From performing gigs in Berlin prison to throwing off the shackles of her classical training, Hannah von Hübbenet is a fascinating interviewee who is enjoying a spectacular, albeit busy, year. As one half of Field Kit, she was responsible for one of 2021’s most fascinating releases, an album which dazzlingly fused electronic, classical and a little slice of heavenly pop. But that’s only part of her story, because she is also establishing herself as an excellent composer of film scores.
Louder Than War’s Gordon Rutherford wanted to learn about the importance of being simultaneously scratchy and smooth, the creative process behind an album like Field Kit and the rewards of playing gigs in prisons.
GR: Hannah, you have been composing soundtracks for films, TV and games for a few years now. This year, we were treated to the brilliant and intriguing debut album from Field Kit. Tell me, where did that idea come from?
HvH: I’ve had it in my head for a while to release an album of my own music at some point, written independently of image and commission. Music that stands for me and comes from a very honest part of my personality. Which is not to say that my film music doesn’t do that – it’s just that it’s then subordinate to a story and its characters, it’s not about me. The opportunity arose when the other half of Field Kit, John Gürtler, and I spent time in the studio together, brainstorming ideas. This resulted in pieces that we started from shared ideas. In a relatively short time, a kind of creative frenzy developed, at the end of which we had written nine pieces. Hey, this is actually already an album! we thought, half in jest. And now we hold this record in our hands…
GR: It’s a very effective collaboration. Where did you first meet John?
HvH: I met John at film school, where we both studied film composition and sound design. He was in the year above me. I quickly noticed his extraordinary style of composing film music and we quickly connected. After that, we were both back in Berlin and at some point we did some smaller projects together. Then we later worked intensively together for months on a series along with the pianist and composer, Jan Miserre. So, by now we knew how to work together quite well.
I appreciate his musicality and joy of experimentation; the demand not to march on familiar paths but to develop his own sound. And we can also exchange ideas about all kinds of topics and play a lot of table tennis in the studio to relax. When you work on a project like Field Kit, it’s important that you find time to relax. Also, that you enjoy spending time together.
GR: You spoke about how when you were growing up you were enthusiastic about both classical and pop/rock. What I loved about the Field Kit album was the merging of genres, in this case the classical and the electronic. It takes several listens to really appreciate the subtle interplay between electronic and acoustic instrumentation. They fuse incredibly creatively and you somehow manage to elicit the most innovative sounds from the instruments. Tell me, how did you develop the ideas and the sounds? Could you hear it all in your head beforehand or was it the product of sheer experimentation?
HvH: We didn’t have an exact idea of how it should sound from the start with any of the pieces. But we always had the ambition to tease out interesting sounds from the material. For the most part, it was the uninhibited joy of experimentation that brought us there. We were ‘following a suspicion’. Basically, we were allowing coincidences to happen, not immediately dismissing supposed ‘accidents’, but tracing where the interesting things could be hidden in them.
For me, music stays interesting if you have to listen to it several times before you get your access to it; when its scratchy and smooth at the same time, containing different and unusual elements you have to explore step by step. I’m fascinated by celebrating the beauty in old, wasted or apparently ugly things.
GR: It’s interesting that you talk about music becoming more interesting if you have to listen to it a few times. That’s exactly how the Field Kit album affected me and it made me wonder about your process for composing. Where does it begin? And on a track like Downward Rising, for example, where would the inspiration and ideas come from?
HvH: Downward Rising was the very first piece we wrote together for Field Kit. It is a product of pure joy in trying new things! I picked up a cello for almost the first time, first recording empty strings (which is how it goes in the beginning). I then doubled and extended these with violin notes. John had a new Roli Seabord in the studio and wanted to experiment with it, so one thing led to another. Usually one idea inspires the next, in the end you choose what stays and what doesn’t from the many collected elements. Sometimes elements that you originally started with don’t remain in the piece at all in the end, or are severely alienated. In the final production of Downward Rising we recorded the great cellist Martin Smith, so that it sounded professional!
GR: Field Kit is such an interesting album, full of surprising deviations. For example, it opens with the ominous and eerie Distant Approach then goes into the beautifully classical Counterfeit before shifting gear again into the almost industrial feel of Motorized Piano. Was it a conscious decision to sequence the album in this way? Was sequencing a challenge, given the different feel of each composition?
HvH: I can answer both questions with yes. We actually thought about the order for a long time. You want to draw the listener into the Field Kit’s sonic world, to ‘prepare’ them for what is to come. It needs variety – after a lot of tension, must come relaxation. We asked ourselves: when is the listener most willing to listen to this or that piece? In the end, we listened to it dozens of times in different orders and decided on the final version.
GR: You mentioned previously that you really like playing to an audience who aren’t used to classical music. Here we are, chatting for Louder Than War – a publication not necessarily known for its classical output. Is it important to you that non-classically minded people hear your music?
HvH: Attending and listening to classical concerts is often (not always!) associated with a certain academic clientele, from which many feel excluded from the outset. However, in the end, it’s not about the musical background of someone who listens to my music – but that everyone can and should feel invited. I play prison concerts, where we play not only classical works, but also gospel, liturgy and pop pieces. What I find beautiful is the impartiality of the listeners.
I am probably very influenced by my years of training, which were purely classical. There were regular auditions and the focus was always on a certain perfection of interpretation, playing technique and so on. The quality of a work was often measured by its technical difficulty. The audience was made up of people who knew the pieces very well and could identify every tiny mistake. I found that incredibly stressful. It was difficult to free myself from this pressure to perform in order to give more space to my own musical style.
At some point, I consciously sought out the space for myself where it is solely about the music and not about perfection and the aspect of high-performance sport. What I particularly like about the prison concerts is that the genre of music and the background of every single person present doesn’t matter at all. The only thing that matters is to listen and let it work, without judging. Most prisoners have not attended a classical concert in their previous life, but here they do, and most of them appreciate this opportunity.
GR: Tell me more about these prison concerts. I understand that you rarely play live, except for playing violin in Berlin Jail at special holidays like Easter and Christmas. How did this start?
HvH: A good friend of mine had been playing the organ and singing at regular services in the Berlin prison for some time. One day he asked me if I would be interested in coming with him to play the violin for a concert during worship. I immediately said yes, as I loved playing with him and didn’t want to miss out on the experience.
GR: How did you feel when you realised what you had signed up to?
HvH: Excited, but it was also a bit intimidating. The chapel is not very big and everyone sits quite close to each other. Only men sit in that section of the jail, so I wore a turtleneck jumper and snuggled close to the organ to hide from prying eyes. But I was quickly fascinated by the atmosphere and how intensely and gratefully the music is received there. You get very warm and honest feedback from the prisoners; some come up to you after the service and thank you. However, one of them told me that I could look friendlier, not so serious! Another told me angrily that he would have liked to finance violin lessons for his daughter, but it was not financially possible. Things like that remind me of my privileged position, to have had my education and to be able to lead this life.
GR: What kind of reaction do you get?
HvH: Music can trigger emotions in a person. All of a sudden even ‘strong boys’ become soft, they have to bear that and they do. Music opens up inner barricades and triggers something in you and I always notice how much we give the people there through music.
GR: Field Kit isn’t the only new release you have been involved with in 2021. You also co-composed (with Edward MacLean) the original soundtrack to Schwarze Adler, a fascinating film about the racism faced by the first Black players to represent the German soccer team. Firstly, how did you get involved in that project?
HvH: I had known Edward for a while, but had never worked with him before. He asked me if I wanted to write the film music for Black Eagles (Schwarze Adler) with him. He’s a great bass player, composer and producer, but had never done film music before. For this project, he wanted someone at his side who had their own musical spectrum and was experienced with film scoring, so we got together. It was a great collaboration!
GR: Tell me, how does the process of composing differ when writing soundtracks compared to something like Field Kit? Do the two worlds mesh?
HvH: They absolutely mesh with each other. Of course, I have more guidelines when I work on a film score. There is a story, there are concrete images, there is the director and other people involved in the film with whom I coordinate how the music should sound. With Field Kit, there are no guidelines, it is completely free. But that doesn’t necessarily make it easier, maybe it’s even more difficult. Nevertheless, at the end of the day, both are about creative processes, about creating something new. And a lot of music production is also a craft, the production, the recording, the playing of instruments. It doesn’t matter whether it’s film music or a free project like Field Kit.
GR: Were you working on Field Kit and Black Eagles at the same time and, if so, how did you compartmentalise them? Do you need to keep the two strands separate?
HvH: In fact, the Field Kit album was almost finished before I started working on Black Eagles. I had actually been working on another film parallel to the Field Kit production. But that was no problem for me, I can separate that well. It’s actually very relaxing after a few hours of work on a project to let it rest again and spend the next few hours on something else. That keeps things fresh.
GR: Speaking of doing different things and keeping things fresh, we cannot avoid discussing the last track on Field Kit, Don’t. It’s radically different from the rest of the album, an almost straightforward (and very good) synth-pop song. Where did that come from?
HvH: Don’t was created as the last track of our working phase. I wanted to take an older idea of a violin pattern of mine and create something new out of it. While we were working on it, John and I had the feeling that it was developing poppy structures, it actually just needed a voice and some lyrics. At that point, we had already experimented so much that my inhibitions about trying something very new to me (singing) were lowered and Don’t was born.
Listening to pop music has always been my private pleasure. It wasn’t about playing classical perfectly, but more about storytelling. It also worked well with very simple structures and it relaxed me. Actually, at the age of 17 I joined a pop-rock band as violin and keyboard player. This introduced me to music production, composing and arranging. It was at that time that I decided never to become a classical violinist playing in an orchestra or a member of a pop-rock band. I wanted to work with music in the most creative way for me, not to be bound to specific genres. And I specifically wanted to focus on studio work.
GR: So, can we ever expect an album of straight ahead pop tunes with Hannah von Hübbenet on lead vocal?
HvH: Ha ha! Never say never, but I think it’s a long way off. I love the piece very much and I look forward to continuing to use the voice as an extension of my musical possibilities. However, I see and use it more as another instrument, as a sound, less as a narrative element. I will certainly expand on this in future productions, but a solid pop album with me as a singer is not to be feared for the time being! I don’t see myself as a singer and especially not as a lyricist.
GR: Finally, what’s next for Hannah von Hübbenet? Can we expect more Field Kit? Is there another film score in the pipeline?
HvH: Yes, there is a lot happening at the moment! Black Eagles has just won the award for best documentary at the German television awards and the documentary Behind The Headlines (about two investigative reporters from the German Süddeutsche Zeitung), for which I co-wrote the score with John, has just had its cinema premiere in Germany/Austria. I’m also looking forward to the next work on a film score, but I won’t be able to tackle that until late autumn.
Regarding Field Kit, I’m currently working on bringing that out of the studio and onto the stage. We will have our very first gigs in October playing in Hamburg and Berlin. It’s a new, but exciting, challenge for me, having worked exclusively in the studio for the last few years. I’m learning a lot! And, of course, John and I have new ideas in mind for Field Kit, which we would like to realise. For this we are planning a recording session in the Berlin prison with its great acoustics. It’s a project that would not be easy normally, but my good prison connections can help me!
All photos: Laura Martinova
All words by Gordon Rutherford. More writing by Gordon can be found in his archive.