My parents put me in piano lessons long before I could understand the nature of commitment. At age four, I was a tiny dilettante who left a stream of after-school classes in my wake—ballet, gymnastics, swimming—but piano was the thing that somehow stuck. The only major hiccup came about twelve years in, when I reached the watershed moment that dictated how much of my life I’d keep giving to the pursuit. Years of being scored on Conservatory exams had taught me that the gradations of skill between musicians could grow pedantically fine. At a certain level, your returns for practice hours become so diminished they’re practically flat, unless you feed your talent with increasingly large slices of life. I took a different road, continuing to practice and play, but without the goal of a musical degree or career. The path I veered away from—pure dedication to the works of the classical masters—is the seed of Aja Gabel’s debut novel, The Ensemble.
The Ensemble follows four California-based string players, the Van Ness Quartet, over an eighteen-year period that charts their journey through the competitive world of chamber music. The fact of four bodies throws a wrench in the classic arc of the ambition narrative: more than just striving for success, the group must continually work to align their desires, bound by nothing more than the choice to pursue this “webbed, collaborative endeavor.” What makes this link seem even more precarious is how little they have in common as people. There’s a faintly anthropological thrill in watching this unlikely family try to function: Jana, the leader on first violin, is ruthless in seeking to realize her aspirations; romantic Brit hovers behind her on a slightly more ethereal second violin; on viola is Henry, the footloose and confident prodigy; and moody, mournful Daniel rounds things out on cello.
There’s a fitting alignment between each character’s persona and playing style—Jana’s calculating pursuit of success matches the intensity of her drive to excel as an artist. In a striking opening sequence, we see her use of people as a different kind of instrument, seducing the judge of a musical competition to gain leverage against him. Jana finds both her confidante and her opposite in Henry, who moves through the world with an ease that matches his facility as a violist; one of those men both so entitled and so clueless about it that it’s almost endearing—but not if you ask Daniel, who resents the inverse relationship between Henry’s talent and effort. As a cellist, Daniel is no prodigy: he sees himself as the weakest link in the quartet and approaches his craft with an anxious, melancholic devotion. His is the instrument Gabel herself played when she was still a competitive chamber musician. Of the four, Brit is the least vividly drawn, with her traits condensing a bit too cleanly into type. A dreamy and quiet orphan, she is sometimes at risk of becoming little more than a metaphorical extension of her musical role, as when she is described in a non-musical context as liking to “be the supporting voice, the harmonic line you didn’t know you heard.”
Music structures the novel at multiple levels, lending The Ensemble both a form and language. Divided into four parts, each portion cycles through the voices of two or three characters in a manner akin to musical solos. The exception comes any time that the quartet is performing, at which point they are so attuned to one another that the narration reaches a state of omniscience. Gabel treats these scenes of playing with a skillful lightness: rather than dwelling on musical descriptions, the tableau of performance becomes a tense, even erotic space where four people, engaged in this act of intimacy, try (and fail) to read one another through the music.
The vocabulary of music is also woven into the novel’s diction, but with patchier success. While transposing the language of music into different contexts can offer moments of unexpected beauty—seen when a woman in sexual ecstasy is “held loosely in that place between triple forte and unbridled chaos”—Gabel’s overreliance on the trope can also result in inscrutable images (as when Jana and Henry, both proud and lonely, are described as pushing their “stubborn fermatas… against each other”) or banal platitudes (“People are so much music.”)
In the world of professional musicianship, the deck is stacked against the ensemble as a form: if you’re talented enough, a solo career is the expected next step. If you’re too talented, people will try to poach you out of chamber music entirely (as happens with Henry). The figure of the ensemble becomes both case study and metaphor for the general enigma of relationships. What makes people choose one another? What sustains that choice across decades, tensions, and indiscretions? For the Van Ness Quartet, the decision is about—at least initially—naked ambition. The energy between them inhabits the uncanny timbre between intimate and alien: though these people are “as ingrained in each other’s daily lives as significant others,” they have only chosen one another “to get closer to some quality they didn’t naturally possess”—shaky ground on which to build your bonds, but also a nod to the “lived contract” that lurks at the heart of most relationships and chosen families.
This is where the novel truly shines—in its musings on the glue that binds the group. Gabel peppers physical descriptions with moments of telling uncertainty: the implication that, despite spending years watching one another for the briefest physical cue—a bend of the wrist, a hitch of the breath—there’s some absent core of true comprehension. Their bodies are “at once familiar and unfamiliar to each other.” Though playing music might require a cultivated intimacy, it’s also not a proxy for the real thing. As Brit stares longingly at Daniel, her on-again-off-again romantic partner, from across the rehearsal hall, she laments the “shattering” truth that “[t]his was it, all she would have of him… just this collection of mechanics.” It’s another reason why this quartet relationship is a sketchy investment—you can commit your entire life to it before one day realizing, as Daniel does, that you have “made nothing else.”
Music, at this stratum, is a harsh mistress. The question of family-making beyond the quartet is one that each character must face, struggling for balance between pure artistry and the messy realities of a life. The tension between artistic success and “having it all” finds its most nuanced rendering with Henry. As the most talented among them, his desire to start a family with his former student Kimiko—causing her to lose years of her career as a promising violinist—is experienced by the quartet as a kind of affront. There’s a link between the purity of one’s potential and the perceived size of the loss when it’s “tainted” by the outside world. To choose life, then, is only to urge along the terrifying truth of elite musicianship: that the materials with which you work—time, breath, your body and those of others—will ultimately turn against you.
Like the best narratives of ambition, The Ensemble offers its readers the chance to breathe the rarefied air of an elite pursuit. But there’s no schadenfreude here—more than just conveying the scandalous thrill of seeing what it takes to make it, Gabel’s sensitive depiction of relationships tempers that thrill with the poignancy of loss and the recognition that success often requires the pruning out of what is most meaningful.