Music often serves as a soundtrack to life, making the most mundane tasks manageable. It’s often considered the most universal language ,connecting people regardless of their age, culture or background. Those who dedicate their life to the making of music pledge to create an environment where communication is possible with no words.
Aja Gabel’s novel, “The Ensemble,” which will be released May 15, presents the lives of four musicians who make this pledge together. Gabel’s voice is strong throughout the novel, not only showing her immense knowledge of music but her passion for writing as well. As a cellist herself, she portrays the mind space of a musician and both the struggles and successes which accompany the career.
The novel follows the Van Ness String Quartet’s 25-year career, from its first meeting in 1992 to one of the original members leaving the quartet in 2007. The point of view is traded throughout the plot, allowing the reader to become introduced to the members of the group: the cold but determined first violinist, Jana; the stunningly beautiful and quiet second violinist, Britt; the charismatic viola prodigy, Henry; and the passionate yet hardened cellist, Daniel. Each member has a unique voice. While there seems to be hardly any similarities between these four, they’re united in their passion for making music together.
The plot is split into four main sections of the quartet’s career. At the beginning of each section, there’s a list of the pieces that will be performed by the group. This provides an option for the reader to listen to the music that’s being referred to, resulting in an incredibly unique reading experience. The readers will be able to physically hear the examples from the page and have their own interpretation of the music alongside those of the characters.
While their playing on stage may be harmonious and consistent, the relationships offstage are anything but. Between an on-and-off relationship between Britt and Daniel, pressures for a solo career for Henry and the constant anxiety of someone leaving the group provides a constant sense of uncertainty. Yet, despite all their challenges, the group is always united by their music and careers.
It’s interesting to see each member’s interpretations of each piece and how they differ depending on their current emotional state and role in the group. However, there’s intense musical analysis of each piece in the novel and while it’s incredibly insightful and intelligent, many of the terms can be difficult to comprehend if the reader isn’t familiar with classical music and music terminology.
The most compelling aspect of the novel is that it’s not simply about the music, but the emotions expressed through it and their importance in life. More so than their musical journey, the reader is invested in the well-being of every member of the quartet and sees them change and grow in the span of 25 years. Every reader can find something to connect to in this novel as the characters experience victories and struggles in order to pursue their passions.
Contact Camryn Finn at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more on the culture, arts and lifestyle of the JMU and Harrisonburg communities, follow the culture desk on Twitter @Breeze_Culture.