Carpe Diem String Quartet Tackles Persian Sounds On New Disc

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Photo: Carpe Diem String Quartet
Carpe Diem String Quartet

The Carpe Diem String Quartet built a reputation over the past decade for going outside the boundaries of traditional classical music. The group plays Beethoven and Schubert, but also incorporates spirituals and fiddle tunes into its concerts.

The quartet stretched itself even more for its latest recording. “The Book of Calligraphy” is a collection of music by Iranian composer Reza Vali, who works with traditional Persian sounds.

Persian music uses notes and scales that don’t turn up in European classical music. Charles Wetherbee, the group’s first violinist, says this forces a string quartet to change its definition of how to play in tune.

Photo: Reza Vali, composer
Composer Reza Vali

“Just where do I put my fingers?,” he said. “Because it ain’t B and it ain’t B-flat -- it’s somewhere in between. And until you start to hear it you’re really feeling like a fish out of water.

Vali was born in Iran and studied composition in Vienna -- a classical music hub. The music on “Calligraphies” sounds like a hybrid of those two cultures.

Wetherbee loves Vali’s work, but says it’s a challenge to play it well.

The musicians in Carpe Diem listened to traditional Persian music, kept recordings of Persian scales on their smartphones for reference, and played Vali’s pieces in concert for three years to master them.

Photo: Charles Wetherbee, violinist
Violinist Charles Wetherbee

“You could see through the cracks in the doors to the outside, where the snow was,” Wetherbee said. “It was so cold onstage. We were surrounded by space heaters and we had to turn them off at times because they’d start rattling.”

Wetherbee says the struggle paid off -- and the recording they made captures something special.

He calls it a window into another culture’s music that developed over thousands of years.

“It’s a very rich and sophisticated landscape. And the chance to walk around a little bit in it is just fantastic,” he said.

For more from Carpe Diem, watch the group’s 2015 session in the CPR Performance Studio. Here are two movements from "Fiddle Suite: Montana" by Korine Fujiwara, the group's violist:

And here's Wetherbee playing Edward Elgar's "Salut d'amour" at CPR from a 2014 session with pianist David Korevaar: