Werner Herzog's visionary 1972 voyage into the heart of 16th-century colonial madness, Aguirre, Wrath of God is now more than 40 years old, yet its transgressive power to astonish remains undiminished. While its uncanny synthesis of brute historical realism and hallucinatory vision quest is primarily rendered in its mise en scene, it's Herzog's detailed attention to sound, particularly the unearthly soundtrack music of Popol Vuh, that elevates it to the realm of the mythic.
Taking the name from the eponymous sacred book of the Quiche Mayans of pre-colonised Guatemala, Popol Vuh was founded by Herzog's old friend Florian Fricke. Fricke translated its title as 'Meeting Place', a meeting of minds. It was perhaps inevitable that Herzog would initiate his debut collaboration with Fricke's band on Aguirre. Although reputedly ancient, originating in Mayan oral culture, the Popol Vuh was only just being written down at the time in which the film is set.
This admixture of the authentic and the fallacious corresponds with the paradoxical atmosphere of the film. Despite its painstaking authenticity — the actors endured exceptional hardship and were filmed in a visceral documentary style – Aguirre elaborates historicaI fragments into imaginative fantasy, as conquistadors quest futilely for the mythical city of gold invented by the Incas, El Dorado, following a mutiny led by the tyrannical Aguirre (a tour-de-force performance by the volatile Klaus Kinski, whose offscreen outrages were as notorious as those of Kinski’s performance, it is the indifferent landscape that triumphs. The implacable Amazonian jungle is an interiorised landscape mapped out by auditory hallucinations. It’s almost as if Popol Vuh’s main theme ‘Lacrime di Rei’, a spectral ostinato soundscape lasting either a mere six minutes or an eternity, dreamed the visual narrative into being and not the other way around. Landscape and soundscape are interchangeable, granting us access into the group mind of this doomed enterprise, dominated by a tyrant’s mania.
By 1972, Popol Vuh had released two alliums of soundscapes generated by the modular Moog III synthesiser, but Fricke was in the process of abandoning electronic music. ‘The Moog however, is still present in the ' Lacrime'. In a delicate interplay, it generates the pulse for an instrument that, like a Mellotron, consists of a polyphonic keyboard that plays back magnetic tape loops, pre-recorded at different. pitches. Aptly referred to as the 'choir organ', its tape loops were samples of chanting human voices; that, when played, took on an eerie, haunting feel like a celestial choir. lt's the sound that would come to define Aguirre’s sonic textures. When I interviewed her in 2010, Fricke’s widow Bettina von Waldthausen told me that he had been introduced to the choir organ via its inventor Herbert Prasch, the sound engineer on Herzog’s first film Signs of Life (1968) – in which he briefly appeared, appropriately, as pianist.
Referencing sound theorist Michel Chion, the academic Roger Hillman observes that visual content is fixed within the film frame and can only exist on one plane at a time (although practioners of Expanded Cinema have tried to transcend these limitations through multiple projections). Sound, being invisible, is contained by no such boundaries and pervades the air. “Out of time and out of space, music communicates with all times and all spaces of a film, even as it leaves them to their separate and distinct existences," Chion observes. It is this process that Herzog deploys so effectively here, transfiguring realistic images into triggers for states of ecstasy and trance. Although Chion talks generally of the relationship between the moving image and sound, in this instance it is especially pertinent. While conventional Western music is structured around musical progression, the ‘Lacrime’ is repetitive and circular. Circularity is a recurring motif throughout the film: soldiers on one of the rafts down the Rio Urubamba get caught in a whirlpool and eventually drown (the actors endured sickness as a result of filming this scene); Kinski repeatedly uses his trademark Kinski Spiral, in which he circles round into shot from behind the camera; even the Rio Urubamba, when viewed on a map, runs in crazy loops all around Machu Picchu. The uncanny circularity of the music is enhanced by its continually shifting time signature. While the choir organ perpetually repeats its ostinato in 4/4 time, the underlying pulse generated by the Moog synthesiser is syncopated, possibly in 6/8, though there appear to be delay effects that cause the pulse to drift out of time; yet when the chord
structure repeats, the pulse syncopates on different changes, remaining on the beat. While Popol Vuh's music partly derives from non-Western folk musics, the cyclical calling of the choir organ simultaneously evokes developments of Christian plainsong quite contemporary to the film's setting: polyphony, in which multiple voices are pitched at differing intervals. In the early 14th century it was banished from the Liturgy by the Catholic church, who feared its potential for dissonance, then considered evil. Later, the 16th century Spanish composer and priest Tomas Luis de Victoria experimented with dissonant polyphonic intervals more freely than had hitherto been acceptable. It's unlikely that associations of polyphony with evil were conscious intentions during Aguirre's production but to the ears of a 16th-century Catholic conqueror such chanting might have sounded simultaneously ethereal and seductively transgressive. This effect of an aesthetic ecstasy hat is also a hell is amplified by the preternatural quasi-artificiality of the choir organ. In Aguirre’s hallucinatory climax, the sense of human perspective diminishes as the camera begins sweeping- around the raft in wide circles and the repetitious ostinato of ‘Lacrime di Re’ re-emerges as the film's narrator, Brother Gaspar de Carvajal, writes his final diary entry: "I can no longer write, we are drifting in circles." –
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