City Strings: Gillian Rivers

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Gillian Rivers is everything a classical violinist could want to be: She’s young, she’s beautiful, and she makes a reasonable living playing and arranging music for critically acclaimed contemporary composers. The only catch is that most of these composers turned out to be the songwriters in rock bands like MGMT, Yeah Yeah Yeahs and TV On The Radio. But Rivers says she wouldn’t have it any other way.

Gillian Rivers

“I studied in classical conservatories with very strict teachers,” Rivers told me over drinks in the dapper lobby of the Bowery Hotel.

“It’s a very regimented world. It’s about making sure you can adhere to what the composer intended. But stepping into the rock world, I found I could do anything I wanted within the framework of a few chords. It was just incredible.”

To her, the transition was a natural one. Rivers says that artists in the rock culture want to hear a lot less vibrato than classical conductors, but otherwise the physical skills translate easily. It’s the attitude that’s hard for some classically-trained musicians to master.

“One of the biggest issues classical musicians face when they’re working with rock bands is personality. A lot of times rock artists feel intimidated by classical musicians. And if they don’t feel comfortable, you’re probably not getting called back.”

Bridging The Gap

When I met Rivers, she wore the kind of oversized plastic-rim glasses you’d expect to see on a record store clerk – not a concertmaster. She talked about crate-digging for stylishly unhip LPs, early tours with clinically unstable rock musicians, and dance parties at dive bars where she met future collaborators. These were inherently different from the droll stories of tooth-and-nail competition and over-the-top intellectual posturing I’ve come to expect from classical musicians when they’re on a roll.

There are some musicians who can straddle both worlds, and there have been times when Rivers has invited players to a session only to find they fit about as well as meatloaf on a rice cake. Some of her peers find themselves a bit too “square” for the gig, she says. “Most classical musicians expect to come in and see sheet music and expect to be told what to play. They also expect to be done at a set time and – well, you know how it is in a session. You can’t start looking at your watch at 5 o’clock.”

“But I always liked that,” says Rivers. “I liked not knowing what I was going to do when I walked in; and to keep on building and adding layers until the whole track starts to sound orchestral.”

The New Anatomy Of A String Section

Luckily, Gillian Rivers has found a small group of players who can work in both worlds. She calls them City Strings.

In rehearsal for Karen O's "Stop the Virgens" Opera. Left to right: Gillian Rivers, violin; Justin Kantor, cello; Yuiko Kamakari, viola.

“Sonically, it just sounds so much better when you have three or more different players together. If you can afford to hire a trio or a quartet it’s always a good decision. Each musician has a different way of attacking the note and a different vibrato so it sounds much bigger and more natural. It’s also much faster than having me play through the song again and again doing multiple parts.”

But with smaller budgets, Rivers does just that. Although she’ll always bring in a cellist when one is needed, she can play violin and viola, and often does. As for arrangements, they’re frequently written on the spot, sometimes taking inspiration from a sketch  sung or hummed  by a band member.

Sometimes however, the budget allows for more planning. “With Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ It’s Blitz I started by going into the studio and doing exactly what I most often do,” says Rivers, “which is searching for ideas by improvising over the track and getting ready to layer new parts. But in their case, I convinced them to let me take it home and write out more harmonies. It started out as improv, and ended up being something that I could spend some time with. It can be scary because you never know what’s going to happen when you’re going into it, but the outcome is always satisfying.”

More recently she’s taken that kind of collaboration to another level. When Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ guitarist Nick Zinner wrote “41 Strings,” a Steve Reich-inspired piece for orchestra, 3 drummers, 2 basses and 8 guitars, he called Rivers to help orchestrate the piece. She’s been helping him perform it live too, and she finds the audience response refreshing.

“[In a classical concert] it’s more about you and the composer and you have this need to somehow deliver something people have heard several times before, and to do it better than anyone one has ever done.

“With rock audiences, people are just incredibly excited to hear the element of strings at all. It’s almost like playing for virgin ears.”

For more on Gillian Rivers and to get in touch, visit

Justin Colletti is a Brooklyn recording engineer and studio journalist. He is a regular contributor to SonicScoop and edits the music blog Trust Me, I’m A Scientist.

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