutionary in 1970, today seems a bit dated. Don't get me wrong, it's a wonderfully trippy album and a fascinating journey that will doubtlessly still appeal to space travelers, but it also doesn't have the timeless quality of many of their later works.
Side one consists of "Dream Part 4," "Dream Part 5" and "Dream Part 49." It's a perilous thought to wonder if there was a "Dream Part 1-3" or "Dream Part 6-48." About seven minutes into "Dream Part 4," with bleeps and waves among a gently breathing and pulsating electronic landscape, we hear the short lived whisper of bongo drums, which come completely to the fore along with other assorted percussion to dominate "Dream Part 5." Fear not though, for the mighty Moog doth return for "Dream Part 49," albeit for a very slow spacey ambient piece accompanied by extremely slow and faint bongo drumming in the background. While the first two pieces allow one to travel through space, this track is about the vastness of space.
Side two is made up of Popol Vuh's first (but far from last) sidelong track. The track "Affenstunde" goes through a variety of moods, mostly with Moog, occasionally with bongos, and while perhaps it's too much of a good thing, it is certainly intriguing. All in all it's an auspicious, and certainly an attention-grabbing debut, but also sharing a similar vibe with other early Krautrock electronic pioneers like Cluster, Deuter, Klaus Schulze and Tangerine Dream. In fact, Florian Fricke was a guest musician playing Moog on side one of the 1972 Tangerine Dream double album Zeit (Time), considered by some to be an early ambient masterpiece, and for others, a sure cure for insomnia.
The bonus track on Affenstunde is notable for a slight drop in sound quality (more noticeable background hiss), but is a welcome addition to the Popol Vuh discography. The 10:30 "Train Through Time," while perhaps a bit on the repetitive side, is very interesting, very unlike the rest of the material on Affenstunde and probably more successful than the sidelong "Affenstunde" track. If someone had told me this was a lost Klaus Schulze track, I surely would have believed them.
In Den Gärten Pharaos (1971)
Going even further into the electronic inky depths of space is their second album, In Den Gärten Pharaos (In the Garden of the Pharaos). This time we are treated to TWO sidelong tracks, "In Den Gärten Pharaos" and "Vuh." The album features the same line-up as Affenstunde, with Fricke playing organ and fender piano in addition to Moog, and Holger Türlzsch playing African and Turkish percussion.
In Den Gärten Pharaos contains very similar elements as their first album; same Moog, same percussion, same deep space exploration, but this is an altogether more mature and unified work where Fricke & Company have corralled the beastly Moog III synthesizer into a more workable partner as opposed to just a fun toy, creating an early classic, the first of many.
Doubtlessly the 17:38 title track has accompanied many a psychedelic trip, along with the background music to some adventurous meditation. We start off with the sound of water, a recurring theme throughout the song, before we're suddenly plunged headfirst underwater with distant drums and Moog accompaniment to guide us on our journey. The song shifts and changes, carries us along, and it's a very satisfying piece that is literally dripping with atmosphere.
Side two, "Vuh," was recorded live in a church, and has a somewhat different sonic palette, consisting of sustained church organ notes, some chanting and crashing cymbals to go along with the Moog and occasional bongos. This is a deep droning track that ambient artists 30 years later would have been proud to make. A very different feel from side one, although just as spacey.
The SPV version contains TWO 10 minute-plus bonus tracks; "Kha-White Structures 1" and "Kha-White Structures 2." The first one contains more wildly experimental Moog stylings, and again sounds like it could have been a Klaus Schulze track, and a good one. "Kha-White Structures 2" is decidedly less successful, partially due to inferior sound quality, but mostly because of a repetitive high-pitched shrill sound throughout more than half the track. Even I, who have a pretty wide tolerance for some very odd musical noises, found myself waiting eagerly for this track to end. Still, it's reminiscent of some of the more experimental dark ambient music by groups that would come decades later.
Had Popol Vuh stopped after these two albums, they would have gone down in history certainly as groundbreakers among other early German electronic pioneers, but that's about it. Things were about to change, however, and pretty dramatically at that.
Prime-Period Popol Vuh (1972-1978)
There are fans of krautrock, of psychedelia and space rock who only enjoy Popol Vuh's first two albums, but many, like myself, consider them to be more of a jumping off point. As good as those first two albums were, what came next was infinitely more satisfying.
This next very fruitful period produced several albums, and contains their most well-known works. It is here that they established themselves among the all-time greats.
Hosianna Mantra (1972)
Is this the same group? I can only imagine what hungry young Germans heads must have been thinking when back in 1972, eager for more wild outer space music, they opened up the plastic, slipped the LP out of its sleeves and put Hosianna Mantra on the turntable.
Gone were Holger Türlzsch and Frank Fiedler, gone was the Moog synthesizer, and in were Conny Veit (electric and 12-string guitar), Robert Eliscu (oboe), Klaus Wiese (tamboura), Fritz Sonnleitner (violin) and Djong Yun (vocals). One might expect some changes with a whole new line-up (besides the ever-present Fricke, now on piano), even significant ones, but this was nothing short of revolutionary.
Hosianna Mantra has virtually NOTHING WHATSOEVER to do with the two albums that preceded it. Part of that was due to Djong Yun. Fricke said, "I always had this great desire to find an instrument that could express a human voice, of vocals or the singing of a girl for instance, by electronic means. When you listen to In Den Gärten Pharoas on the A-side you will find this voice. And all of a sudden this voice that I felt was in myself really came into my life when Djong Yun appeared. 12" Fricke also said, "I'm a conservative artist, not interested in just pressing buttons, so I went back to piano. Sometimes the power would vary so you couldn't always get the same sound on the synthesizer. It's too dependent on the machinery. It's nothing human. The piano is more direct. 13 That's when I realized that I'd probably be happier if I lived my life with music that had acoustic instruments. 14"
He also said, "Hosianna Mantra is actually a combination of two different cultures, two different languages, two different lives. It has a dual meaning; ‘Hosianna,' which is a religious Christian word and ‘Mantra,' from Hinduism. Behind all of that I was convinced that basically all religions are the same. You always find it in your own heart. 15" Fricke referred to Hosianna Mantra as "a mass, a church mass, but not for church - a conscious reflection upon religions origin is included in this music, but not in particular to any religious groups. 16 I don't want to use synthesizers as part of Christian religious music, but you can't refer to it as church music unless you consider your own body as a church and your ears as its door. 17"
So how does it sound, you ask? Nothing short of majestic - a revelation, an epiphany, a high point in the history of music. From the first moments of the first track (the appropriately named "Ah!"), we know that this is something special. Suddenly Florian Fricke puts to use all those years of musical training on the piano to create something wonderful. The instrumentation outside of the piano keeps the song flowing along, but the piano drives this song with chords and runs up and down the length of the piano that must have sounded radical even to avant-garde jazz fans, and yet the whole thing is beautiful and peaceful.
Once we get to the second track, "Kyrie," electric guitar takes over as the dominant instrument, and never before have I heard such beautiful, fluid, melodic sounds emanate from an electric guitar. Conny Veit came over to Fricke's house every day for almost half a year to prepare for this album. Entering next are the soaring soprano vocals of the Korean Djong Yun, and we're transported to a musical landscape heretofore unseen. The lyrics are based on a text by Martin Buber, a Jewish philosopher, but unless you're fluent in Latin you won't understand what's being said anyway. With singing this beautiful, Yun could be singing the proverbial phone book and it wouldn't matter. She truly becomes another instrument.
The song dips, swoons, soars and takes off, and we haven't even gotten to the ten-minute "Hosianna Mantra," truly one of the most beautiful and unique pieces of music ever to grace the earth. Where Fricke was channeling this stuff from is a mystery, but we're well out of the realm of krautrock and electronic music here and into something that can perhaps only loosely be described as rock. I will say no more about the song "Hosianna Mantra" other then around the 5:15 mark, soon after the oboe enters the mix, Djong Yun does something vocally that is one of the most spinetingling moments I've ever heard in music. Side one is truly musical perfection on another plane.
Though side one contains three separate tracks, the side itself is called "Hosianna Mantra." Side two is called "Das V. Buch Mose" ("The Fifth Book of Moses") and is more pastoral, more classical, and it's here where perhaps the roots of what prompted people to later refer to Popol Vuh as new age music sprouted from. It still carries the same instrumentation as side one; the same beautiful vocals, the same fluid guitar, the same pulsating tamboura, oboe and violin, but it's more muted and gentle. I don't find myself listening to side two nearly as much as side one, but it would be hard to deny its beauty.
The bonus track here is the 4:30 "Maria (Ave Maria)," and it's something special and unique. It's almost the missing link between the dizzying heights of side one of "Hosianna Mantra" and the more peaceful side two of "Das V. Buch Mose," but with some bongos thrown into the mix for a fuller sound. As bonus tracks go on CD's, this is one of the best I've ever heard.
See Part 2 of the Popul Vuh retrospective
Also see our interview with photographer Bettina Waldthausen (Florian Fricke's widow)
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