Popol Vuh—
Music From The Film Aguirre

Released 1976 on Cosmic Music
The Seth Man, June 2012ce
Although Werner Herzog’s film “Aguirre, Der Zorn Gottes” (“Aguirre, The Wrath Of God”) was released in West Germany in December of 1972, its accompanying Popol Vuh soundtrack didn’t materialize on record until 1976. When it did, it was hardly a note-by-note recounting of that film’s accompanying music in its entirety, due in part to the dozen reoccurring, incidental passages of volume-controlled electric guitar as well as the reiteration of the main theme in three different configurative states. Principally, the “Music From The Film Aguirre” album was released to fulfill a contractual agreement Popol Vuh founder Florian Fricke had agreed to years earlier with Rolf-Ulrich Kaiser’s Ohr Records subsidiary label, Pilz. What was eventually assembled as an album were two versions of the self-titled main theme, a side-long Moog synthesizer-based piece recorded in 1972 (chronologically the last such outing on a Popol Vuh recording), and a pair of acoustic reveries, “Morgengruss II” and “Agnus Dei” -- previously known as “Morgengruss” and “Gutes Land” when they first appeared on Popol Vuh’s 1974 album, “Einsjäger & Siebenjäger.”

To further confuse the contractual fulfillment/patchwork nature of this album, the front and back covers display neither stills nor poster art from “Aguirre, Der Zorn Gottes” and not even a mention of its director but reproductions of antique Indian paintings (one of a lotus pond with cranes, the other of two seated ranis-in-waiting) that are completely unrelated not only to the film but Kaiser’s kosmische art direction as well. The album’s credits were also inaccurate, listing personnel and instrumentation as: ‘Florian Fricke: piano, spinet; Daniel Fichelscher: E & A guitar, percussion; Djong Yun: vocal.’ Not only was this Popol Vuh’s 1974 personnel lineup but Djong Yun is nowhere to be heard on this entirely instrumental album. (There’s also uncredited oboe and violin on the album, presumably the work of “Hosianna Mantra”-era Popol Vuh players.) But most mystifying of all is the absence of any mention of the two electronic keyboards Fricke used on the majority of the album to dazzling effect: The Moog synthesizer and the choir-organ. It is Fricke’s work on these two instruments that contribute to make the original material on “Music From The Film Aguirre” hit as high the mark in the Popol Vuh canon as “Affenstunde” or “In Den Gärten Pharaos.” Or at very least, the highest since significant changes took hold in Popol Vuh in the four years since the mammoth perfection that was, is, and always will be “In Den Gärten Pharaos.” Most obvious of these changes was Fricke’s discontinued use of his four-module Moog synthesizer and embracement of acoustic instrumentation based around the foundation of his piano compositions. With ideals of healing, song and prayer guiding Fricke’s hand, heart and head (and with it, Popol Vuh’s sound) they remained busy, recording a series of four highly reserved and sublime albums: “Hosianna Mantra” (1973) for Pilz; “Seligpreisung” (1974) and “Einsjäger & Siebenjäger” (1974) for Kosmische Musik; and “Das Hohelied Salomos” (1975) for United Artists.1

I only offer this preamble of minutiae to clear away some of the many misconceptions about a very overlooked and misjudged album that offers so much in terms of substantially transcendental moments. Moments which were the direct result of Fricke’s interfacing with not only the Moog synthesizer (in 1969, Fricke owned one of the very first Moog synthesizers in West Germany) but also the lesser known choir-organ. The choir-organ was a unique, handmade instrument capable of producing sounds similar to a mellotron recorded with substantial tape echo. The creator of this machine was an Austrian by the name of Herbert Prasch, owner of Bavaria Studios in Munich where his self-made keyboard instrument was stored. This machine, according to Amon Düül II guitarist John Weinzierl, was ‘comprised of four big boxes with tape recorders and four sets of keyboards’ and was initially used by American keyboardist Jimmy Jackson on Amon Düül II’s 1971 album, “Tanz Der Lemminge.” Jackson later continued his choir-organ contributions throughout Amon Düül II’s fifth album, “Wolf City,” as well as the one-off Amon Düül II project, Utopia. (The highlights included: “Surrounded By The Stars,” “Green-Bubble-Raincoated-Man,” “Jail-House Frog” and most noticeably of all -- both Amon Düül II’s and its offshoot Utopia’s respective versions of the terrifying “Deutsch Nepal.”)

It was at this time of the “Wolf City” sessions that Florian Fricke lent his Moog synthesizer to Amon Düül II, which indirectly led to his discovery of the choir-organ through several hubs of associations: not only with Bavaria Studios (where Popol Vuh had recorded many of their albums since their inception) but Amon Düül II (who shared a common member with Popol Vuh in Daniel Fichelscher) as well as Herbert Prasch (who also worked as a sound engineer on films directed by Werner Herzog.) Regardless of the sequence of events, Fricke did discover the choir-organ, did recordings for Werner Herzog’s film and then...

Magic did happen.

And it happened in a big way because when the album begins with exactly the same fanfare as the film, “Aguirre I,” it was as if blinding eternity was unfolding in sonic form; a place where the vastness of the human heart is cut open and left to bleed deep as the ocean and as high as mountains in Sisyphusian despair while a balm of angelic choirs beam down into it to sooth with antiseptic acceptance of the universe. This is the proto-“Apocalypse Now” harrowing horror of the film “Aguirre” boiled down into a concentrated dose of insuperable beauty that both soars to the heavens in great agape while spiraling downward in unbearable grief all at once. Throughout this juxtaposition, Eternity sits above on her fat and absorptive throne of royal jelly not watching but anticipating all manifold, inevitable outcomes without a care and still it continues in its sad and joyful caresses. It’s beyond words. It’s beyond worlds. Play it at my funeral and I will be released. Fuck, I always mused that if Joy Division had continued past 1980 they would’ve not only pursued their escalating forays into electronic music but would’ve stayed there. And if they’d stayed there, it would’ve ultimately culminated with an all-ambient release that would’ve sounded a lot like...“Aguirre I.” It’s less a two-degrees-of-separation-Herzog-related game of ‘what if’ and more just the ultimate stillness, the timelessness of this simple yet majestic piece that always moved me, convinced me, made me believe and then made me sob uncontrollably. (At very least, Rob Gretton would’ve been playing it over the P.A. as a pre-gig prelude to his charges filing out onstage and the effect would’ve been similar to actually hearing Davie Allan & The Arrows blaring from the P.A. just prior to a Psychic TV set -- which I’ve been led to believe from very reliable sources actually DID happen. But let the magic continue...)

Two of the aforementioned “Einsjäger & Siebenjäger” tracks flank the second “Aguirre” theme and both are pastoral, near-vignette length exercises. “Morgengruss II” is comprised of clear Telecaster electric and acoustic guitar lines by Daniel Fichelscher that are meandering, airy, gentle but precise and purposefully focused. “Agnus Dei” is an ensemble piece comprised of oboe, piano, electric guitar and drums that build slowly into ensuing waves of tidal vibes that pulsate until Daniel Fichelscher steps out with clean Telecaster soloing. In between this pair lands the reprise of the main theme, “Aguirre II,” split between that heart-rending choir-organ and an obvious cross-fade into an acoustic passage recorded by Fricke and Fichelscher with all the Telecaster-electric-guitar-alongside-acoustic-12-string hallmarks of “Einsjäger & Siebenjäger.”

Side two is taken up with the darkened and über-restrained dream cloud of “Vergegenwärtigung.”2 Translated into English, it means “visualisation” and for nearly 17 minutes there is nothing but visualisations of the most minimalist and deeply cosmic kind. A collage of passing shadows and weighty, heft-shifting polarities, it begins quietly with a violin droning slowly in the corner (perhaps the bowing work of Fritz Sonneleitner, the violinist on Popol Vuh’s “Hosianna Mantra” album?) as UFO-hovering-above sounds emerge from Fricke’s Moog to overlay in quiet restlessness. A variation of the Moog voicings he perfected on side one of “In den Gärten Pharaos” swell in and out of the main wash of electronic ebb and flow. This continues in its balance between formlessness and compositional strength of direction as it treads nowhere and everywhere at once but ever-so-lightly as it does so. Absent from the original 1976 album are overdubbed snatches of “Aguirre I” that appear briefly and softly several times at song’s midpoint, only to vanish back into the ethereal folds from whence it came. The whirring of electronic locusts appear then fall away, great undertows crash, and further voicings dot its quietude but nothing distracts its sustaining, deeply meditational course.

“Music From The Film Aguirre,” man. It’s unbelievable the degree of and depth of transcendental qualities to be found in a record released only to honour a clause in a recording contract, but I’m grateful that it did.

  1. Note: In all certainty, it was probably this last-named album that caused Rolf-Ulrich Kaiser to demand a further Popol Vuh album for his label. As it turned out, “Music From The Film Aguirre” would be one of the last, if not the last, for Kaiser’s adventurously cosmic label.
  2. The CDs on SPV and Arcàngelo Records seem to be the closest to what Fricke intended. Many other iterations of the album either deleted, repositioned or added tracks off completely different Popol Vuh releases. In the case of “Vergegenwärtigung,” it was broken up into three parts with entirely different music Popol Vuh recorded in the late seventies.