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Classical 101

Carpe Diem String Quartet Tells An Interactive American Story

 Carpe Diem String Quartet
Carpe Diem String Quartet
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Carpe Diem String Quartet

Everyone has a story, how each of us came to be who – and where – we are. The members of the Carpe Diem String Quartet are now telling their origin stories in an online interactive project. And audience members get to help determine how those stories turn out.

Carpe Diem first violinist Charles Wetherbee says the quartet wanted to create a virtual performance that would allow audience members to participate. He says the quartet chose to build the project around family stories because of their universal appeal.

American Story features music composed by members of the quartet accompanied by animations from artist Janet Antich that visually narrate the life stories of some of the musicians’ ancestors.

“We all wound up here somehow. We all have stories from our families of how our ancestors may have come to America and what that experience was like,” said Wetherbee, “and that was kind of the jumping off point.”

As each ancestor’s narrative unfolds, viewers encounter “choice points,” moments at which they get to decide what that person does next. For instance, does the Japanese man stay in Japan, or come to the United States? Does the Russian immigrant keep working in the family drug store, or choose to become a professional musician? Those decisions influence the course of the virtual performance and the outcomes of these stories.

Janet Antich - American Story - Fujiwara animation.JPG
Janet Antich
A scene from Janet Antich’s animation for American Story.

The musicians researched their family histories on genealogy websites and through census records, military draft records, ship manifests, and other documents. Some were surprised by what their research turned up.

“My daughter was helping me, and we came across mention of a Wetherbee who was a traitor, and who actually was in prison during the Revolutionary War because, as he would have put it, I guess, he was a loyalist,” violinist Wetherbee said. “I shouldn’t say I was shocked, but it was just crazy to find out that part of my past.”

For violist Korine Fujiwara, researching her family’s past for American Story left some questions unanswered, including where her grandfather disembarked when he came to the U.S. from Japan.

“One day I was digging deep, and I actually found the name of the ship that my grandfather crossed on,” Fujiwara said. “And part of the history that keeps getting confused is, did he arrive in Seattle, or did he arrive in San Francisco? And (his ship) stopped at both ports, so it doesn’t really clear it up.”

With American Story Fujiwara had the chance to imagine what her grandfather’s life might have looked like if he had stayed in Japan. The choice points in each musician’s story allow viewers to do what real life does not allow – to make different decisions each time and see how the story turns out differently.

“One thing that makes this particularly interesting,” Fujiwara said, “is that the listener/watcher could spend ten minutes, or they could spend hours, and they would have a different experience with different music and different visuals every single time.”

American Story was supported by a grant from PNC Arts Alive.