The string quartet as chosen family in 'The Ensemble'

Aja Gabel's new novel has music cues for each new section. One of them is for Antonin Dvorak's "American" String Quartet in F, Op. 96, No. 12, which is performed in the opening of the book.

It's a love story, the famous violinist had said, and even though Jana knew it was not, those were the words that knocked around her brain when she began to play on stage.

The Ensemble follows Jana and her fellow members of the Van Ness Quartet as they meet, compete and make beautiful music together starting in the early 1990s. The novel follows them through tests, triumphs, temptations, contests, conquests, families and defeats — and every permutation of love, beginning with their love for their art. The Ensemble is the debut novel from Aja Gabel, who formerly played the cello pretty seriously herself.

"I suppose I'm 'former' in that I played intensely and competitively when I was younger, and I don't do that any more," she says in an interview. "And I stopped doing that after college — I wasn't as good as I could hear in my head. And sort of in that way, I relate to one of the characters in my book, who loves it more than he maybe has a natural ability to play it. ...

"Writing and playing, were two of the only things that I really did very intensely when I was younger. And so I focused — about when I started to write this novel was when I really cut back on playing. There was sort of only room for one at that time."

Interview Highlights

On the constant state of competition in the classical music world

Yes, I think that's a huge part of it. It defines who gets to rise to the top very early on. I was competing from when I was 12 years old, 10 years old. And I think that must do something to you if you continue to do that your whole life. And I really wanted to look at that in these relationships in the characters in the book.

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On the physical demands of being a professional musician

It is such a physical activity, and I really wanted to write about the way that you — especially if you're playing with someone else — come to know their body, their movements, and the way that playing also wears on your own body.

On the tug between achieving success as an ensemble and the temptation to become a soloist

That tension is something I was very interested in because it is such a choice to play in an ensemble. It isn't as glamorous as being a soloist in a lot of ways. That's a curious choice, you know, to choose to do that. I think you have to love what you're creating as a whole more than you love the sound of your own instrument. And those people are endlessly interesting to me. ...

I think at one point I write in the book that they all have to dream the same dream at the same time for 20 minutes, 40 minutes, however long the piece or the concert is. And when you can successfully do that, there is something transcendent about it. It's one thing to perform your own piece on your own and have that moment with an audience when you've reached something beyond what is there in the room. But when you can do that with three other people, that space is truly, I think, what art-making is about.

Peter Breslow and Viet Le produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Patrick Jarenwattananon adapted it for Web. Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit