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  • Writer's pictureGenevieve Fisher

ARTICLE - Exploring the Diverse World of Chamber Ensembles.

When we think of film music, we usually imagine epic scores performed by an orchestra of an equally epic scale. This doesn’t always have to be the case, for example, when the story or images on the screen demand it, a smaller ensemble can be more effective than the awesome power of an orchestra.

In this article, we are going to explore the exciting possibilities of smaller ensembles.


The String Ensemble

Possibly the most common and versatile group on this list, the string ensemble consists of a section of cellos, basses, violas and two sections of violins, just like the standard strings section of an orchestra. This group can offer a wide range of possibilities, from playful, staccato sections to dramatic apexes of the story.

In the soundtrack to Star Wars Revenge of the Sith, John Williams chose to use such a string ensemble in The Immolation Scene – the pivotal moment following the Duel of Fates. Mirroring similar works such as Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, Williams uses the sweeping intensity possible with an ensemble of string instruments to accompany the intense scene on screen. As all the instruments originate from the string family, the similar timbre and intense vibrato creates a powerful wall of sound, alongside clashing dissonance and resolution that maintain the severe mournful sound of this scene.

When writing for strings, perhaps think about the articulation of the notes; where do the accents or staccatos land? Be incredibly precise, as this elevates the music, giving it another layer of interest and depth. Alongside this, consider slurs and specific dynamic changes, and how this may also impact the articulation of the note.


(The Immolation Scene from Star Wars Revenge of the Sith by John Williams as a prime example of the intense power attainable through the use of a string ensemble)


The Power of the Solo

Believe it or not, some of the most poignant moments in film are accompanied by a singular instrument. Solos can often be associated with wistful moments, gazing into the sunset with shimmering strings accompanying. Nonetheless, there is a uniquely powerful but haunting quality to the simplicity of a well-suited solo, potentially being more effective than that of an epic orchestral score.

The soundtrack to Sherlock Holmes by Hans Zimmer uses such a solo in an intriguing and unique way. In a scene with epic explosions in slow motion, it may be logical to choose an ensemble of an equally epic scale, however, here Zimmer uses a solo violin performing music inspired by the folk musicians of Eastern Europe. Powerful in its nature, this folk music commonly uses melodies played entirely on the lowest string of the violin, known as ‘sul G’, which gives the music this explosive but hauntingly fierce passion which remarkably fits the dramatic slow-motion images on screen.


 (Not In Blood, But In Bond from Sherlock Holmes by Hans Zimmer as an example of the haunting ferocity of a well-crafted solo)



Much less common than the previously mentioned combinations of instruments, duets provide composers with the opportunity to use evocative solos alongside additional harmony or rhythmic interest. This can be particularly effective when using melodic instruments (playing only one melody at a time), as sometimes the texture can feel thin and underwhelming in areas when more profound sounds are required.

Nicholas Britell uses a duet between a cello and piano for the simply beautiful melody of Little’s Theme from Moonlight. Here, the melody remains sparse and simple, requiring rhythmic support from the left hand of the piano to maintain the pulse of the piece. This is a prime example of how practical a duet can be, without being overly complex and subtracting from the images on screen.


(Little’s Theme from Moonlight by Nicholas Britell as an example of the simplistic beauty of a duet)


The String Quartet

Surprisingly, original string quartets in modern media are more difficult to come across, with most composers opting for the use of the thicker texture of the string orchestra. However, in recent years some composers have been turning to the string quartet for this very reason – to put classical spin on pop songs in soundtracks such as Bridgerton and Westworld.

When writing for a string quartet it is wise to be aware of the thinner texture, with a more soloistic quality to each individual line, making precises and detailed articulation and dynamics even more imperative to the success of music written for this ensemble. That being said, when this is accomplished, a string quartet can be just as powerful as an entire orchestra: it is truly small but mighty.


(Motion Picture Soundtrack from Westworld, originally by Radiohead, covered by The Vitamin String Quartet. Use alongside a distressing but quiet scene creating a powerfully haunting feeling, emphasised by the thinner texture of the quartet)


Above we have only covered common ensembles types, however, there is an endless number of ways instruments can be combined to create haunting, beautiful, or powerful soundtracks. Maybe try a quartet of woodwind or brass instruments, or perhaps just percussion? No matter the instruments, the golden rule is to always think about the range of different sounds and articulations the instruments are capable of, as when they are in a chamber environment, we can hear every nuance of the notes played.


(Fists from The Man from UNCLE by Daniel Pemberton is a prime example of the effect solo percussion can have, creating this excitingly intense soundtrack to an equally action-packed film)


By adding additional instruments, such as horns or piano to a string ensemble, new soundscapes can be built, helping to create a more individual sound. Smaller ensembles can also be the perfect solution to a composer who may be under time or financial restraints, or simply find the prospect of writing for a full orchestra a daunting task! It is much easier to start small and build up to an orchestra, learning along the way, than to dive in headfirst. Written by Genevieve Fisher.


If you are interested in the recording opportunities with smaller ensembles offered with the Northern Film Orchestra, take a look here or please get in touch with us.




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