I don’t give many 5-star ratings on Goodreads. To be 5-star-worthy, a book has to really knock the wind out of me, burrow deep into my heart, and tell a story unlike anything I’ve ever read, all at once. Reader, I gave Aja Gabel’s The Ensemble five stars. I would give it six if I could.
The moment you lay eyes on The Ensemble, you know you’ve stumbled upon a special book. And once you crack the spine and start reading, you realize its insides match its gorgeous outside. Aja Gabel tells a lyrical story of partnership that spans over a decade. The Ensemble follows the four members of the Van Ness String Quartet from the time they’re students in conservatory until they’re adults playing chamber music professionally. At times, they’re hardly friends; during others, they’re closer than family. But they’re quartet mates always. Through success, failure, love, loss, cross-country moves, injury, marriage, divorce, children, new beginnings, and life in general, they choose the group every time.
I haven’t cared about a book or about characters this much in a while, and I can’t recommend The Ensemble enough. HelloGiggles readers are loving it too — in fact, you chose it as our HG Book Club pick for June. (Follow @hellogiggles on Instagram for weekly discussion questions and share a picture of where you’re reading with #HGBookClub!)
I spoke with Aja Gabel about The Ensemble, writing a novel that dares to tell the story of an entire life, and the unique bonds that connect members of the music community.
HelloGiggles: It’s clear that your understanding of and love for music runs deep. Can you tell me a little bit about your background with it?
Aja Gabel: I played violin when I was five, and then I switched to the cello when I was 10. I studied and played the cello until I was 30. So I stopped pretty recently, about when I was writing this book. I studied very intensely and I competed. Then, there came a time when I had to choose if I was going to go to college or conservatory, and it became clear that I loved the music slightly more than I was good at it; choosing a life of conservatory and that path would have been really painful and difficult I think. So I went to regular college and I continued to play and study, and mostly played chamber music.
HG: What inspired you to make music such a big part of The Ensemble?
AG: The reason I wanted to write about a string quartet is because that’s how I grew up making friendships and making connections and bonds — through music. Everybody I was with when I was younger were musicians. Even though I went to regular high school, I still only had music friends, because that’s what I did. I think there’s something really special about learning to be close to someone while you’re playing with them. I think that it’s a very unusual way to get close to someone, but it reveals a lot about how we make connections. That they’re often non-verbal; that they have to do with some implicit understanding about each other or what we’re making or doing here that isn’t often expressed directly in words; that there’s a physical closeness you have with some people that isn’t romantic. I thought it illuminated a lot of that, but in this sideways way.
HG: A word I see used to describe The Ensemble a lot is “lyrical,” and it’s absolutely spot-on. The writing is so melodic and impresses upon the reader just how big a part of the characters’ lives music is. It really informs the writing and not the other way around.
AG: It’s nice to hear you say that it was lyrical and it be a compliment. For a lot of MFA programs and in workshops, “lyrical” can be a kind of dirty word, like the music of the language is standing in for some kind of substance. But I’ve always been drawn to that, because the music of the language is what I respond to first when I read something. It’s really nice to hear people recognize that and understand that it reflects something about what this story is about.
I think that comes from having studied it for decades. When you research something, you have to digest it and internalize it and then forget it in order to write creatively about it. With music, because I had studied it for so long, it was inside me in this way that I didn’t feel like I had to add it in later.
HG: Your four main characters, Jana, Brit, Henry, and Daniel, are such dimensional, complicated people. How did they come to you? Did you know their full arcs when you started writing, or did they reveal themselves in time?
AG: They definitely revealed themselves over time. I think that I had ideas of who they would be, and then they completely flipped the script on me at various moments. That sounds cheesy to say, but it’s really true. When you start writing somebody, certain things feel false or certain things feel really authentic. It has little to do with what you’re creating and more to do with who these people are that you made. The way I started writing them was to focus on certain archetypical qualities.
For example, the first violinist, Jana, is very bossy and headstrong and ambitious. That kind of thing informed how I made her character. So then I thought, What if that bossiness and ambition left her sort of cold and empty at the end of the day? What if she also needed other people to succeed? She wants to succeed so badly, but her success depends on other people, and she doesn’t really like other people; she can’t connect to them very well. So that gave me immediate conflict and problems to work with.
I tried to do that with every character. The second violinist, Brit, is very passive. But she’s also very romantic. She wants very much to have a voice, but doesn’t quite know how to make decisions and have agency in her life. I definitely started with archetypical type information, but at the end of the day, these people are humans and I wanted this novel to be character-driven, so I had to look at what tragedies and desire make up their character.
HG: Without giving anything away, the ending was very satisfying, especially because it wasn’t necessarily perfect for anybody.
AG: The novels that I love tell the story of an entire life. Whether or not it’s from birth to death, the novels that I love have breath to them. I wanted to write something that felt like it contained gestures of an entire lived life. And that isn’t neat and tidy; it’s often very messy. But the satisfaction comes from having lived and recognized, so that’s what I wanted to create without writing an 800-page novel. [laughs] To try to show that depth and complexity across a long time.
HG: So many stories have a clear defining moment where everything changed. Do you think the quartet had one big moment or was it different for each of them?
AG: I think for me, because the novel is in four sections and each sections revolves around a concert that they have to give, I think that those are all the moments for me. Those are structural moments they can move toward. I was trying not to write a novel when I wrote this; I was trying to write little short stories, because the idea of a novel was a little bit terrifying. I arranged it so that it could be around these concerts. For me, that’s what gives it the sense of a whole life — there isn’t really one moment that we change forever. It’s a bunch of different moments and it’s different seasons of our lives. That’s what I hope is reflected here.
HG: It is! You reveal what we need to know, but you don’t force it. We figure it out as we read.
AG: I didn’t want to write that. I don’t think anyone wants to read that stuff either. I didn’t want to get a character from A to B; I just wanted to have them at B and then be able to tell you whatever you needed to know. That’s a scary thing for a writer to do, but it turns out that readers don’t want to read the middle stuff anyway. They don’t really care.
HG: Each section of the book opens by listing the songs the quartet will play at an upcoming concert. How did you choose the music for each stage of their journey?
AG: I tried to be very purposeful with those pieces. In the beginning, they play the Dvořák “American,” which is a piece that both students and professionals play. They’re trying to make the leap from student to professional at that point. And they play it again at the end, and they’re fully professional. I tried to choose pieces that would illuminate an emotional moment for these characters, because I was writing about the concerts. When there’s a bunch of strife, they play Shostakovich. No one’s better at strife than Shostakovich. That was very purposeful. That said, these are all pieces that I love very much as well, and know; I have played almost all of them. I would watch YouTube videos sort of obsessively of string quartets playing them so I could see how they move. [laughs]
HG: Do you think the members of the quartet all want the same version of what they’re working toward?
AG: I think they all have different reasons for doing what they do. Some of them want a family, some of them want money, some of them want fame, some of them don’t have any other choice. Those conflicting motivations are true to what we all do, sitting in a room working on anything together, whether that’s at a workplace or in a theater. We’re all bringing different motivations to this. But I think that makes what is created more special, because what you’re creating with those four people is something that doesn’t exist in the room otherwise. Having those different motivations and different desires at the center of it is integral to creating an interesting piece. The agreement happens in the music, but the desires are incredibly personal.
Aja Gabel’s The Ensemble is available wherever books are sold. Pick up a copy and read along with the #HGBookClub in June.