Around the same time Aja Gabel began learning the alphabet, she began playing the violin. As she became more adept at writing, filling “notebooks with stories as kind of a way to play,” she became more skilled at reading and playing music. When she was 10 years old she traded the violin for the cello and continued her studies through graduate school, stopping short of pursuing music as a career.
“I just never had the professional chops,” Gabel says. “I was good but I couldn’t get to that next level. It was always this thing I really loved and wanted to be a part of.” A 2009 graduate of UVA’s creative writing program who now lives in Los Angeles, Gabel says, “The way I became part of it was by writing a novel about it.”
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That novel is The Ensemble, published this month by Riverhead Books. It details the lives and relationships of Jana, Henry, Brit and Daniel—the central characters who make up the titular string quartet struggling to establish a career together. Gabel first had the idea for the book as a teenager when she took a chamber music seminar led by members of the St. Lawrence String Quartet. Observing them for 10 days, Gabel came away with a strong sense of the interconnection their art required.
“I’d never been around professional players of that caliber that were also like people I would want to be friends with,” she says. “It sort of humanized that world in a way it often isn’t.” And that’s exactly what she sets out to do in The Ensemble: Bring the reader into rehearsals, hotel rooms and the homes of these four interdependent people, and trace the fascia that binds them, as well as the tender secrets they keep from each other.
Jana and Henry share an emotional intimacy and platonic friendship while Brit and Daniel dabble in physical intimacy but struggle to understand each other emotionally. The novel follows the quartet members as their career and relationships evolve and their intimacies with each other deepen.
“It became clear to me they had to have some kind of personal relationship in order to make this professional relationship work,” Gabel says. “And you have to do that for years. It’s not normally the case for any other profession.” She explains, “In a string quartet, the thing you’re doing is so intimate that you end up having these relationships that aren’t necessarily romantic but are some weird breed of closeness.”
She details beautifully in the book the hyperawareness each musician has of the others’ bodies and movements. “You come to know somebody’s physicality very well,” Gabel says, with a depth of knowledge you might not even have about your closest friends. “You have to be able to anticipate, react and respond to their physicality with your own physicality. It’s essential when you’re playing music together,” she says.
Gabel addresses the messiness of life and human relationships, of ambition and personal and professional fulfillment, often drawing on music as metaphor. In one particularly poignant line, Brit questions the phrase “inner harmony” (“How can you harmonize with yourself?”) and Daniel responds: “I don’t know about you, but I contain many pitches. It’s about moving from polyphony to harmony. People are so much music. People don’t recognize that enough.”