Communicative movement in contemporary chamber music: hand werk in the rehearsal of new works by Thierry Tidrow and Georgia Koumará

DOI: 10.5920/divp.2016.02


Movement, that essential element for any musician, plays a distinct role in new chamber music. It is one of the ways that musicians communicate and it is a choreography that leads and shapes the performance of the work. We use movement to help guide each other through the piece, to indicate shifts in texture and dynamic, and to breathe and find a common pulse. It is regularly annotated in a precise manner, clarifying where to look or who should be given a signal, and each annotation reflects the needs of that particular instance in the score. Notation guides our movements just as we guide each other.

Movement, that essential element for any musician, plays a distinct role in new chamber music. It is one of the ways that musicians communicate and it is a choreography that leads and shapes the performance of the work. We use movement to help guide each other through the piece, to indicate shifts in texture and dynamic, and to breathe and find a common pulse. It is regularly annotated in a precise manner, clarifying where to look or who should be given a signal, and each annotation reflects the needs of that particular instance in the score. Notation guides our movements just as we guide each other.  

I am one of the founding members of hand werk, (1) an ensemble based in Cologne, Germany, which has been performing together since 2001 in venues across Europe and in the United States. Our six players (Daniel Agi, flute, Heather Roche, clarinet, Stefanie van Backlé, violin, Niklas Seidl, cello, Christoph Stöber, piano and Jens Ruland/Rie Watanabe, percussion (2)) have always worked together without a conductor, believing that the intimacy created through the extra work required to play this way results in a stronger interpretation and a better performance. Our very name means “craftsmanship” and is taken from Richard Sennett’s work, The Craftsman (Handwerk in its German translation). (3) The different ways in which we move are an essential part of the way we communicate, and constitute the subject of this article.

In the following paragraphs I’ll explore, through text and example, the ways in which movement is a key component of our working process and of the way we perform as a group. I’ll describe the ways in which we move, and present examples from a recent performance of two new pieces written for us and commissioned by Cologne’s “new talents” festival: Georgia Koumará’s Walk in and find your supper! (2016) and Thierry Tidrow’s Styroporös (2016). I’ll try to describe and reflect on the ways that we as an ensemble have changed and grown, and pose some questions on the nature of movement within the ensemble, my responses reflecting my personal involvement in the process. I will illustrate the ways in which movement is a complicated and essential part of performing new chamber music, and how movement defines the relationships between performers.  I’ll also describe some of the ways in which our approach to movement has become intuitive after years of playing together. This article encourages performers to reflect upon movement within chamber music performance and its application to craft and technique.

In some ways the two pieces discussed here are very similar to each other: for example, both are for a chamber ensemble of five players (one piece omits the percussionist, the other the pianist). However, in a few crucial ways they deviate from common practice in instrumental chamber music. Koumará’s Walk in and find your supper! starts as a quartet for flute, clarinet, violin and cello: we play an ongoing virtuosic quartertone line that weaves between the players. Eventually it should become clear to the audience that something else is at play here: we start to use our voices. At first, these are only syllables, and could be assumed to be vocalisations aiming to complement the music. Soon, however, we start to speak to each other and the story starts to emerge. We are playing a game, like children, and there is a fifth player in the game, so far unseen on stage.  The work smoothly transitions from “normal” contemporary chamber music into a playful theatre piece. Tidrow’s Styroporös, on the other hand, tips its hat to something the ensemble has been interested in since its onset: the use of everyday objects as musical instruments, a kind of musical recycling. (4) The percussionist’s use of styrofoam comes to the forefront here, but this is no concerto: a variety of playing methods and different kinds of styrofoam create different textures that align it as simply another partner in the making of chamber music. 

Although we have developed patterns of working together that save us time, there is a sense of starting over with each new piece. We generally have three or four three-hour (12-16 hours total) rehearsals for each new piece we perform. We always start by working through the piece slowly, and generally aim to have worked through the entire piece once in that first rehearsal. Sometimes we even manage to do a run of the whole piece at the end of that rehearsal, but usually this is saved for the second. Run-throughs are a more frequent feature of hand werk’s rehearsal process than any other ensemble I’ve worked with: we try to balance extremely detailed work with multiple run-throughs over the course of the rehearsal period, which helps to keep overall form in our minds, and also lends a great deal of security. We also record ourselves regularly in rehearsal for immediate playback. It gives us a chance to take a break from playing, to discuss how together certain sections really are (versus how together they feel), and it tends to automatically sort a lot of minor problems with balance and interpretation.

One thing that helps this process is that four of our six players are now performing from tablets with pedals for page turns, with the result that we almost always have the full score in front of us. So questions like “what rhythm do you have there?” are ones that do not occur in our rehearsals. This has come to save us a lot of time.

The process of rehearsal is often exhausting and frustrating, and occasionally unpleasant surprises emerge. Rehearsing can be draining through its constant need for repetition. We are constantly starting and stopping. We stop because someone wasn’t ready to start and the rest of us hadn’t noticed. We stop because someone got lost. We stop because intonation needs to be fixed. Or balance wasn’t right. Or we just weren’t together. We stop because of a lack of clarity in the score and the composer needs to be contacted (those aforementioned unpleasant surprises). The process also becomes more difficult as the rehearsal process progresses: exhaustion and over-exposure to each other can occasionally lead to a strain on the group’s relationship. We sustain ourselves on a diet of humour, patience, caffeine, and an increasing confidence as the way that we rehearse continues to work for us. 

Verbal communication in rehearsals often relates to the subject of movement. We talk about physical movement just as much as we talk about intonation, dynamics and interpretation. We carefully discuss things such as who among us will lead in each section on a larger scale (conducting or providing a pulse), where the cue for the start or end of a section will come from, and how small instances of togetherness will be coordinated. This is done carefully and slowly, and we often reverse decisions as we get to know the score and discover that whomever we had initially appointed to a certain t
ask is later found to be a musically inappropriate or physically impractical choice. Perhaps this is because in that moment, the player in question needs to think about changing instrument, or has a difficult passage to focus on. Often it is because the movement of that player simply does not successfully coordinate a passage. 

We generally notate quickly in our own scores who will provide a visual signal whenever necessary, though occasionally things become instinctive too quickly: something we notice if we come back to a particular piece in later months and cannot remember how we negotiated a particular turn. This is sometimes an irritating moment in rehearsal, as we have to renegotiate something we must have discussed previously. Occasionally we have annotations in our scores that contradict those in another player’s, no doubt a product of having changed our mind at some point, and one player having forgotten to update the annotation. However, that our intuition takes over is no bad thing, and the goal is that this carefully notated choreography should operate on a subconscious level by the time the concert comes around: we don’t want to be thinking about movement, we want to focus on play and communication. The goal is that the way we work should invariably lead to a kind of performance that looks and feels (and is?) effortless.

Similar phrases crop up again and again. Our dialogue is a constant stream of either asking colleagues to move or asking them to kindly stop moving. 

“Could I have some contact there?”
“I need someone to give me a cue here.”
“If you move in that bar, it looks like a cue, and it’s confusing.”
“I can’t see your movement.”
“Can we all move together in this section?”
“It would be clearer if someone else gave that.”

As mentioned previously, we often record ourselves in rehearsals, or have one player step out of the ensemble to listen and check for balance. Listening back to recordings does occasionally force us to reassess movement: if something feels together because one particular player is doing the leading, but isn’t actually together when we listen back, perhaps someone else should take over. We often find ways to experiment with multiple options before making a decision, and sometimes this experimentation happens over a series of rehearsals, over a number of days. Sometimes these recordings are also a source of relief, though we are hesitant to be too self-congratulatory. 

Music that remains at a reasonably steady pulse, is felt by all of us. What was at first consistently directed or conducted by one of our players is often, by the date of the concert, felt by all of us. This pulsing allows one of us to drop out in case of a momentary lapse, an instrument change, or in the case of the opening of Georgia Koumará’s Walk in and find your supper!, a theatrical action. The following video clip aims to serve as an example, and the way that we move together is exceptionally clear for a few reasons. 

The opening section, the first three measures of which can be seen in Figure 1, while for the most part being in 4/4, is a constant stream of fast quarter-notes in varying rhythms for all players, and from there she gradually begins to introduce spoken text and theatrical movements. The constant pulsing is particularly extreme in this piece because those “theatrical movements,” especially at the beginning, are actually instructions to look at each other. Each time you see one of us move our head to observe another player, this is part of the slow introduction of the theatre of the piece, rather than movement caused by necessity. For example, in the first 40 seconds or so, the flautist looks at me, while articulating consonants aggressively inside the flute; the violinist and I look at each other, she exclaiming in surprise; the cellist then later observes the violinist. Meanwhile, our group movement continues.

Figure 1. Georgia Koumará, Walk in and find your supper! mm. 1-3

In the first rehearsals we rehearsed this section slowly, with the flautist leading. We often start this way. I usually spend the first rehearsal focusing a great deal of attention on the flute line: first of all, because he’s often leading, at least at the beginning. Secondly, we belong to the same instrument family, and very regularly our two parts are composed with a lot of interaction. And finally, his part is always directly above mine in score order, making it very easy to see. There are, by necessity, more annotations and purposefully choreographed movements relating to the cellist’s part in my copy of the score, simply because his line is always the furthest away and I need to be reminded (often with the use of very brightly coloured lines) to respond or cue him. 

We move back and forth from slow rehearsal with either the flautist leading, or by doing conscientious metronome work. Eventually we make the decision that all of us should move together. It feels uncomfortable in the beginning while we’re still getting used to our own parts and to listening to each other. Often in this situation the accusation that one person has a different pulse is made, as it takes a certain amount of familiarity to really feel this together. 

This kind of constant pulsing movement is, however, never used in our performance of Thierry Tidrow’s Styroporös. Instead, we are constantly passing movement around the ensemble. I’ll take the first two minutes of our performance as an example. The percussionist (Rie Watanabe) is in control in the opening measures. She’s the soloist in the opening, and we follow her part in the score. Because bowed styrofoam is not all that easy to follow, her head movement signals the accent at 0:23, to clarify the flute’s entrance. He takes over leading at this point. He leans forward and swoops his instrument slightly into the accent at 0:36, which serves as a cue for the violin, as shown in the score sample in Figure 2. He gives one more downbeat, but otherwise the accents of the individual performers lead here, as we follow the score, the pulse is otherwise clear. Stefanie begins to conduct from 1:57, giving clear downbeats but also regularly conducting the entire measure with her scroll. The cellist has by this point entered, and his head movements follow the violinists. The flautist takes over again around 2:35 and we all follow his movement until the bowed instrumental trio starts at 3:30.

Figure 2. Thierry Tidrow, Styroporös. mm 7-12

The difficulty of following the bowed styrofoam points to another issue in terms of new chamber music and movement. New music players are now often expected to perform on instruments that are not our own. Since 2011, for example, hand werk has performed pieces where all of the musicians have been expected to perform on balloons and cardboard boxes, with cymbals, lights, tape recorders and aubergines, and using our voices or performing our own instruments while in movement. And this doesn’t even include the more theatrical skills that are often required by pieces from the ‘New Discipline’. (5) When using an everyday object as a musical instrument, or performing using an instrument on which one did not formally train, response time varies and a more focused concentration is required. Learned musicianship can account for a great deal, but something will always be missing, and this subverts expectations when playing in a chamber music setting. The percussionist uses head movements to guide us, compensating for any irregularity in the control of her bow. 

Physical proximity is important. There is a big difference in the rehearsal process for the percussionist and pianist, who are quite regularly situated behind us on stage. This is a natural consequence of the size of their instruments and often the size of the stage, but it isn’t ideal, and invariably leads to some stressful moments for those players: it’s more difficult for them to see, especially given that the movements enforced by their instruments often prevents them from keeping us even in peripheral vision (for example if the pianist has to play on the strings inside the piano). Likewise, when the choreography necessitates a cue from one of them, this often requires that at least a few of the four players at the front turn their heads away from the score and towards the back of the room.

When it comes to movement that isn’t simply a cue or a pulse felt by the group but actually one player conducting the ensemble, some instruments are more suited to this kind of direction: in our instrumentation, at the top of this list is the flute: its position high in the air, and the end of the instrument consistently visible, makes it ideal for this kind of job. This is perhaps something we take advantage of more than others, due to the impeccable clarity of our flautist. And while he has always been very clear, as the years pass, so does the success rate of our ability to read him. That said, we all have different movements that we use in order to direct each other. Stefanie, for example, either uses the movement of her bow to indicate a rhythmic unit that is meant to start together, or she uses her scroll to conduct or pulse. Niklas, unable to move with his instrument the way Stefanie can, resorts to bow movement and the nodding of his head. Daniel, in addition to conducting with the end of the flute, moves forward in his chair and sweeps the flute in a kind of “j” motion to indicate accents. For my part, if playing the bass clarinet I have to resort to flapping my elbows in order to give a sense of pulse, which is a bit of a last resort as it’s not very visible and thus not particularly effective, though the movement has been affectionately (I hope!) termed “to give a bit of the chicken”.

There is a consistency of movement now that was not a feature of our early working life together. Half of this has been learning to feel the movements of one’s colleagues intuitively, half the building of trust over time: I can sense, but struggle to describe, how the movements of my colleagues change when adrenaline and nerves come into play. I seem to recall in our most recent performance that Daniel seems to go for more eye contact, but it would appear to be a gross over-simplification to say that when we’re nervous we look at each other more. 

There are also moments when some of us need to move as little as possible, in order to let another player lead. This is most relevant during the rehearsal process, when uncertainty and unfamiliarity with the score makes getting lost very easy. A regular accusation/defense after things have fallen apart is, “Yes, but you moved, and I thought…” There have been countless occasions in performance in which I feel I am almost afraid to move, in case a colleague could misinterpret my movement as a cue.  

One might argue in reading what I’ve written that we are, in fact, overly reliant on movement and visual cues. This is supposed to be music, after all. This article was never meant to be a discussion of the way that the ensemble listens to each other. That would be an interesting, albeit much more difficult, article to write. However, we are careful about movement, and for good reason. I have lost track of the number of times that we have gone into a hall for our dress rehearsal on the day of the concert, only to discover the acoustic is so wildly different with the end result that we are not able to hear each other as well. I have played entire concerts completely unable to hear one or more of my colleagues. 

There are questions I have as well. Has the way that I move and breathe changed over the years of playing with hand werk?  The way that I rehearse certainly has. I notice this now when I rehearse with other chamber music ensembles. It gives me a direct appreciation for what I’ve learned from my colleagues in hand werk, and helps me to return to the next project feeling refreshed. This appreciation is also felt when I work with a different ensemble and one of my colleagues is also playing: the way that we move and interact with each other is highlighted in contrast when compared with other players with whom I don’t have the same relationship. I think there is a very strong argument for playing consistently with one group, and for having the chance to play regularly with a variety of others: these experiences all feed each other equally. 

I’d also like to speculate on what the next steps might be for an ensemble that has been moving together for five years might be. We tend to start from the beginning every time we start a new piece, as mentioned above we “start a new ritual”. There are probably ways in which we could further limit this reboot with each new work. I learned recently that one of the oldest groups working in Europe, in a similar formation to ours, regularly spends their first rehearsal making decisions about movement sat at a table, without instruments. These sessions are often led by one person, move quickly, and mean that very little annotating needs to be done when the ensemble sits down to rehearse the work for the first time. 

The question also remains as to how much of our rehearsal process, which is unique to us as an ensemble of six individuals who have been working together for five years, distorts the works we perform. How much of our imprint on the piece can we call interpretation, and how much of it is simply a distortion through the habits that we apply to each piece? Does the process of coordination of the work change the quality of the work itself? We are firmly convinced that the extra time we take to work without a conductor means that we produce a more cohesive performance. It is a democratic interpretation. However, it remains a distinct possibility that the long hours we spend in coordination takes away from developing the interpretation of the work. Would the same pieces be performed better by another ensemble with a conductor? Would they be performed better if we had a conductor? I dislike the very idea of it, but a lot of th
at distaste emanates from a sense of pride in our working method. Hand werk would not be hand werk with a conductor. 

This article has aimed to contribute to a discussion of movement in chamber music. It is a reflective discussion of my own very personal experience of working, and as such cannot be considered conclusive, it simply aims to be a point of departure for musicians to reflect on and share their experience of movement in chamber music. I’ve described the way that hand werk moves together and explored the ways that movement features in our rehearsal process. I’ve looked at the kind of language we use when talking about movement, and I’ve provided some examples from performances with brief analysis of how those movements aid performance. Finally, I’ve speculated on how my own movements may have developed through working with hand werk over the last five years, and where we might go as an ensemble. 


[1] (Accessed: 12 October 2016)
[2] Jens Ruland is the fixed percussionist of the ensemble, but for the project in question, Rie Watanabe was acting as guest. 
[3] Sennett, R. The Craftsman (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009)
[5] This is a reference to composer Jennifer Walshe’s description of recent work which embraces music and theater as a single totality