Interview by Jason Gross
Of all of the bands lumped into the category of 'krautrock' in the early '70's, perhaps the most out of place groups there was Popol Vuh, if only because 'rock' had little or nothing to do with their music. The creation of keyboard player/composer Florian Fricke, PV was arguably the most spiritual of the German bands at that time, more in line with the politically-correct term for the movement, 'kosmische Musik' (or cosmic music). In addition to Fricke's outlook on life and music, PV also pioneered the use of the synthesizer in German rock- even Tangerine Dream looked to Fricke for assistance on one of their early albums (Zeit, 1972) to play the instrument as a guest. Fricke would go on to a fruitful collaboration with director Werner Herzog, scoring a number of his best films- this music was collected in a recent boxset . Fricke was also releasing PV albums until the late '90's before passing away in 2001.
After publishing an extensive article on Popol Vuh by Gary Bearman in 2008, PSF was contacted by photographer Bettina Waldthausen, who happens to be Fricke's widow. She was delighted by the article and we couldn't pass up the chance to then follow-up with her and ask if she could talk to us about Fricke. She was receptive to the idea and here we're proud to present an interview with her as she shares some fascinating details about Fricke's life and work.
About the above photo, Bettina said "This is my favorite picture (of Florian). Also the on the back cover from TANTRIC SONGS."
PSF: How did you first meet Florian?
Bettina Waldthausen: I met Florian in 1966. He was 22 and asked me if I was interested to play the female role in his first short-film, a silent movie. Film interested him most after he had given up his studies as a pianist, though he was very talented and had won several classical piano competitions in the age of 13, 15. I think he was at that time, what you call a 'wunderkind.'
Unfortunately, this film was never finished, because the money run out. But it was a lot of fun and a very creative time. Later, both of us worked on the team for Werner Herzog's first movie Lebenszeichen in Greece, (with) Florian as sound-assistant, and me as still photographer. Werner, whom we both knew independently from each other, had conceived for Florian in this film a short passage, where you see Florian in the uniform of a young German soldier, playing Chopin in an abandoned Turkish mosque. This was the first time I heard Florian on the piano. I was fascinated while listening to his play in that old empty mosque, where chickens and cats, our daily audience, ran through the building. A rather strange situation.
Florian worked at that time as a music and film journalist for Suddeutsche Zeitung and other well know magazines. One day, he met Eberhard Schoener, who was at that time the conductor of the Munich Youth Symphony Orchestra and our neighbor in the country. In a few weeks, Eberhard was proud owner of the first big Moog Synthesizer in Germany, which he had bought directly from Mr. Moog in New York. So he was the one who introduced Florian to this electronic wonder-machine. I remember they had no manual or hand-out- it was really learning by doing while they switched and connected the buttons in all possible combinations, each one a new sound on the keyboard. I think that evening was the turning point in Florian's life, the beginning of his comeback into music. The Moog allowed him to create new sound structures, sound paintings alike. It was very different from all he had done and heard before. Florian, together with his friend Frank Fiedler, worked day and night- two obsessed magicians, following a vision. And fortunately we had some money from a legacy to buy the Moog. A year later Affenstunde was produced (the first LP of more then twenty) and he became an absolute newcomer in the German music scene at that time.
PSF: How do you think that Florian's personality fed into the work that he did as a musician and composer?
BW: Not easy to answer because Florian didn't fit into any category. He was no rock musician, like for instance the Amon Duuls, nor was he any longer a classical pianist, though he loved to play Bach and Mozart, and Gustav Mahler was one of his favorites. Certainly, he would never have identified himself with Krautrock. However, he had a bit of a connection from all that, plus a huge interest in mythology and world cultures. He read the Upanishads, Platon, Pythagoras, Egyptian history, Christian Philosophy as well as science fiction novels and fairy-tales from all over the world. Some of this you can find in the album titles, like for example In the Gardens Pharaos or Hosianna Mantra or Messa di Orfeo.
PSF: Otherwise, do you think that Florian felt any kind of kinship with other 'krautrock' artists during the 70's and afterwards?
BW: As far as I know not. He had contact with Klaus Schulze, and during Rolf Ulrich Kaiser's Cosmic Courier time, he made a sampler with Tangerine Dream. He knew of course the Amon Duuls, Ashra Tempel and others, who came into our house from time to time to listen, or he met them in the scene. But I wouldn't call it 'kinship.' Yet, he was very pleased when he heard that other musicians, like for instance Enigma, appreciated Popol Vuh. Florian was always an individualist and a solitary man, all his life. He needed and loved the group-work while he worked for a new LP, and that could go for months, and he could inspire people a lot during this time. But in the deep corner of his heart, he was a loner who could sit for hours and hours in a place, just following his ideas and imaginations. Frank Fiedler, with whom he produced several albums, was one of the few friends– a companion with whom he could share. And a few others perhaps. Frank, by the way, calls Popol Vuh's music simply 'lyrics.' I think Florian had loved that. Or... 'world-music,' not only for one country, one color, one race. The CD's show, that Florian's music, even now, more than 12 years since he left, is really all over the world- in Europe, Russia, Poland, Japan, USA, Australia, Brazil and many other countries. He would be very glad.
PSF: From your perspective, what did Florian's music mean to him? In other words, how did he see his own work?
BW: I think that music was part of his identity. And by identity, I mean bringing heart, body and mind together. 'Music is for me a form of prayer - like an invocation,' he said once. One of the secrets of his music is for me is that he used, especially in the later tracks, consciously the rhythm of the heart and the rhythm of the in-and out breath. To follow the rhythm of the breath brings harmony and Florian was very much aware of that. This is also the reason why he stopped with using the Moog , because, as he said, the electronic sound is against the natural flow of the heartbeat. So he went back to the human voice and human instruments. How did he see his own work? I think he wanted always to be close to the human heart- that was his message, and also close to what I call the 'pulse of time.' For instance, the night when the Iraq war one started, Florian was in the studio for the production of For you and me. He was so shocked, so sad because he remembered all the beautiful people and the hospitality which he had found on this long trip via Iran, Iraq, this old country between Euphrates and Tigris, on the way to the Himalayas. And he titled the track of that night "Little Basari" in memory to the people of Iraq.
PSF: How did you see Florian's music change and evolve over the years?
BW: This is difficult to say for me. I love so many of his tracks. Affenstunde is very young and beautiful, experimental and creative. Hosianna Mantra is his first devotion to the female voice, absolutely pure and magic. Einsjäger- Siebenjäger is again full of a creative, rhythmic power and the begin of Florian's co-operation with Danny Fichelscher. Sei still wisse ich Bin has these hymnic choirs, which I perhaps love most, each of them. And Spirit of Peace is for me one of the highlights. Same: For you and Me.
To come to your question, how did it happen, that the magic sound of Popol Vuh changed with the beginning of the nineteenth (1999)? It was the year when Florian needed a severe operation on his hand, because he suffered on a painful progressive muscle contraction in his right hand (we call it in German: Dupuytrenschen Kontraktur), which made it difficult for him to move the fingers on the piano, and after the operation, the hand did never really recover to play as before. So Florian, creative as he was, had to find new ways to express his music. It was the beginning of a new studio - phase and a new collaboration with Frank Fiedler and Guido Hyronimus, and you find suddenly again keyboard and electronic and that new ambient. The sound of City Raga, Shepherd's Symphony and Messa di Orfeo, creative, exciting, but very different from the old Popol Vuh compositions. Messa di Orfeo is again different, the first time, where Florian uses the "deep singing" choir from his breath-therapy-experience, a special technique which he had formed and which he called "the Alphabet of the Body" (wee on www. popolvuh nl). So there are many influences.
PSF: Who were Florian's favorite musical artists that inspired his own work?
BW: The answer will surprise you. Gustav Mahler's "Song of the Earth" was one of his favorites when he was young. I think it has influenced him with the choirs and in the human voice. He loved the female voice. But also the long tempi of Indian Ragas and Greek bouzouki melody and Greek dance- rhythm influenced him. After the years as a music journalist, where he had to listen to so many concerts, he didn't really listen very much to music. He loved silence. I think he needed that. He could sit for hours in a place, listening inwards. It gave him space to see what came from his inside voice.
Many artists are like this. They need silence to find the own inner voices. Florian used to say: there are so many sounds around us today that we don't hear any sound anymore. In the last years, Florian had a little transistor radio, with which he used to receive at night music from all over the world, Africa, Asia. He loved the differences between countries and continents.
PSF: A lot of Florian's work sounded spiritual in nature. Did he see it that way?
BW: Yes, if you mean a grounded spirituality. Florian was all his life very interested in the spiritual nature of men and he saw his music always as a contribution on this field, from the very beginning. He had a real interest in anthropology, ethnology and in the Old Wisdom Teachings of all countries. I would say all that together formed his rich spiritual background. Many of the titles are come from here. Like Hosianna Mantra,Seeligpreisungen, Hohe Lied. But also Brothers of Darkness and Brothers of Light, which mean the polarities which you meet on the spiritual journey. Other titles with a spiritual context are for instance were Sei still wisse ich Bin, Mantram of Touching the Earth. We know about the need and so on. I believe Florian's deepest wish was to touch the heart. And that is what happens if you listen to Popol Vuh, even after so many years: it can bring you in your heart. Someone wrote to Florian. "My baby cried all night . I didn't know what to do. But when I played Hosianna Mantra it stopped at once."
PSF: Could you talk about Florian's working relationship with Werner Herzog? How did they get along? How would Florian figure out what was the right music for the movie soundtracks? Did he have a particular favorite?
BW: There is so much written about Werner and Florian's collaboration that there is not really much to add. They were friends from youth and both very opposite strong characters, each of them a magician. Werner with his beautiful unique archetypical movie/pictures, Florian with his unique magical sound. As far as I remember, Werner came into Florian's studio to listen to the latest recordings, and most of the time he found soon what he was looking for. In some cases, like for instance Cobra Verde, music had to be completed afterwards. But most of the time, the tracks were already there, before the film was done. I don't think, he had a particular favorite. You go with the path. When the work is done, you take the next step on your inner path. He only listened to the recordings- that he was just working with - for hours, day and night.
PSF: Do you have any favorite music that you really like of Florian that brings back particularly nice memories? Maybe a song or an album?
BW: Yes, many. See above. All choirs-parts, and perhaps track 07 from Im Garten der Gemeinschaft, "Als lebten die Engel auf Erde," which is also used at the end of the Kailash-video. Of course Aguirre - Lacrime di Rei; For you and me "When love is calling you." Hosianna Mantra. But there are many others as well. What I would really like to be republished are the videos Kailash and Sei Still, wisse ich Bin. They are beautiful. But we don't have the money at the moment to make good copies. We have also material for a solo piano LP, which is not yet published. But the time will come...
PSF: If Florian was still with us, what type of music do you think he would be doing now?
BW: This is always the secret. Nobody can say. But if you would give him good facilities, that means good equipment and a sufficient budget to do the work , I think he would do a wonderful new sound installation, as he has done in Molfetta and Fano, and realize his vision from 'good rooms,' places where people could come together in a peaceful and open way and listen to the music, to recover their souls.
Listening to the movement
in the stillness.
Listening to the sound
in the stillness.
This leads to the experience
of what vibration itself truly is.
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