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The Music of Werner Herzog

From Popol Vuh to Wagner to cellist Ernst Reijseger, an overview of a great director’s use of music in film.

Werner Herzog (right)

Article by DM from In Sheep’s Clothing Hi-Fi ISCHifi logo

Viral videos of Werner Herzog’s skewed, oft archaic views of humanity and popular culture seem to surface almost yearly. Whether it be the topic of hypnotizing chickens, trying to comprehend Pokémon Go and whether it involved real human violence and bloodshed or an analytical study of Kanye’s Famous music video, without fault the eccentric filmmaker reveals his singular and completely unique perspective.

In light of his most recent video to sweep the mainstream, in which he speaks to Jenkem magazine and discusses how he would soundtrack skateboarding videos to Russian orthodox church choirs, we’d like to dig deeper and break down Herzog’s relationship with music.

From the incredible soundtracks of his early classic films and partnership with krautrock band Popul Vuh, to the peculiar music chosen as significant cues in his films, and old and contemporary pieces he cites as influence on his wild and extraordinary mind, here is a look at the musical world of Werner Herzog.

Popol Vuh

Popol Vuh

Werner’s most important musical partnership was with the krautrock legend Florian Fricke of Popol Vuh, who composed the soundtracks to 10 of his films. Florian first met the pianist as an actor in his debut feature 1968’s Signs of Life but sparked a kinship with the composer and exclusively used him for scores beginning with maybe his magnum opus film, Aguirre, Wrath of God.

When talking about music and its use in film, Werner has stated in multiple interviews the importance of a sense of “space” and using music to build “mystery.” Florian’s spacy ambient and psychedelic leanings as well as his appreciation for epic choral and classical music were perfectly suited for his feverishly fantastical jungle-based epics. He spoke with Red Bull Music Academy regarding the importance of this musical partnership and how Florian brokedown the builds of Wagner operas and being quite blunt about his distaste for New Age music and its “pseudo philosophies.”

“We somehow drifted apart,” Herzog said. “He was going into some sort of a ‘new age’  direction, which I never liked.” We’re not surprised. He is further asked if he liked any of Florian’s associated acts, Can, Neu!, Kraftwerk and his overall feelings on krautrock and so on and he responded that he only knew Florian and that even to this day – he has no idea what Krautrock is.

In summary, a great way to introduce yourself to Werner’s musical world would be to introduce yourself to the music of Florian Fricke, i.e. Popol Vuh.

Here are some favorites:

Music in Film

From a single cello playing an overtone to a mass of voices used strictly to overwhelm, Herzog is adamant about music serving the story and its emotional context, but to also serve a meta-objective: creating space. While mostly known for his use of wordless and orchestral melodies to execute this, which works more efficiently, Herzog eventually introduced and experimented with all types of genres. Mubi created a list of songs used as significant cues in his films to show 5 significant pieces the auteur has used to illustrate this. Here is that list, plus some attached clips so you can listen along:

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“Ghetto Raga” used in Fata Morgana (1972). By British pysch-folk-prog group Third Ear Band, taken from their 1969 album Alchemy. Third Ear Band would later provide music for Polanski’s 1971 Macbeth.

“Chanterai por mon coraige” used in Heart of Glass (1976).  By Guiot de Dijon and performed by Thomas Binkley and the Studio der Frühen Musik from their album Chansons der Trouvères (1974). Binkley led Studio der Frühen Musik from 1960-1980 and founded the Early Music Institute at Indiana University’s School of Music.

“Lost John” by Sonny Terry used in Stroszek (1977) and The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009). From Terry’s Smithsonian Folkways album Harmonica and Vocal Solos (1952).

“Tsintskaro” used in Nosferatu (1979). Performed by Vocal Ensemble Gordela. From the Melodiya label’s album Georgian Folk Songs (1969). Kate Bush was so moved by Herzog’s use of the music that she would later incorporate it into “Hello Earth” on her 1985 album Hounds of Love.

Opening credits music to Woyzeck (1979).  Performed by Fidelquartett Telč. No further information available. Possibly recorded by Herzog during Woyzeck’s production in Telč.

Another significant source for music in Werner’s films is the dutch cellist Ernst Reijseger, who has soundtracked a number of his recent features and of whom he has said: “He is a magnificent cellist, and he can do anything, anything on his cello. He could play the civil war, the American Civil War on his cello.” In these recent soundtracks Werner has leaned more on chamber music and the pastoral vocal stylings of Sardinian choirs. Here is a clip of Werner in the studio “composing music,” or rather working in a musical role. It’s a small clip instructing Senegalese vocalist Mola Sylla how to sing like he’s lost in space.

Musical Influences

Beyond simply using music as a tool in his films, Herzog also drew inspiration from music. Classical composers obviously had a profound influence on Herzog, though he was also drawn to blues, rock and roll, and world music. Below we’ve included a few artists and pieces that have influenced Herzog’s unique perspective.

Elvis Presley

In the Red Bull Music Academy interview there’s a great story Herzog tells about his newfound obsession with Elvis. Growing up in conservative Munich the 1950s, he was sheltered from American music and had missed the Elvis explosion until the King made his first film, Love Me Tender. He was there opening night and only 20 minutes into the film he watched as all of the young kids “stood up from their seats and quietly, and methodically, demolished the theater. And I thought, this is big!”

Richard Wagner

It’s no surprise that the German filmmaker with a penchant for choirs and operatic drama would be a fan of one of his country’s greatest composers. Herzog has even staged and directed his own productions of Lohengrin, The Flying Dutchman and Tannhäuser multiple times. He recalls the first time ever seeing a Wagner production, Parsifal, in Munich, and describes how the music and a surprise performance shocked him into ripping an entire row of theater seats out of its anchoring.

Carlo Gesualdo

Herzog tells a story of discovering Carlo Gesualdo’s Madrgials, which sent him to Popol Vuh’s Florian Fricke’s apartment in the middle of the night, out of his mind, thinking he discovered an “entire continent” in his music. Herzog thought Gesualdo was 400 years ahead of his time, and only since Stravinsky have we heard such similar and forward thinking tones in classical music. Positive that he had just discovered a complete unknown, Herzog showed Fricke, who responded: “Werner, everyone into music knows Carlo Gesualdo.”

The Lion King

During the RBMA interview, Herzog was critical of most movie soundtracks for being “too cerebral, too many ideas behind them. In only a few instances, it actually fits.” In earnest, he cited Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack for The Lion King as an exception, saying the inclusion of and its clear influence of South African choral music as “phenomenal” and “Hollywood at its best.” It was met with surprised laughter from the audience, but Herzog insisted he was serious. “There’s something so big (in the music)—anyone could see that. It doesn’t take someone like me to recognize that.”

Watch the full Red Bull Music Academy interview below:

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