Aja Gabel’s debut novel, The Ensemble, begins in 1994 and follows the Van Ness string quartet through 18 years of practice, performance, and competition. The characterization sings, knowledge of music is passed melodically to the reader, and the dissonance of competing egos and ambition is based on Gabel’s own exposure to the world of classical music.
The quartet is Jana, the first violin, and the ad hoc leader, keeping the group in check. Henry is a prodigy on viola and turns down offers of a solo career. Daniel, the cellist and oldest of the four, is the most critical, of himself and the others. And young, impressionable Brit is second violin.
Gabel’s inventive use of composed music is described to mirror life; our joy and serenity, the escalation and release of tension and stress, and the minor chords of melancholy. We’re shown how relentless rehearsals lead to worry over hand and arm overuse injuries, and the joys of a day when all the players are brilliantly in sync, and the desperation of a time when the players feel estranged to the music.
As I read The Ensemble, my classical music playlist grew; I wanted to hear the music that was either considered ordinary and tired, or challenging and exciting enough for the musicians in the Van Ness Quartet to get them to the extreme height of their performances.