Hauschka and Tilly Shiner Chat About Humanity

Composer Volker Bertelmann catches up with the filmmaker about working on Philanthropy.

Tilly Shiner is an artist and filmmaker based in London; Hauschka is the project of the German composer and pianist Volker Bertelmann, whose latest record, Philanthropy, came out late last year on City Slang. Tilly and Volker are currently working together on series of short films, including the video for Hauschka’s “Loved Ones” — here, they catch up about the genesis of their collaboration, and more. 
— Annie Fell, Editor-in-chief, Talkhouse Music

Tilly Shiner: So, we’re new friends. 

Volker Bertelmann: Yes.

Tilly: I don’t know if you know this — probably — but we we met because I had done some music promos for my cousin, Gold Panda, who’s also on City Slang. He sent me “Loved Ones,” from your new album, and I didn’t know your work that well before so I had a really nice time going back and listening. I was probably in quite a strange place, because my partner had very recently been diagnosed with type I diabetes — which is the bad type, which you have for the rest of your life. So I suppose I was thinking a lot about the people around me, and reading something that you’d written about the process of writing Philanthropy really just felt strangely familiar. For that track, I ended up using a quite grungy art film that we kind of remixed. It’d be quite interesting to to know why you were drawn to that as well.

Volker: Well, because it had an interesting mixture of nostalgia, and at the same time, a focus on today as well. We see someone walking through the streets, and then we see Super 8 footage from the same street but from a different time. The time that [art film] was filmed, I think that was in the ‘80s.

Tilly: Yeah, early ‘80s. 

Volker: That was my youth. I was 14 in 1980, so everything that I was influenced by was [from that time period]. For example, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, and a lot of very early hip hop. That was all from New York — there were also scenes of breakdancers in your film, so I really loved that part of it. I’m a big fan of dedicating music to places. Because every time I’m listening to music, I somehow feel in a location. Not like a dream or something, [but] more like a place where I’m sitting or a museum or the forest. Things like that.

Tilly: Oh, that’s so interesting. When we started talking about the album, when you said that you start with words, I wouldn’t have really guessed that, especially when you’re a musician that doesn’t have lyrics. I wanted to know a bit more about that.

Volker: When I started making music, I was definitely starting with pop songs. I was arranging music, I was writing for singers. My whole world was just around songs. But at the same time, I felt that a song was also something that was occupying me with preoccupations, because I had to think about lyrics that make sense. Sometimes I pretended that I’m in love, but I’m not [actually] in love… Things like that didn’t feel authentic. I was rather feeling that my music was [meant to be] much more instrumental. I didn’t feel at home in pure jazz, and not in classical music, but I felt somehow very familiar with electronic music and abstracts, soundscapes, things that felt physical. So I guess that’s why I searched for labels that were releasing that music. And in Düsseldorf, where I’m based, the scene has a lot of these musicians that are making music in a different way. Very abstract and more sound collage style. So I loved how people here approach the music, and I try to transfer that into piano. 

I think your films, in a way, had something similar. They were in themselves straightforward, but they had always a kind of weird sidespin that I really loved. They were not the obvious, and that’s what I really liked about it.

Tilly: I think the weird sidespin kind of leads quite well to what came next, which was you asked me to make some some artwork or films related to the album. I really loved that idea, because I think it says something about how you work — it’s never really finished and you’re allowing something to have this other life. I really liked that idea that you would attach a wider world to this album, and what that could be. So do you want to say a little bit about your intentions behind that album and what it means to you?

Volker: It was mainly based on the experience that we had from COVID. Plus the war in Ukraine. Of course, now we have other wars going on. But then we had also the climate crisis — in Germany, we had a lot of demonstrations. So I had the feeling we are surrounded by a lot of things that are very challenging, and at the same time, I had the feeling that the only way we can solve the challenges is to do it together. Because if there are too many conflicts and contradictions in finding decisions, the longer we wait and the longer we are running in circles and it will never end. If there is a clear decision that has to be made, we all have to somehow feel for each other to make compromises. My feeling was that I would love to start focusing on human aspects and positive thinking, and not making everything beautiful and shiny. I felt like I want to support the positive energy and focus on togetherness. What are human qualities, and what is life?

I felt also [in your] work, where you are focusing on human stories in a way. I felt that this was already enough. It doesn’t need a fancy story with extreme makeup and weird style style — which I think is also wonderful. But I had the feeling [the music videos] needed something very rudimentary.

Tilly: Yeah. I think when you were first describing it, the theme was basically “humanity.” I thought, Wow, that’s a that’s a big thing. [Laughs.] But I think that response is kind of similar in a way. It’s looking at something very personal and quiet and low drama. And so what came out of that was this series of seven portraits, including you and friends, family, and strangers. I really liked the idea of doing something that didn’t have a narrative. It’s really just being with a person for a period of time. And they’re all non-actors — they’re regular people, speaking about their jobs, their hobbies, stories from their life. It was very open. It was touching on anything they wanted to say, or maybe they were nervous and couldn’t think of what to say. There’s something really nice about seeing that, just spending time with people that you wouldn’t necessarily normally see on camera. For me, as well, there’s quite a few personal links in there — my mother-in-law is one of the the people, the camera person’s dad is another person. So there were a few things that are very close to me. And that’s not saying that’s the whole world, but I really liked that there are these quite intimate exchanges that can happen. 

Volker: Yeah. And I think that’s what actually counts. I mean, my music is also not the world. It’s just my personal view on certain things. I think your work, your movies, were fitting into this as well, without knowing what you’d come up with. I felt it was nice that you were interviewing people and they could just talk, and the process [of how] they are talking has something to do with them in a very personal way. That’s something that I felt [watching] Henry, who was dancing under the bridge. 

Tilly: A little bit about Henry, actually: That was the first one which came into this project, but that was really before we’d started. I had this footage of this man in his 70s or so who — I happened to cycle past him, and he was dancing on his own under a bridge on my route home. You could tell he was doing it with great joy and care. I stopped to ask him if I could do some filming and came back the next day, and it turned out he was having trouble speaking, so he had prepared a recorded voice note using AI that told me his story, which I thought was so beautiful and just so open. We had literally met for about 15 minutes, you know? He was really pleased to be filmed and to share what he was going through — he’d had a motor neurone disease diagnosis, but was still dancing and still doing this thing to keep his body going. And that turned into the music promo for “Nature.”

I really liked that this wasn’t going to be something that was separating people and the environment. I thought that was really important to have a person that we don’t make that binary between the environment and humans, and I thought that was a really good fit for that song. Like you say, it did come out from wanting to make something positive, but a lot of the songs are quite dark. Some of them are really sad. 

Volker: Yeah, but that is actually something that expresses what I think is life. In joyful moments, you can sometimes experience sadness, or melancholy. In Germany, it is sometimes considered being depressed, but it isn’t. It is actually rather the other way round. Understanding the life of others or being empathetic, I think, is some part of being happy as well. 

Hauschka is the project of Oscar & BAFTA Award winning composer and pianist Volker Bertelmann. His latest record, Philanthropy, is out now on City Slang. Fresh off of winning an Oscar for Best Film Score for All Quiet On The Western Front, the album is the composer’s 14th studio album, and his first Hauschka album since 2019’s A Different Forest.