I have to admit that I finished Aja Gabel’s magnificent debut novel, The Ensemble, last week, just three days after I’d started it. I would have finished it sooner, but I had to do some other things like eat and sleep and take the dog out for walks. If I could have figured out how to read the book while walking Milo and not walking into a tree (he’s not much of a guide dog despite being a Labrador), I would have: that’s how much I was invested in living within these pages. The book had come to me when I was at the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop in Gambier, Ohio last month. I wrote in an earlier post about tearing off to the bookstore after I heard Aja, one of the Kenyon fellows, read from the first chapter, and the minute that I heard her say that the novel was about a string quartet, I was intent on getting a copy no matter what.
Some of you may know that I had a past life as a violinist, first as a freelancer in New York City, and then as a violin and viola teacher in Southern California, although my path in music was not very direct. I left Brown University after sophomore year because I could not wait to go to conservatory (my impetuous and impatient youth!), and spent six years at Manhattan School of Music, where quartet playing and chamber music were integral parts of the curriculum. I was a member of a very serious string quartet in the graduate school phase of my conservatory years, and although we disbanded after graduation, we rehearsed almost daily and competed in a few low-stakes competitions. We also had a fairly lucrative sideline playing for weddings and Sunday brunches, and twice somehow managed to accompany Wendy O. Williams and The Plasmatics in their shows in 1983, playing “Butcher Babies,” the last song of their set before they blew up a car on stage (yes, classical musicians will do strange things sometimes, and car-blowing-up aside, we in the quartet were incredibly impressed with the professionalism of The Plasmatics).
Playing in a string quartet is totally different than playing in a violin section in an orchestra, and light-years removed from being a soloist. There is a kind of disruption of the self when one is responsible for not just one’s own part, but also the dynamics of the way all four parts interconnect. The intimacy of the four quartet voices depends on each instrument becoming part of the others so that what is produced is much more than the sum total of the blending of those four voices: it is geometric, a relationship that creates a much larger whole, an entire musical landscape. There is also a give-and-take that depends totally on what happens in the moment of performance, a quickening that can make for exciting seat-of-the pants adjustments, but also disaster. When things go wrong, it is a cascade of catastrophes, and nobody can help you, not a conductor or a concertmaster or section leader. But when things go well, there is nothing more powerful than the tonality a quartet produces and the profundity of a musical experience that is offered to the audience. A string quartet is a relationship with four people across time.
Aja Gabel captures the depth of this relational essence, both musically and psychologically, in The Ensemble. The plot is relatively simple: four young musicians form a quartet in graduate school and in order to move their careers forward, decide to compete in the Esterhazy String Quartet Competition in Calgary, British Columbia, held only every four years. A win would propel them into the highest reaches of the classical music world, and so the stakes are tremendously high. They are collectively the Van Ness Quartet, and yet they are also Jana, first violin, Brit, second violin, Henry, viola, and Daniel, cello. They each have personal histories that intertwine but also conflict with each other. Gabel perfectly captures the immediacy of their interactions with prose that delves into their interior thoughts and motivations, much the same way Virginia Woolf does in To the Lighthouse and Mrs. Dalloway. Gabel also writes beautifully about the music itself. In a passage about the quartet’s performance of Shostakovich’s String Quartet no. 3 in F major, op.73, she writes:
“The movement wound down and down and down until Brit guided Daniel and Henry to a series of slurred whole notes, one after another, so many and so long and so low that it was as if they were merely tapping into a seismic chord that made the earth vibrate at an otherwise unheard frequency, and at last Jana plucked her final two notes–Okay, I’m giving up hope, you can, too–and the notes didn’t end, but died.”
You don’t need to know anything about classical music or string quartets to appreciate The Ensemble and what Gabel does in her novel. This is a vibrantly rendered world that hinges on what happens in each moment that itself is set in motion by the past. There is a quiet authenticity to this work that shows the reader what it is like to exist within the interdependence of a group of four people who work together in this most intimate of art forms, and what happens to them and their relationships over time. This is a book well worth reading for all.