The String Quartet As Chosen Family In 'The Ensemble'

May 19, 2018
Originally published on May 19, 2018 9:44 am

Aja Gabel's new novel has music cues for each new section. One of them is for Antonin Dvorak's "American" String Quartet in F, Op. 96, No. 12, which is performed in the opening of the book.

It's a love story, the famous violinist had said, and even though Jana knew it was not, those were the words that knocked around her brain when she began to play on stage.

The Ensemble follows Jana and her fellow members of the Van Ness Quartet as they meet, compete and make beautiful music together starting in the early 1990s. The novel follows them through tests, triumphs, temptations, contests, conquests, families and defeats — and every permutation of love, beginning with their love for their art.

The Ensemble is the debut novel from Aja Gabel, who formerly played the cello pretty seriously herself.

"I suppose I'm 'former' in that I played intensely and competitively when I was younger, and I don't do that any more," she says in an interview. "And I stopped doing that after college — I wasn't as good as I could hear in my head. And sort of in that way, I relate to one of the characters in my book, who loves it more than he maybe has a natural ability to play it. ...

"Writing and playing, were two of the only things that I really did very intensely when I was younger. And so I focused — about when I started to write this novel was when I really cut back on playing. There was sort of only room for one at that time."


Interview Highlights

On the constant state of competition in the classical music world

Yes, I think that's a huge part of it. It defines who gets to rise to the top very early on. I was competing from when I was 12 years old, 10 years old. And I think that must do something to you if you continue to do that your whole life. And I really wanted to look at that in these relationships in the characters in the book.

On the physical demands of being a professional musician

It is such a physical activity, and I really wanted to write about the way that you — especially if you're playing with someone else — come to know their body, their movements, and the way that playing also wears on your own body.

On the tug between achieving success as an ensemble and the temptation to become a soloist

That tension is something I was very interested in because it is such a choice to play in an ensemble. It isn't as glamorous as being a soloist in a lot of ways. That's a curious choice, you know, to choose to do that. I think you have to love what you're creating as a whole more than you love the sound of your own instrument. And those people are endlessly interesting to me. ...

I think at one point I write in the book that they all have to dream the same dream at the same time for 20 minutes, 40 minutes, however long the piece or the concert is. And when you can successfully do that, there is something transcendent about it. It's one thing to perform your own piece on your own and have that moment with an audience when you've reached something beyond what is there in the room. But when you can do that with three other people, that space is truly, I think, what art-making is about.

Peter Breslow and Viet Le produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Patrick Jarenwattananon adapted it for Web.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Aja Gabel's new novel has cues for music for each section of the book, so let's queue up Dvorak's "American" in F Major. It's a love story, isn't it?

(SOUNDBITE OF PERFORMANCE OF DVORAK'S "STRING QUARTET NO. 12 IN F MAJOR")

SIMON: As is her novel, "The Ensemble." Four musicians who make beautiful music together as the Van Ness String Quartet meet and compete. Beginning in the early 1990s, the novel follows them through tests, triumphs, temptations, contests, conquests, families and defeats and every permutation of love, beginning with their love for their art.

"The Ensemble" is the debut novel by Aja Gabel, who's written and taught fiction and won awards and fellowships, including the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. She joins us from our studios at NPR West. Thanks so much for being with us.

AJA GABEL: Hello. Nice to talk to you.

SIMON: Press material says you're a former cellist. Is there any such thing as former?

GABEL: (Laughter) That's a great question. I suppose I'm former in that I played very intensely and competitively when I was younger, and I don't do that anymore. And I stopped doing that after college. I wasn't as good as I'd - I could hear in my head. And sort of in that way, I relate to, you know, one of the characters in my book, who sort of loves it more than he maybe has a natural ability to play it.

SIMON: Is that when you became a writer?

GABEL: You know, I'd always written, too. Writing and playing were two of the only things that I really did very intensely when I was younger. And so I focused - about when I started to write this novel was when I really cut back on playing. There was sort of only room for one at that time.

SIMON: I did not quite realize until I read this novel that people who play music for a living are in a constant state of competition.

GABEL: Yes. I think that's a huge part of it. It defines who gets to rise to the top very early on. I was competing from when I was 12 years old - 10 years old, and I think that must do something to you if you continue to do that your whole life. And I really wanted to look at that in these relationships in the characters in this book.

SIMON: Another thing I didn't quite realize until I read "The Ensemble" - professional musicians are always icing this and taping that. And it's physically as grueling as playing a professional sport. I guess it is a professional sport, in a sense.

GABEL: Absolutely. It is such a physical activity, and I really wanted to write about the way that you, especially if you're playing with someone else, come to know their body, their movements and the way that playing also wears on your own body.

SIMON: Is it the condition of playing music for a living that you want to become successful as an ensemble, yet the more successful you are, the more there is to tug on you to become a soloist?

GABEL: That tension is something I was very interested in because it is such a choice to play in an ensemble. It isn't as glamorous as being a soloist in a lot of ways. That is a - that's a curious choice, you know, to choose to do that. I think you have to love what you're creating as a whole more than you love the sound of your own instrument, and those people are endlessly interesting to me.

SIMON: Your novel follows four people in the Van Ness Ensemble - four talents, changes narrative views between the four of them over, I guess, almost 20 years. Did you plot that out on music paper? How did you - what did you do?

GABEL: Oh, my gosh. It was a real challenge in the beginning because I wanted to be so formal with it. I did want to write it in sonata form. And I wanted to write it in the way you might hear a quartet. But because stories don't work the way music does, you can't hear everything at once. I had to divide it up this way. I knew I wanted to keep it in four sections to allude to that quartet structure, but it's a balance between trying to hear all of the voices together, even though you can't hear them together on the page.

SIMON: Aja Gabel - her debut novel, "The Ensemble." Thanks so much for being with us.

GABEL: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE HEATH QUARTET PERFORMANCE OF "ANDANTE CANTABILE FROM STRING QUARTET NO. 1 IN D MAJOR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.