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Part 5 – Strings and the main opening titles theme for the series

My biggest worry about recording strings for Spotlight on The Troubles: A Secret History was that they would add too much emotion to a score where I actually wanted very little emotion. I had a very clear idea that the music should be observational: the music should not be commenting on the scenes but rather framing them in a historical context by adding another layer to the story that the narration and images could not do.

At the same time, I knew that if I could capture the right tone of the strings then they could be incredibly haunting and effective when used sparingly in the films.

For the string session I used a string quartet: two violins, a viola and a cello. But the big difference was that I used players playing period instruments from the 1700s. The biggest difference with modern day instruments is that they have gut strings and not metal strings. So their tone is very different in the higher registers. It is an earthier tone, more resonant and not as brittle as some modern instruments can sound.

Recording string quartet at Urchin studios.


Using a period quartet with its origins in central Europe around the 1700s also had very little musical connections with Northern Ireland in the 20th century. This fitted well into my mantra for the series that no instruments from the island of Ireland would be used.



Players in the 1700s also played their instruments with less vibrato than players on modern instruments: creating a more plaintive string sound.

I composed the string parts using very close voicings, so that you can hear the dissonance between the parts. It was challenging getting the fine balance between dissonance and warmth in the strings and during the recoding sessions I was constantly asking for certain notes to be either louder or quieter.

For the theme that I composed for the opening titles I had the quartet playing a repeating quaver figure in unison. With very little vibrato it actually had a slight folk quality… Completely unintentional. It worked well with the drums and electric guitar. I recorded a number of takes with different string rhythms and different styles of playing. Ultimately I settled on a very straight quavers melody in the mix below that became the main theme for the series.


Read Part 6 here of the 7-part series on Scoring The Troubles: A Secret History here.