Violinist merges nerdy passions with music in Spellbound Strings

For much of their life, violinist Sam Gillogly kept their pursuit of music separate from their passion for anime, science-fiction, fantasy, horror, and other geeky interests.

After some quarter-life soul-searching, they merged the two with magnificent results — the formation of Spellbound Strings, a New York City quartet that serenades listeners at locales ranging from conventions to train stations with the sweet sounds of anime, video game, and other pop culture soundtracks.

Sam is artistic director and first violinist for the group, which is rounded out by second violinist Sae Yasuda, rotating violists Tina Clara Lee and Wallie Evyon Lewis, and cellist Shayne Lebron-Acevedo.

Spellbound Strings has performed melodies from Sailor Moon, Evangelion, Disney’s Little Mermaid, Studio Ghibli, Super Mario, Steven Universe, Kingdom Hearts, and more at Flame Con, Geek Out at Snug Harbor, anime conventions, and for subway crowds leaving New York Comic Con.

Sam began learning the violin at age 6, graduated with a bachelor’s degree in performance from Berklee College of Music, was principal violinist of the Boston Civic Symphony, a touring member of the Tim Janis Ensemble, and a member of the multimedia Youtube Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall under the direction of Michael Tilson-Thomas.

You may know them from their enchanting viral YouTube video, filmed at Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery, featuring an electric violin mashup of Sally’s Song from The Nightmare Before Christmas and Sarah’s Theme from Hocus Pocus.

If you haven’t seen it, you’ll want to check it out here. It’s perfect for the Halloween season. 

You are the first violinist/artistic director of Spellbound Strings, a New York City string quartet that performs covers of anime music and other pop culture soundtracks. What inspired you to form the quartet?

I think I was going through something of a “quarter-life crisis” in 2017. I was approaching 30, I had finally quit my retail day job, and was making a concerted effort to devote all my focus to making a living in the arts in NYC (so, you know, taking the easy route). All that existential millennial anxiety really forced me to take a hard look at how I was spending my time and creative energies, and I realized I wasn’t playing enough music anymore that truly excited me.

I had the classical background, I just needed something a little more off-the-beaten-path to channel through it. My original concept was to build an entire anime string chamber orchestra from the ground up, but that is a tall order and not something I had the financial resources for. So I decided to start with an easier, pared-down format — a string quartet. I’ve always enjoyed playing in small chamber groups, so this was a natural fit.

Why did you decide to focus specifically on anime and other music from pop culture?

Again, it was a matter of finding repertoire that truly excited me. I’ve been an anime fan since college, and have loved fantasy, sci-fi, and horror in all sorts of media from a young age. What makes someone a “nerd” about a topic isn’t just their breadth of knowledge on a topic, but their intense passion for that topic.

For most of my life, my nerdy passions and my musical pursuits were pretty separate and compartmentalized from each other. Forming Spellbound was a way of giving myself permission to merge those two areas of my life. Plus there is so much beautiful soundtrack music in anime, I felt like it deserves to be highlighted and shared with a wider Western audience outside the hardcore fandom.

Tell me a little about the members of the quartet. What’s your group dynamic like?

We are all classically-trained, and while we strive to give a high-quality performance, we also try not to take ourselves too seriously. Life is short, so I think it’s more worthwhile to have fun making music with your friends than it is to worry about whether a note was imperfect, or that the audience clapped at an “inappropriate” time.

We’ve all worked together in some capacity in the New York freelance scene for several years, so we’re very comfortable with each other. We love to joke around and be silly in between all the hard work and rehearsing. Our group chat on iMessage is full of memes and Pokemon gifs.

As for the individual members: Our second violinist, Sae, is from Tokyo originally, where she had a street quartet that played some of the same anime repertoire we do today; she’s also a digital graphic designer by trade, and designed our wonderful Spellbound Strings cat logo.

We have two rotating violists, both of whom add a lot of much-needed extrovert energy to our group of introverts — Tina is a music teacher and orchestral musician, and enjoys watching anime to help with her ongoing practice of learning Japanese; she’s also something of a K-beauty nerd.

Wallie is a freelance violist, self-taught pole fitness expert, and lover of horror movies.

Our cellist Shayne is the video gamer of the bunch, and can make the best Super Mario sound effects on his cello. He is also a connoisseur of cat videos, and all-around chill guy.

All in all, I feel very fortunate to be group leader to such a great circle of musicians and friends!

You began training on violin at the age of 6. How did you become interested in that instrument?

Unfortunately, I don’t have an epic or emotional origin story for that … One day I was sent home with a flyer advertising that our elementary school was offering string classes. My mom asked me if I wanted to try it out, and I shrugged and said, “Sure!” and probably went back to drinking my box of Yoohoo or whatever it was we did in the ’90s before internet. I will admit I hated practicing, but I loved playing in the school concerts. (Thank you, Mom and Dad, for encouraging me to keep at it!)

What do you love about the violin in particular?

I love the subtlety of expression you can get out of the violin. String instruments are some of the closest in sound to the human voice, so there’s an incredible range of emotion and color you can evoke with them.

Tell me about your evolution as a musician. You studied at Berklee College of Music in Boston. What’s the most important thing you learned there?

Probably that it’s okay to relax while playing your instrument! College exposed me to such a diversity of musical styles and backgrounds, especially pop, folk, and non-Western approaches, so being flexible and open as a musician was a vital survival skill; plus the stress of combining a musical higher education with a full 4-year bachelor’s program taught me how to make the most of my practice hours. It forced me to learn how to ration my anxiety and stress for the things that really counted.

I read that you love the freedom of improvisation and favor pop/contemporary and global music. How did you discover this?

In my last couple years of pre-college conservatory training, I took classes and lessons with an amazing jazz violinist at New England Conservatory, David Eure. “Uncle Dave” was a big inspiration and mentor for me. He was always throwing stylistic curveballs my way — one week we’d be learning some breakneck Romany fiddle duets, the next week it was virtuoso Bluegrass solos.

He really helped me discover that I didn’t always need sheet music in order to make music, and he helped me learn to trust my own “voice.” Dave also has a great sense of humor and encouraged me to be curious, and to learn and experiment by making lots of mistakes. In that way, he’s sort of like the Bob Ross of violin teachers.

Spellbound Strings has performed in a variety of venues and settings, including anime conventions, performing arts centers, train stations, and events. What do you enjoy most about performing as a group?

We love seeing genuine emotional reactions from our audience — whether that’s an excited “geek-out” squeal of recognition from a congoer when they hear a familiar theme song, or seeing a weary NYC commuter lose themselves for a few moments in a relaxing melody. It’s incredibly special to know that you’ve impacted someone’s day for the better.

How do audiences tend to react to when they hear you playing something from Studio Ghibli, Steven Universe, Super Mario, Sailor Moon, or The Little Mermaid?

Smiles, cheers, applause … best of all, sometimes even a sing-along! The most interesting reaction is when we’re playing for strangers in the subway, and people who have never seen a piece of anime media in their lives are totally entranced by a Studio Ghibli theme, for example. I try to choose repertoire that is beautiful and fun, and will have a universal appeal, whether the listener is a full-on otaku, or Sharon from accounting.

Do you arrange the music yourself or do you use other arrangements?

Some of the music I arrange myself, sometimes completely from scratch/by ear if no existing score can be found. Oftentimes, I will search the web for transcriptions posted by the fan community; using the bare bones of a song for reference, I then modify/expand/reduce/rearrange accordingly for our specific instrumentation.

What kind of rehearsals/behind the scenes work goes into preparing for a performance?

In our first year of working together as Spellbound Strings, we rehearsed pretty intensely every couple weeks. Usually, I would bring new arrangements to rehearsal to test out their playability and gauge everyone’s interest in the songs. Of the ones we decided to keep, we would practice our individual parts at home, and I would send everyone YouTube videos to help them get a better feel for the song.

Nowadays, we still sometimes meet at each other’s apartments to rehearse new repertoire, but more often we will test pieces out live in front of our public transit audiences. It’s a good way to gauge people’s reactions and figure out what will go over well in a more formal sit-down concert.

What are some of your favorite pieces that Spellbound Strings has performed so far?

The theme songs for “Spice and Wolf” and “Yuri!!! On Ice” are high up there on my list of faves.

What are some of your favorite personal fandoms?

My holy trifecta would have to be Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, and classic Star Trek.

What’s your experience as a nonbinary person been like in the geek community. Is there anything you’d like to see change?

Perhaps I’ve been existing in a queer-positive bubble lately, but I feel like my particular corner of the geek community has grown to be very gender inclusive in the last several years. Anime, cosplay, and fan-fiction have a long history of playing with gender norms and expectations, and I think many fans have found a safe space to explore the fluidity of their own identity through these creative outlets.

Obviously, there are gatekeepers and toxic elements in every fandom, but I think there’s been a real push lately to celebrate gender diversity in the geek community. This past summer, Spellbound performed at Flame Con, the world’s largest LGBTQ+ comic con. To be in a room full of people all wearing pronoun stickers, and to know I was not the only “They/Them” in the room, was a deeply validating experience I will treasure.

Your beautiful YouTube video featuring your electric violin cover of Sally’s Song/Sarah’s Theme went viral at one point. I love that video and the way it’s staged. What inspired you to make that?

I’m not sure what the rubric is for measuring whether a video is considered to be viral, but I’ll take it!

I’ve always been a spooky kid, and Halloween is my favorite month of the year. I saw The Nightmare Before Christmas in theaters when I was 4 years old, and Sally’s Song, in particular, really captivated me.

As far as the genesis of my music video, I was walking to my retail job one day (I sold children’s eyeglass frames in the West Village for a few years), listening to Amy Lee’s cover of Sally’s Song from “The Nightmare Revisited” album on my ancient iPod. That song’s autumnal magic stirred something in me on that hot, oppressive July afternoon, and suddenly I started brainstorming ideas for making a violin cover of it.

I realized shortly thereafter that another movie melody that had haunted my childhood, the song Sarah Sanderson sings in Hocus Pocus, had a very similar vibe and melodic structure to Sally’s Song. I figured the two would make the perfect nostalgic Halloween mashup.

It was an absolute blast working on the video. Every day in the countdown to October, I would wake up excited to work on another element of the project, from arranging the score, to going into the recording studio, to scouting out the perfect creepy filming location, to making multiple trips to Michaels for costume and prop supplies.

My fiancee’s sister was working on her videography degree at the time (she’s now a full-time pro), so I hired her and her colleague to shoot and edit. We had the privilege of getting permission to film at Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn; Green-Wood is the final resting place of many celebrities and historic figures, as well as a filming location for countless Hollywood movies.

My spooky little heart was over the moon getting to spend the day hanging out in catacombs and gothic Victorian houses. 10/10 would do it again.

You’re also a member of social justice folk-rock band Revival. Tell me more about that project. 

Revival is a folk-rock show, part song and part spoken narrative, that addresses important social and environmental justice issues through the lens of humanism, intersectionality, and progressive interpretations of spiritual texts.

I’m incredibly grateful to be a part of the project; it not only helps me stay in touch with my Jewish heritage in a creative, meaningful way, but allows me to do something constructive and impactful right now when the world is (both literally and figuratively) on fire.

You’re also a writer. What do you write and what sparked your interest in that medium?

Mostly speculative fiction, humor, essays, and some poetry. In 2015, I self-published a collection of original fairy stories, The Golden Arrow and Other Tales. I was a big reader from an early age, and have always had a very active imagination. I don’t write with tremendous frequency, but when I do, it’s because a character or idea has evolved inside my head to be so vivid that I just have to release it into the world by getting it down on paper.

Are there any particular pieces of pop culture music Spellbound Strings is preparing to perform or would like to perform in the future?

2019 flew by, so I need to start planning for 2020 soon! I would love to incorporate some Harry Potter music into the mix.

What are your plans, hopes, and dreams for Spellbound Strings?

This past year, we performed at four different conventions, and I’d like that number to continue growing! I just want us to have the opportunity to play for as many appreciative, geeky fans as possible.

If readers would like to support the quartet, what’s the best way they can do that?

We are on Facebook, Instagram, Soundcloud, and YouTube, so please give us a follow!

But the absolute most important way readers can support us is by requesting their local cons, libraries, and college anime clubs to add us to upcoming programming. Con organizers need to know that there’s a demand for the talent they hire, so the more you talk about us, the more likely we’ll get to perform at an event near you!

 

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