Though created for use in the Werner Herzog film of the same name, Popol Vuh have managed to create an ambient soundtrack that works without knowledge of the film
Unlike many film soundtracks, Aguirre genuinely holds up to the test as a standalone album away from the context of the film. Popol Vuh’s music functions excellently as ‘passive listening’, however, paying close attention to the album can indeed evoke powerful imagery that is totally separate from the film that it accompanies. Its transcendent tone is felt from the opening track Aguirre I, which begins with a rather angelic feel to it, before escalating to a darker, somewhat more menacing atmosphere. To me, the images it conjures up are of the final judgement, a notion that is common amongst much Abrahamic theology, in which the listener feels almost pulled back and forth between contrasting hellish and heavenly ethers. The pan pipes at the end of the track almost convey an irrelevance to the investment the listener might have had put into his or her drastically swinging emotions whilst listening to the song up until that point. The Vuh then continue to lull the listener into a false sense of security with Morgengruss II a beautiful, chilled out track with wonderful twanging guitars, before heading back into the unfinished business of the opening track as they jump to Aguirre II.
This song starts the same way as Aguirre I does, but this time the ominous otherworldly ambience is replaced by a much more hopeful and optimistic electric guitar solo. This call-back to the opening song is a way of rewarding the listener that they survived the grim and scary experience of the first Aguirre I and in light of this, they were now being rewarded for their endurance with relaxing and cheerful music. The subsequent track Agnus Dei, my favourite song on the album, starts off with the an oboe solo more akin to what might be heard on a classical music composition, however, the piece momentarily seamlessly flows into a more punky twang reminiscent of Patti Smith, before blending the softer sound of the oboe and potentially a flute with an electric guitar and drums to create a deeply enchanting sound that surprisingly works brilliantly. Perhaps the biggest curveball of the album is Vergegenwärtigung, the nearly 17 minute track that follows it, which sounds more like a soundscape that might be selected to accompany a particular aspect of a niche modern art exhibition. It is different from the music I am usually into, however, as a passive piece of listening it works as the ghost-like quality it gives to the album, due to the wind-like sounds that can be heard from presumably a synthesizer, create a spooky mood which can really be admired as a diversion in style from the three tracks that proceed it.
“Overall, whilst this album as a piece of ambient music is at some points jarring, it is most successful on taking the listener on a sonic voyage."
Aguirre III finally lifts its audience out of the desolate world Vergegenwärtigung may have left them in and even though it is somewhat foreboding in its style, it is considerably more active and vibrant, allowing the listener to feel like they can trust that the album and the journey that they have been on is finally culminating for better or worse. Overall, whilst this album as a piece of ambient music is at some points jarring, it is most successful on taking the listener on a sonic voyage. Much like Brian Eno’s work on the ambient half of David Bowie’s album “Heroes”, the album show real musical nous and does so in not curtailing to the masses in simply being a piece of instrumental music that simply pleases its listeners. For Popol Vuh to be spoken of in the same breathe as legends Eno and Bowie is certainly testament to the brilliance of this album.
Aguirre is the soundtrack to the 1972 Werner Herzog film Aguirre Wrath of God, which is about a group of Spanish conquistadors searching for the mythical city of gold known as El Dorado. The leader of the expedition decides to send out a search party down river to look ahead. A particularly unhinged conquistador named Lope de Aguirre is a part of this group, who initiates a mutiny against the appointed leader, and slowly takes over control of the expedition, driven by the desire to find the golden city. As expected, he goes insane. The film itself is classic Herzogian fare, touching on his favourite themes of obsession, isolation, ambition and insanity, starring his best actor, the volcanic Klaus Kinski (for those interested, the documentary My Best Fiend goes into brilliant detail about their tense and turbulent working relationship over five films, and his fractured relationship with everyone else, to the point where a native tribe in South America once offered to kill Kinski for Herzog due to his wildly unreasonable and unpleasant behaviour on set), but I’m not here to review the film per se, rather examine how the wonderful sounds of Popol Vuh’s soundtrack fit to the film. A fair amount of the soundtrack was not used in the film, and in the end only the Aguirres, I, II and III appear.
The film, at 94 minutes, is short, and the use of the soundtrack is sparse and effectively used. We open upon beautiful shots of the Andean mountains and low clouds, and we soon see the many people of the expedition walking, as small as ants on the mountainside. The music is completely not of the era it is depicting, it is cosmic and celestial, and laid over these scenes it lends them a spiritual quality. It is ethereal and hypnotic, much like the fictional place they’re searching for. This extended sequence comes to an abrupt end when a cannon falls off a cliff, exploding, and we’re brought sharply back to earth. This shows us that the music is designed to indicate to us both the folly of the search and the increasing insanity of the searchers, whereas the evil they do is always grounded in stony silence. This is further reflected in two ways, that the music is often played later after Aguirre makes his various power plays and furthers his ambition to lead the expedition further down the river to find El Dorado, and it plays almost continuously during final ten or so minutes of the film, where Aguirre’s madness has fully taken hold. The music is designed to sound otherworldly, and thus the use of it in these scenes suggests that the characters grip on reality is slipping. The music punctuates the madness of the characters on screen, often using the opening refrain from Aguirre I, and also the pan pipes from the end of it.
The pan pipes are particularly interesting as in the film they are presented as diegetic, by which I mean the source is visible on screen. They are played by an indigenous member of the search party, and it is played after important plot developments, during the peaceful aftermath when the characters are recouping. It is played after Aguirre’s mutiny, it is played after an attack on their raft and Aguirre orders them to shoot bullets in vain into the forest, and it is played after the murder of an indigenous tribesman who blasphemes the word of God, followed by the proclamation of an empire in the river. The clear indication there is that this is used as an almost ironic refrain to highlight the peaceful nature of the indigenous peoples they exploit and the violence and folly of the colonisers.
The sparse use of the soundtrack is effective, as it makes us ponder why it is being used specifically in these scenes and what themes it serves to draw attention to, but in a broader sense the grandiose, spiritual tones of Popol Vuh fit the visual tone of the film, which is both minimalist and epic, with Herzog fully taking advantage of the beautiful and dramatic vistas around him.