Don Sebesky's book "The Contemporary Arranger" recommends open position, dropping the 2nd part down to the lowest, or a wide separation between the treble and bass parts. He says that string parts need a lot of room to breathe. I have found that this is sort of true. You can sometimes get away with not voicing every note in a chord - especially if other instruments are playing. He also says that you can put one or more ww instruments on parts mixed in with the strings or thicken a string line with a single ww instrument.
I was hoping that this forum would evolve into dealing more with stuff like this. In particular, a common problem for me is finding ways to make a very small group of strings sound like a larger section.
It depends. Both have their characteristics, so I use both in different situations, and quite conciously.
Closed harmony gives more "bulk" and density and intensity, open harmony can sound more distant, noble and a little cooler. One can also mix both (aka leaving holes or even upclustering certain areas) according to taste.
In particular, a common problem for me is finding ways to make a very small group of strings sound like a larger section.
Try out lots of thirds and possibly seconds since smaller intervals make it thick. Not only in the violins but also e. g. split the violas and let them play thirds if possible.
I should say that while thirds are good to thicken the sound they also have something magnetic in them that makes them very identifiable (sp?) which on the other hand can spoil the "group sound" of the strings. To overcome this, some more narrow intervals (dissonant at taste) piled under them will help.
... so better use narrowing or widening the intervals as a variable parameter on your pallette, not as a static rule.
Thank you. For my first effort I'm using the open voicings. You're right, it does sound noble and aloof. For the next one I'll try the closed positions, but that won't be for a while yet, as I'm hand-drawing the notes in Sonar. Thank goodness for copy and paste!
What the text is really talking about here is not Violin I and Violin II being separated by closed intervals, but really at extreme high notes (as a general rule, anything above first position on the violin [first position stops at around the C two octaves above middle C]), the gap needs to be closed, though you can double at an octave (and sometimes a sixth works), but for the most part, having an open interval separating upper parts when an extreme high note is involved will make the ear assume that it's playing something else and therefore will not blend with the rest of the strings.
Doubling in octaves is used extensively nowadays (think John Williams - Across the Stars) in cantabile style playing, during a swell of emotion.
On the topic of making a small group of strings sound larger, you can use double, triple, or quadruple stops, if you really know what you're doing, I only recommend this for those who know the fingerings for stringed instruments. However, the book "The Study of Orchestration" explains this very well. I recommend this book (though not the whole thing, unless you've got a lot of spare time) to anyone remotely intrested in Orchestration. Anyone writing for strings (and/or more) should read the chapters on strings in this book. Anyway, double stops, triple stops, and quadruple stops are basically playing more than one string at a time, for instance, if a G major chord is called for, the First Violins could play G (on the E string) and B (on the A string), the Second Violins could play D (the open D string) and G (the open G string), the Violas could play a G (the open G string) and a D (on the C string), the Cellos could play a G (the open G string), and the Basses would be an octave lower on the E string.
Honestly, this would be a massive chord, and I personly don't think I'd ever use it. What would be more common would be the Violins both playing a quadruple stop of low G, D, B, and G high, the Violas doubling the two lower notes, the Cellos doubling that an octave lower, and the Basses playing the low G on their E string. This is a more practical chord, the Violas hide the arpeggio of the lower notes, but the higher notes are clearly sounded as arpegios (this would be quite striking as a minor chord), the Bass is clear, and the Treble is active, this would make for a good orchestral device, the other one I mentioned simply trys to make use of double stops on all members of the string family, which is simply not a good idea, because the chord spacing is compromised.
Also, double stops are hard on the Double Bass, you can get away with them in a solo passage or solo piece, but a good rule of thumb is to include at least one open string. Avoid triple stops, but if you must use them, include two open strings, and three for quadruple stops. I simply avoid them all together when I'm writing for a String Section or Orchestra, they don't stand out very much anyway.