Skip to main content

Profile Popol Vuh

Coming from a musical family, Florian Fricke (Lindau, 23 february 1944 - Munich, 29 december 2001) started to play piano at a very young age, to be followed by musical studies in Freiburg and München. Also film had his interest. He made some short films before his twenties. Professionally he first established himself as a journalist for the Süddeutsche Zeitung, writing on music and film. He reviewed mainly concerts of classical music, but also concerts of Bee Gees, Mothers of Invention, La Monte Young, Sammy Davis, free jazz, etc. Assisting Eberhard Schoener for his musical contribution to the 1970 World Exhibition in Osaka, he came in touch with the Moog III. Impressed by this instrument, he decided to buy one himself. The Moog opened doors to new musical territories Fricke was eager to explore. He asked Frank Fiedler, educated as a cameraman and cutter, to join for technical assistance, and Holger Trülzsch as a percussion player. Popol Vuh was born. Some of the first results on the Moog found their way to the soundtracks of ‘Wintermärchen‘ (1971, Ulf von Mechow), ‘Antarktis’(1971, George Moorse) and ‘Auch Zwerge haben klein angefangen‘ (1970, Werner Herzog). The name ‘Popol Vuh’ points at another fascination. Together with his friend Werner Herzog, Fricke was inspired by the holy book ‘Popol Vuh’ of the Quiche Mayan Indians. This book helped Fricke to understand other holy books, as he stated in an early interview, demonstrating his search for the essence of religion. With this approach, he searched for inspiration in Christian spirituality as well in the spirituality of eastern religions, etc. Also for musical inspiration Fricke literally crossed many borders during his life. Both these elements – Moog and religion - show how Fricke as a member of the young post-war generation in West-Germany, was seeking for new points of departure in many respects.

In 1969 Gerhard Augustin, Director of Creative Services for United Artists was looking around for a Moog-act. He offered Florian Fricke a deal and ‘Affenstunde’ (1970) became the result. Besides Moog, percussion and environmental sounds make up the ingredients from which Popol Vuh built their first sonic excursions into space. As originator of the Beatclub at Radio Bremen, Augustin made happen Popol Vuh’s first television appearance (‘Bettina’). At this stage Popol Vuh shared an interest for electronics and music that is not rooted in the Anglo-American pop- and rock culture, with bands like Tangerine Dream (‘Electronic Meditation’, 1970), Kluster (‘Klopfzeichen’, 1971) and Kraftwerk (‘Kraftwerk’, 1970).

The Moog is already less prominent on their second album ‘In den Garten Pharaos‘(1972). The title track is a lengthy Moog-piece. In this track Fricke wanted to evoke the human voice and after this exercise the Moog was no longer attractive for Fricke. The Moog adventure turned out to be a necessary route that would led the classical trained Fricke back to the human voice and acoustical instruments. The other track on this album, ‘Vuh’, dominated by the organ of the church of Baumburg, is first evidence of this change. It is an exceptional drone like piece that is also unlike what Popol Vuh would produce later. After this album Trülzsch left Popol Vuh. Fiedler also, but he returns from time to time in later years and becomes involved again especially in the last phase of Popol Vuh.

Consequently ‘Hosianna Mantra’(1973) marks a new step. Fricke surrounds himself with new musicians like Conny Veit (guitar), Robert Eliscu (oboe), Klaus Wiese (tanpura) and Djong Yun (voice), daughter of Korean composer Isang Yun. An unequalled album for its intertwining of the spiritual and the profane. The album marks the beginning of an impressive creative outburst that would last for more than a decade.

Important during this phase were the contributions of former Amon Düül II drummer and guitarist Daniel Fichelscher, who makes his first appearance on ‘Seligpreisung’(1974). Yun was not available for the recording of this album, so that ‘Seligpreisung’ became the only album that has Florian singing throughout the album. Texts come from the bible: The beautitudes in Matthew, ch.5. On the rockier and heavier ‘Das Hohelied Salomos’(1975) texts were taken from the book of Wisdom. Accordingly to Fricke the collaboration with Fichelscher really took off with the album ‘Einsjäger und Siebenjäger’ (1975). Parts of it were recorded in just one take, exemplifying it was the beginning of an extremely fruitful collaboration and an expression of pure jubilation as Fricke stated in interviews.

With his blistering and emotional guitar work Fichelscher made his mark on many of the Popol Vuh albums. An album like ‘Letzte Tage, letzte Nächte’(1976 ) would not be possible without him. But also this album would be impossible without multi-tracking, a technique that Popol Vuh was heavily dependent on throughout their existence. This album shows Popol Vuh from its most rocking and dynamic side. But even here it is evident that a remarkable spiritualism defines the music. In a down-to-earth way Fricke wanted his music to be a ‘healing force’, an ‘uplifting experience for the human soul’. This spiritual quality is inherent and constitutive for all the music he made during his career. This proves Fricke was successful in communicating these intentions to the musicians involved.

Speaking of these aspirations the music press didn’t feel at ease and consequently Fricke often felt misunderstood and by consequence interviews were rarely permitted. This was strengthened by the fact that Popol Vuh didn’t led the live of a common rock band. They were very seldom seen on stage. To be more precise, ‘they’ were not a band at all. Above all Popol Vuh was a project by Florian Fricke who needed other musicians to delve up the music he intuitively carried with him.

In between recording Popol Vuh was non-existent and Fricke devoted his time travelling the globe, developing his breath therapy, etc. He didn’t join other musical groups or projects. There is only one guest appearance on ‘Zeit’ (1972) of Tangerine Dream that has Fricke playing Moog, and his collaboration for the psychedelic album ‘Bury my heart at Wounded Knee’ (1973) by Gila (Veid, Fichelscher). He was in contact with the people from Amon Düül II, like Renate Knaup who sang on many Popol Vuh albums, and many other musicians, film directors, artists in the lively Munich scene of the early 70s.

In reaching an international public the soundtrack work for the films of Werner Herzog was helpful. The international success of ‘Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes’ (1973), to become one of the classical films of the new German cinema, brought many people into first contact with the music of Popol Vuh. To profit from this success the incoherent album ‘Aguirre’(1976) was compiled from new and older work. Four more soundtracks would follow between 1976 and 1982: ‘Heart of Glass’, ‘Nosferatu’, ‘Fitzcarraldo’, and ‘Cobra Verde’, plus several documentaries. Sometimes Fricke explicitly composed music for a movie, like the famous ‘Aguirre’-theme, played on a mellotron-like instrument, the so-called 'choir-organ'. At other moments already existing - but not necessarily released - music was used. Also Fricke made two short appearances as an actor in ‘Lebenzseichen’(1968) and ‘Jeder für sich und Gott gegen Alle’(1974), playing – as a blind pianist - ‘Agnus Dei’ from ‘Seligpreisung’.

Fricke directed a few films himself. In 1981 he realized his old dream for an oratorium: ‘Sie still wisse ICH BIN’, released on Klaus Schulze’s label Innovative Communication. An oratorium is a religious piece of music meant for non-liturgical purposes. For the first time Fricke works intensively with a big choir. The accompanying film 'Sei still wisse ICH BIN' is made up of static scenes shot somewhere in Israel. Curiously a famous photo model, Veruschka von Lehndorff, plays the role of a bearded prophet-like figure.

Although the Moog was soon to be dropped aside, electronics made a comeback later in the career of Popol Vuh. On ‘Cobra Verde’(1987) and the albums that followed, Fricke played synclaviers, samplers, etc. This combined well with the wish to create a music that would appeal to a younger audience. Under the influence of his son Johannes, Fricke created two albums (‘City Raga’, 1995; ‘Shepherds Symphony’, 1997) incorporating techno-influences.
The music that would lead to the album ‘Shepherds Dream’ was used for another film by Fricke, ‘Kailash’, that was shot by Frank Fiedler. It is an audio-visual poem evoking a pilgrimage to the holy mountain Kailash in Tibet. Fricke had a special place for Tibet in his heart and learnt a lot here on throat singing techniques. When he died, as a tribute to his mate, Herzog used the track 'Ha'mut, bis dass die Nacht mir Ruh' und Stille kommt' from ‘Cobra Verde’ for his documentary ‘Wheel of Time‘(2003), a film on the pilgrimage to that same mountain Kailash.

From early on Fricke was also interested in breathing therapy. Inspired by the Dutch psychologist and breath therapist Cornelis Veening and by eastern singing techniques, Fricke developed his own breaththerapy named ‘Alphabet of the Body’. An example of this group singing is available through the privately released album ‘Die Erde und Ich sind Eins’ (1983). Considering the Popol Vuh albums, this influence is most obvious in what would become the final Popol Vuh album ‘Messa di Orfeo’(1999). It is a live recording of an audio-visual installation consisting of a chanting choir, a recitating voice, sounds of bees and electronics, situated in so-called ‘Good Rooms’. In earlier music of Popol Vuh this influence was reflected in the pieces where instead of singing chanting is the case, like the ‘Yehung’-chant in ‘We know about the Need’ on ‘Spirit of Peace‘(1985), beautifully sung by Renate Knaup.

Undeniably Fricke was a musical and spiritual visionary. The music of Popol Vuh touches on many styles and influences. And that is why it is fair to say that they were musical forerunners in many ways: ambient, trance, electronic, ethno-fusion, psychedelic folk, raga-rock. All these influences served in a process of creating a deep human music, without the pompous pretensions that are often met in this kind of music. This makes Popol Vuh a unique example of spiritual inspired music, documented on more than 20 albums. They were released on many different record labels resulting in a confusing back catalogue, containing for example two unauthorized albums: ‘Yoga’(1976) and ‘Future Sound Experience‘ (2002).

Between 2004 and 2006 the SPV-label rereleased the most satisfying edition so far of almost all Popol Vuh albums. Among the included bonus tracks is their one and only single ‘Du sollst lieben/Ave Maria’(1972). Frank Fiedler did an enormous job in remastering all the albums.

Dolf Mulder