Music in the Service of Cosmology: Popol Vuh and Giacinto Scelsi

Edward B. Rackley

The best thing about long-distance driving is the sonic qualities of the enclosed acoustic chamber that is the car itself. On a recent pre-dawn drive through the eastern lowlands of North Carolina, two recordings kept me present and transfixed. I knew the pieces well, but the striking commonalities of the two artists had never occurred to me. Their sounds and compositional forms differ dramatically, but both share a belief that music exists to reflect basic cosmological principles—from silence comes word, from tone rhythm, from decay renewal, etc. In different ways, their compositions deliver a direct experience of what each believes to be cosmological truths.

Named after the Mayan genesis myth, Popol Vuh is a German progressive (‘prog’) band best known for its soundtracks to Werner Herzog’s early films. Led by Florian Fricke, Popol Vuh flourished for over three decades, leaving a long and varied discography. Originally a classics scholar, Giacinto Scelsi was an Italian composer often associated with the minimalist movement, despite his music being packed with activity. Scelsi studied Berg and Schoenberg but later abandoned western compositional style in favor of powerful, occasionally violent, monotonal variations.


‘All that is solid melts into air’

I used to imagine insanity in the person of ‘Mr. Madcap Laughs’, Syd Barrett himself, seated at a piano and staring vacantly out a window, repeatedly striking a single key. Such a moment must have occurred, I thought, as a healthy musical mind lost its bearings to madness. Then I learned about Scelsi, whose biography actually involved a similar episode, with one important variation. In complete breakdown after a divorce, Scelsi reportedly remained slumped at his piano playing a single note over and over again. Fully absorbing each note’s resonance and decay, he later cited the experience as therapy, claiming it triggered his compositional transformation and opened the door to his entire future oeuvre.

Trading a piano for an ondiola, a small electronic instrument with a three-octave keyboard, Scelsi developed a style in which tonal variations (microtones) not only found a place, but formed the core of his expression. He combined musical styles from around the world, incorporating them into his personal view of the mystical power of sound. Resonance and the lack of uniformity even within a single sound was Scelsi's most significant insight.

Like his American contemporary Morton Feldman, Scelsi meditated deeply on the resonance of a note or sound as it faded into silence. A single sound is not a musical point in time, but a dynamic, wavering entity shaped by a variety of textures and conditions. His switch from writing for piano, whose notes fade after being struck, to compositions for string instruments allowed sounds to be sustained indefinitely. Their volume could made to grow, diminish or remain constant, allowing Scelsi's music to draw extreme power and tension from a single note. 250px-Konxompax

For Konx-Om-Pax, Scelsi explained the title as the “three aspects of Sound: as the first motion of the immutable; as creative force; as the syllable Om.” The three words arguably translate to 'peace' in Assyrian, Sanskrit and Latin, respectively. The phrase was purportedly used in the Eleusinian Mysteries; this image is taken from a 1907 Aleister Crowley text of the same name.

In retrospect, Scelsi's fundamental concerns were fairly typical of the 1960s. His interest in world music, and especially Eastern mysticism, was very much in the air and was reflected in both the classical and popular spheres. More technically, his approach to sound and timbre answers questions posed by the avant-garde of the era, particularly Stockhausen's 'timbre-music' and Cage's abdication of compositional control.

In Scelsi's case, the former is especially prominent, as timbre fluctuations serve as the primary dynamic around which individual movements are constructed. Recalling the repeated single notes of his piano epiphany, Scelsi erected entire forms around discrete tones, articulated in various octaves by various instruments. Shifts in orchestration, as well as microtonal slurs, inject a dynamism into what might otherwise be a static sound.

ScelsiRegarding Cage's aleatory methods, Scelsi's work leaves little to chance and contains little silence. Yet his concern for our connection to a universal consciousness–captured in the ever-changing sound of a single note–mirrors Cage in some ways. He is not a true minimalist in the image of Cage or Feldman, however. Although his music may involve only one note for extended periods, that note will be restated in parallel intervals, slurred, or varied throughout the piece. Where Crowley used light as the central metaphor of his Konx-Om-Pax text, Scelsi's cosmology-in-sound yields a very real, haunting Sound. When it ends, the return to silence is palpable.

Late in life Scelsi had a premonition that he would leave his body “when the eights lined up”. On 8 August 1988 he drifted into a coma, and died the next day.

Melody, Daughter of Tone

Genres are the result of an originating vision, whose gravitation is felt once experienced by others, usually lesser imitators. Such is the story of Popol Vuh, credited with launching the New Age music genre, and influential for early electronica, ambient and, of course, so-called 'Krautrock'.

0212047ffc3ee415395e1201c26300ec_fullWhere Scelsi rejects melody in order to re-create the unbroken cosmic hum, Popol Vuh uses escalating scales and rhythms to echo the dynamism of natural creation. An early collaborator of Tangerine Dream and, in the late 1960s, the only possessor of a Moog synthesizer other that its creator, Florian Fricke (1944-2001) and Popol Vuh expressed a pagan exuberance, part medieval, part 1960s transcendent fantasy. Like Robert Fripp, the only stable member in every incarnation of King Crimson, Fricke was the central and guiding figure of Popol Vuh for their entire recording career.

At their height Popol Vuh displayed an exquisite blend of spirituality, emotional power, and mystery often lacking in other works of the Krautrock genre. On Letzte Tage – Letzte Nächte, spindly guitar lines, jagged percussion, and a heightened sense of grandeur meanders and escalates as if trying to physically transport the listener out of the weighted, corporeal realm. At other times, oscillating frequencies and occasional sound fragments travel through atmospheric space.

PV-LTLNFricke envisioned Popol Vuh as epic, sacred music, intimately linked to religious experience across the different faiths. The result is a musical synthesis of disparate religious traditions, in what sometimes sounds like arrangements for the convalescing psyche or healing sounds for shattered souls. Of his soundtracks to numerous Werner Herzog films, my favorite is The Great Ecstasy of the Woodcarver Steiner, from his collection of short documentaries. The opening sequence can be seen/heard here. Herzog has an uncanny ability to match the climaxes and nadirs of his soundtracks with visual footage and narrative. Another segment from the Steiner short, Planica as Golgotha, captures Popol Vuh in one of their most memorable crescendo-building sequences.