Ensemble
by Gabel, Aja






Forging a familial bond over their shared artistic talents and secrets, four young people navigate a cutthroat world and their complex relationships with each other, as ambition, passion and love reinforce and divide them throughout the course of their lives.





Aja Gabel's writing has appeared in BOMB, The Kenyon Review, Glimmer Train, and elsewhere. A former cellist, she earned her B.A. at Wesleyan University, her MFA at the University of Virginia and has a Ph.D. in Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Houston. Aja has been the recipient of fellowships from the Sewanee Writers'' Conference, Literary Arts Oregon, and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, where she was a fellow in fiction. She currently lives in Los Angeles.





*Starred Review* Michael Tilson, the music director of the San Francisco Symphony, calls the great symphonies architectures of time encapsulating the insights of a lifetime; they are astonishing works that span anger and pure joy. This description also applies to former cellist Gabel's stunningly resonant debut performance. Her novel runs the gamut of human emotions, from envy to sorrow, joy, pain, terror, and frustration, as it follows the lives of the talented musicians, Jana, Brit, Daniel, and Henry, in a string quartet, the Van Ness. With remarkable assurance, Gabel takes the four through their shaky early performances and expertly ties their individual and collective lives together with generous doses of empathy. The singular motif that rises above all else is the encroachment of time, the ways in which we are forced to fine tune our lives to a pitch we can make peace with. "Time looked different when you were young, and whatever foolishness you engaged in was undiluted-there was always the possibility that the next promised moment would carry you somewhere else, always the possibility of more flames, more beats, more life. Time, when you were older, was something different, irregular." A virtuoso performance. Copyright 2018 Booklist Reviews.





Eighteen years in the musical careers and emotional lives of the members of a string quartet."Jana and Henry met at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, where they'd both been excellent soloists....She'd once witnessed him sight-read Stravinsky on violin while nearly blind drunk, and play it more flawlessly and beautifully than she ever could on a first go." Then Jana and Henry meet Brit and Daniel, and the Van Ness Quartet is born. Gabel's debut opens on the eve of the group's competition for a career-making fellowship in the Canadian Rockies. In a desperate bid to ensure their success, Jana, a girl with an alcoholic mother and a rough upbringing, sleeps with one of the judges. Rotating among the perspectives of the four musicians—Jana, the driven; Henry, the prodigy; Daniel and Brit, the on-again, off-again lovers—we follow the group as they mature as musicians and adults. Not much ever happens, but what little does is analyzed in microscopic detail, v ia page after page of exposition. For example, Brit and Jana share a comforting embrace. "It occurred to Jana perhaps for the first time why men loved Brit—why people loved Brit: she was able, in a way that most people weren't, to give and receive goodwill. In Jana's whole life, she could not recall ever having been hugged like this. This one was all-encompassing compassion. Brit was an equal planet to Jana, and the two of them were temporarily merging, gravities combining." So much effort to make this unimportant moment important, and to so little effect! On and on it goes—sometimes it feels as if one is reading the author's notes for the book rather than the book itself. An accomplished rendering of the competitive world of classical music helps balance the less-elegant handling of the characters' emotional lives. Copyright Kirkus 2018 Kirkus/BPI Communications. All rights reserved.





Part 1

Brit: Violin II


In this way
, the concert happened without any of them being there at all, really. If the “Serioso” was also about love, Brit tried to remember the vast swath of her life when she didn’t love Daniel, but while they were playing, it was impossible. His boyish face contorted uncontrollably, erotically. She wondered if he felt that way about her, too, watching her play, if anyone did. And she decided no, that wasn’t quite the way she played. Brit liked nuance, liked to be the supporting voice, the harmonic line you didn’t know you heard. But Daniel, as cellist, was a presence to be noticed. And like a grunting tennis pro, he couldn’t manage his face when he was really inside of the music, he wore his effort there, and so it went practically unconscious, and he slipped into some liminal area where desire met work. He squirmed in his seat, propped his right foot on its ball, twisted his nose so that his glasses would stay up, and that mouth. She’d never loved someone’s mouth before, hadn’t even really thought about the mouths of men, but here was Daniel’s, bow shaped or snarled by turns—how could it not be erotic? This was his submission, his participation in a disorderly beauty.

So this was the way she’d be close to him. It was as good as any, possibly better, Brit thought. What civilian, what regular other woman could have this intimacy with him, could know his body this way? She’d take it.

But another realization came over her, nearly in conjunction with the lovely one that preceded it: there would always be this distance. And here was the main theme of the “Serioso,” bursting out of their instruments in unison, an incredible and brave composition, but Brit had never felt more far away from it. This was it, all she would have of him, of any of them, just this collection of mechanics, a finely timed—well, finely enough—working together. The physical truth of it was shattering, him over there and her over here, and no matter how hard she tried, Beethoven would not join them together.

Daniel was thinking of mechanics, too, though not in the same way. He was thinking that he’d chosen a career that should have been conquerable because the mechanics of it could be learned. And he’d learned so much, was so much older than the rest of them, and wanted it so bad, had nothing to fall back on—yet here he was, still sweating and struggling through the “Serioso.” No one worked as hard as him. But he saw now that was because they didn’t have to. Jana’s high, clear playing was curated to perfection, Brit played evenly and subtly, and Henry hadn’t made a single misstep, not even in rehearsal, in the entire time Daniel had known him. He became angry in such a way that—not for the first time in his life—he saw no way out of it.

During the third movement, Henry watched Daniel fully settling into his anger, an anger that seemed greater than their unison minuet. Henry saw everything, but he did not react. Perhaps that was the real mistake that night, Henry not trying to do something to show Daniel that it was okay, because that was the moment where everything began to unravel. But what was there to do to temper Daniel’s anger? It ran as an undercurrent to the relentlessness and speed of this third movement, jumping note to note, cutting the edges more sharply, speeding up what was already a too-fast tempo set by Jana. But Henry didn’t do anything to stop it. He didn’t feel it was vital.

Jana would later take the blame for starting the fourth movement a tad too fast, but she would also blame Brit for failing to take her cue to slow down in the rubato, and Henry for taking the speed as a chance to make a wild, embarrassing show of his supporting voice, and Daniel, whose sixteenths simply couldn’t keep up, whose fast sections came off messy, student-like. Why had she started it so terribly, though? The whole piece had been slowly building to this breakdown, in fact, and because she was leader, it was ultimately her fault.

She had been, of all things, nervous. She was never nervous. It wasn’t part of her nature to be nervous. Confidence led her in all things, ever since she was a little girl, but she’d felt a sense she’d done something wrong hanging over her since before they took the stage. From the wings where she waited to go on, she caught sight of Fodorio in the third row, where the judges sat. He was dressed in all black, and his hair was in his eyes. She lifted her hand and held it up to catch his attention. When he looked at her, she began to smile, but his face did not change. Probably to an outsider it would have looked that way. It was that what registered in his face was recognizable only to her, and caused her shame. She wasn’t ashamed to have slept with him—that she would have done anyway—or even to have threatened or blackmailed him, or whatever one called it. She was ashamed to have asked for help, to have admitted to being in the position of needing help. And the way he looked at her had acknowledged only that: Oh, there you are, that person who needs help.

When the quartet took the stage for the first round of performances—the round they would not make it past—all of them, each member, felt apart not just from one another, but from themselves.

Word that they would not progress to the next round of performances, during which they would have played the much kinder Haydn, wouldn’t come until the morning, but no one needed a phone call to know it. They walked off stage to tepid applause and said nothing to each other. The only sounds in the greenroom were the clicking of the locks on their cases and the shuffling of music stuffed into pocket sleeves. The boys wordlessly took a car back to the lodge, but Jana and Brit walked. The night seemed cruelly cold now, much colder than May in San Francisco.

What they didn’t say to each other: what next?

In the large hallways of the lodge, Brit followed Jana back to her room, and when Jana unlocked the door and turned to find Brit behind her, she said the first thing she’d said to anyone since the performance: “Why are you still here?”

“Let’s just have one drink,” Brit said. “Come on, you know you don’t want to be alone.”

“No, you don’t,” Jana said, but held the door open behind her anyway.

Brit thought for sure Jana would have a solution of some kind. That’s who she was. Solution girl. She always had a plan, and the plan always had multiple steps. This kind of failure wasn’t in the plan, but Jana was quick and determined. Brit wanted a drink, yes, and she also wanted to hear about Jana’s plan for their future.

Brit opened the minibar and took out one of the tiny whiskeys. For Jana, she poured a small vodka over ice, a drink she’d seen her order at the bar they went to after rehearsals. When she handed it to Jana, Jana looked surprised that she knew her drink. But of course they all knew these small details. It was impossible not to after the hours of work and attention they’d extracted from each other. Brit sat on the floor, and Jana on her bed, legs crossed. No one opened the curtains or touched a remote or anything. They stared at the floor. Brit didn’t know what to say. “I’m sorry” was either incorrect or not enough.

“Why are you looking at me like that?” Jana asked.

“I’m not,” Brit said. “I mean, I’m looking at you, but not like anything.”

“You guys always expect me to fix things.”

“No we don’t,” Brit said. “Well, maybe Henry does.”

“I tried to fix that tempo.”

Brit wasn’t going to touch this line of thinking. It was useless and unproductive to go over what exactly had gone wrong, at least so soon afterward. In any case, they had all been there. They all knew.

“At least our parents weren’t here to see it,” Brit said, and they both laughed. That was the sort of thing Jana would laugh at, something slightly morbid.

“Thank the Lord,” Jana said, clasping her hands together in prayer.

“I want to get so drunk I forget it happened,” Brit said.

“But then you’ll have to remember all over again,” Jana said. “It’s the remembering that kills you, not the knowing.”

“We came all the way out here. To do that.”

Jana leaned down and clinked her glass against Brit’s whiskey bottle, which was empty.
“Time for another.”

They talked and worked through the minibar in the way Brit had imagined real college students did it, the kind of college kids who weren’t practicing four to five hours a day, who weren’t protecting their hands and fingers from minor injuries or cuts, who weren’t banking on a clear head to get them through the next day’s rehearsal, who weren’t choosing friends based on their ability to play, and losing them for similar reasons. She liked to watch Jana unwind, as it usually seemed like all of her was closely rotating a center pole in her body. As she drank more, that pole became elastic, and so did her laughter, her speech. Her face, cold when she was concentrating, became beautifully angular when she was animated; her full lips and sharp jawline, like a painting of a person from a different time. Brit lay down on the floor and stared at the ceiling.

“Don’t take a bath,” Jana said, and they cracked up. It was an inside joke. They’d been coached once by Jacob Liedel, the aging emeritus director of the conservatory, who sat with his saggy skin and liver spots in a chair inexplicably on the other side of the room, and shouted at them the whole time. He barely let them get through a phrase before waving his hands, interrupting them, correcting them. Brit admired his old-school edge, but she knew Jana found it upsetting, and the louder he yelled, the more strained her bow arm became, until Jacob finally yelled, “Don’t take a bath!” and Jana stopped playing and said, “What?” Jacob repeated: “Don’t take a bath there. With that phrase.” None of them asked him what he meant, but he said it two, three more times during the coaching session; afterward, at dinner, the four of them sitting in a tired silence, Henry said, “What’s taking a bath mean?” and Jana and Brit laughed so hard they cried into their cheese fries and slid under the booth. Now and again they still said it to each other, with no consistency of context. To Daniel about his excessive foot tapping to count time: Don’t take a bath. To Jana, when she was obsessing over the tuning of her E string: Don’t take a bath.

“So, what’s next is maybe a move,” Brit said. “I think we have to move.” She was answering a question no had asked out loud.

Jana lay down on her bed. “New York?”

Brit nodded. “No bathtubs there.”

There was only one unsure element. Jana asked: “Do you think Henry will do that?”
“You’d know better than I would,” Brit said. She knew Jana spent chaste nights with Henry, but she’d never asked her explicitly about it. Talking about boys wasn’t really something they did together. Though they were as ingrained in each other’s daily lives as significant others—even spilled over into that space—their conversations consisted of cues and crescendos and careers, not crushes. And Jana and Henry seemed more like siblings than anything else; Jana never moved or talked more freely than when she was around him, which is why this one-on-one Brit and Jana were having had been tinged with awkwardness before they started drinking. Brit realized they’d done something irritating, pairing off with Henry and Daniel as they had, girl to boy, girl to boy. Another reason to step away from Daniel, Brit thought. But toward what?

And toward what for the quartet? They were now a quartet without a country, no flag of the conservatory or the competition to stand under. A life of hustling, of trying to get signed, of starving in New York and trying to make it in the classical world, which didn’t, at the moment, care that much for chamber musicians, at least not those who hadn’t won competitions, or even placed.

“I think if we do it now,” Jana said, “he might. But that asshole might poach him.”
“What asshole?”

“Ferrari,” Jana said, and she got up, opened up her violin case, and snatched something stuck into the velvet lining. She held it out to Brit. It was a small girl with black hair and a few missing teeth, one of those school photos against a neon background. She smiled wildly at the camera, the way you do when you’re a kid.

“Who’s this?” Brit asked.

Jana shrugged and took it back from her. “I don’t know,” she said, and walked into the bathroom, where Brit saw her drop the picture in the toilet. She did not flush it.
Jana came out to answer the knock on the door, which turned out to be Henry and Daniel, both of whom seemed fairly liquored up themselves. Henry was sweaty and Daniel swayed a bit. He was carrying something under a tin, as though from room service.

“What are you guys doing here?” Brit asked.

“We live here,” Henry said.

“No you don’t,” Jana said.

Daniel walked toward Brit, who sat up. Immediately the room swerved and the walls started a slow spin. She put a hand to her head.

“I got you this,” he said, and lifted up the tin to reveal a multilayer vanilla cake that had fallen over, its ribbons of icing smeared all over the plate. “Oh, oops,” Daniel muttered, seeing the mess.

She felt several things at once: First, she felt outrage. As though cake could make up for it, the dessert they’d never have. He probably thought he was being some kind of poet, doing this, but what he’d said, what he’d essentially said to her, was, I don’t want you, no matter what. The cake he spent his hard-earned money on was just for him, to make himself feel better, not for her to actually take anything from him, or for him to give anything of value. Second, she felt drunk. More drunk than she had planned on being, and certainly more drunk than she’d felt in a while. She felt like something was stuck in her lungs, and she was suddenly hot and nauseated, and wanted to both move urgently and never move again. And third, she felt touched, and a tenderness for Daniel, like a wound that had worked its way into the essential tissue in the center of her heart, one she couldn’t dig out if she tried the rest of her life. He was a person trying to be a great talent, flawed and self-hating, living in this perpetual state of suspended tragedy, though there was no real tragedy, and she felt sad for him, and saw also that this cake, this was what he could do.

“Thank you,” Brit said, taking the plate into her hands. The only way to make a life with him in the quartet was to accept that she could not make a life with him privately. She saw now that if one thing was to continue, the other had to end. At that thought, a pang went through her chest, piercing her wish for his love. She would live above the pain. She would eat the cake.

He smiled gratefully as she took it, and sat next to her as she ate, saying nothing. She wanted to know if he knew what she was doing, accepting his shortcomings, but not asking him was part of the deal. She put the fork and the plate down on the side table, and he inched closer to her. He smelled like rosin and beer. Their legs were touching, but the electricity of the connection was draining away. Here were his legs, and here were hers, simple parts of two bodies they’d come to know more intimately than anyone else’s, in more than one way.

“I’m such a failure,” Daniel said in a whisper.

It wasn’t exactly an apology. And what she said back to him wasn’t exactly the truth: “You could never be.”

Some hours later, when they’d all drunk everything in both minibars and then some, when Brit leaned over the toilet and vomited onto the picture of the small girl, when whatever emotion had been lodged in her chest came up (along with vanilla cake), she finally cried. Jana knocked lightly on the door and pushed it open. She was holding a compress.

“Henry made this for you,” Jana said, climbing into the empty bathtub next to Brit. They still wore their gowns, which were showing wear, Brit’s bunched up around her thighs, Jana’s wrinkly and sour with sweat. When Brit retched again, Jana reached over the rim of the tub and drew Brit’s hair into a low ponytail. She held it there, and Brit liked her cool hand and the compress resting on the back of her neck, but she couldn’t bring herself to say it. She just cried, and the tile edges around the toilet cut into her knees. Everything smelled like whiskey and rancid sugar.

“If only you’d put your hair up like I said . . .” Jana said, and Brit cried harder. “Oh, don’t cry. Don’t cry. You’ll feel better soon.”

Through the crack Jana left in the door, Brit saw Daniel and Henry open the curtains. They had found the classical music radio station and started blasting the Elgar cello concerto. Daniel was conducting at the window, playing Barenboim’s part (Brit was sure it was the Jacqueline du Pré version—she managed to whisper, “It’s du Pré,” to Jana), waving his hands at the black window, over the imagined city, the city of their very first failure. He was trying to show Henry something with his conducting—No, here is where the phrase begins, no, here. Her stomach roiled. She was the kind of ill where you regretted everything, where you made imaginary deals with anyone, any god, to feel differently. Du Pré was climbing the E-minor scale to the climax, sixteenth notes all the way up to sixth position on the A string, playing tenuto, slower and louder the higher she went, perhaps the most dramatic notated cadenza Brit had ever heard, and she saw Daniel conducting largamente, like a man, with authority, passion, despite his ridiculous eyeglasses, even though no one was following him. This was what he cared about, and he cared about it deeply. “No, here, here,” he said to Henry. “Just wait for it.”

But they knew she was in the bathroom, sick, and Daniel dialed up the knob on the radio, looked at his reflection in the dark window, conducting the absent cellist. Henry tried to correct him—his downbeat was a little wonky—but Daniel went on, already too far into his own fake concerto. He was trying to be great, at the expense of anything else.

Brit looked at Jana, droopy in the bathtub, her dark hair coming out of its bun. Jana was hard but loving and almost weepy herself, Brit noticed.

“They’re . . . sometimes disappointing,” Jana said. “But who else?”

“Don’t take a bath,” Brit managed to say, croaking it, an ugly sound, and immediately after she said it—Jana laughing but noting the arch of Brit’s back and anticipating her purge, changing her body just so to feel the strain of Brit’s spine under her hand, and Daniel and Henry in their own separate concerts, one stone and one liquid, one earthly and one slipped through fingers, one breathless and one like breath, and du Pré hitting the highest E possible, gasping, there was no more string left, no more fingerboard—Brit leaned forward on her hands and knees and threw it all up, her primal sound like the beginning of something awful and essential, everything she had.






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