Aja Gabel’s ‘The Ensemble’ follows quartet through 20 years

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When she was attending Piner High School, novelist Aja Gabel played cello in the Santa Rosa Symphony Youth Orchestra and formed her own quartet, playing on weekends for dozens of weddings all over Wine Country.

“I’m actually planning my wedding right now, and all I can think is, I don’t want to have a wedding like all the other weddings,” the 36-year-old joked from her home in the Silver Lake district in Los Angeles. “It is funny to see which ones go by the book and which ones come from the couple.”

For her debut book, “The Ensemble,” which was released in May from Riverhead Books, the 36-year-old author poured out her passion for classical music and turned it into a lyrical story that deftly weaves together the ruthless requirements of the music business with the messy, offbeat demands of real life.

It’s basically a love story about four friends, set over a soundtrack they create themselves, with the help of Mozart and Beethoven, Ravel and Tchaikovsky. The words and feelings are closely entwined with the notes and the melodies, just like in Gabel’s own life.

“I loved playing, and I also loved writing, and eventually I decided to combine the two,” Gabel told a crowd of her fans gathered at Copperfield’s Books in Santa Rosa earlier this summer, which included her mother and her former cello teacher. The debut novel already has received glowing reviews in the Wall Street Journal and the San Francisco Chronicle, among other publications.

Set in Northern California and New York, the story is told by the members of the Van Ness Quartet — second violinist Brit, cellist Daniel, violist Henry, and first violinist Jana — from their salad days in 1994 as a fledgling quartet until 2010, when they reach a critical crossroads.

“I wanted to cover the point from which they have to decide to become professionals and the point where middle age makes them question everything,” Gabel said. “It’s a major career-turning point for them.”

Despite their individual quirks and emotional scars, the members of the quartet manage to create a family, the kind that is brought together by choice rather than blood. And like music itself, those connections ebb and flow as they move through the river of time.

“It’s the kind of book you will love if you just want to hear about how friendships change microscopically over time,” a reviewer wrote for Vox.

After graduating from high school, Gabel studied creative writing and music at Wesleyan in Connecticut, then decided to leave music behind.

“It will always be a part of me,” she said. “I just didn’t want to suffer through a physically grueling life of playing the cello.”

After Wesleyan, she got an internship at the National Endowment for the Arts in Washington, D.C., dabbling with the idea of going into arts administrator.

It never occurred to her that writing was a real job. But she kept doing it, and eventually got her MFA in creative writing from the University of Virginia and her Ph.D. in creative writing from the University of Houston.

For her dissertation, she wrote an very early version of “The Ensemble,” then kept plugging away as it grew in scope from a weekend in the life of a quartet into four people making a life together over the course of 20 years.

“I always imagined that would make ripe material for a book,” she said. “There’s a special intimacy when you play music with someone, and that’s what I was really interested in.”

Gabel is the fourth of five children who grew up in northwest Santa Rosa, where her dad worked as a carpenter. Her siblings live all over the Bay Area, but her mom still lives in Santa Rosa, on the border of Coffey Park.

In an essay she wrote for the Cut, Gabel described her mom’s evacuation during the October wildfires (her apartment survived), as “the Tubbs fire jumped Highway 101 like it was an escaped convict, raging toward freedom.”

Here is an edited version of an interview with Gabel, who is working on her next book while teaching online writing courses and working as a freelance copy writer for ad agencies.

When did you start playing music?

I started on the violin when I was 5 or 6 ... I played it for five years, and then I switched to the cello because I wanted to play something bigger. I thought it would be really cool. The cello is very natural. Not only is it the size of your body, but my cello teacher used to say it has the exact range of the human voice. So it feels very natural to play it and hear it.

In high school, I played really seriously in all of the orchestras and quartets that you could play in the youth orchestra community.

When I was about 16, Yo-Yo Ma came to play with the Santa Rosa Symphony with Jeffrey Kahane. The youth orchestra got to sit in on a rehearsal, and they took a break. Yo-Yo was doing sit-ups in the aisle, and he said, ‘Does anyone want to play my cello?’

It was one of the coolest moments of my musical life, and I’ve never played anything so amazing.

When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

I always wrote, but I never showed it to anyone. I sent a short story to my English professor at Piner when I was a senior, and he wrote me a letter, and he said, “This was the best student writing I’ve seen in a long time, and I hope you continue to write.”

I went to Wesleyan in Connecticut, and that was a big deal because it was far away ... I studied creative writing, and I also continued to play cello, but that was where I focused on writing and had mentors. I realized I was probably going to be a better writer than a professional musician.

After Wesleyan, my dad passed away, and that was very tough ... I didn’t know writing was a job, but I kept writing more. I got into University of Virginia for my MFA in creative writing. Then I took some time off and applied to Ph.D. programs because I thought I wanted to teach. So I went to the University of Houston, which has a great Ph.D. program in creative writing. That was really, really hard, and I don’t recommend it. My dissertation was a very early version of this novel, “the Ensemble.”

How did the novel evolve over the years?

In the beginning, it was going to be a weekend in the life of a quartet, which is nuts ... I tried it, but it didn’t work. The time span just kept getting bigger and bigger and bigger, and I realized that what I wanted to do was to tell the story of an entire life of a quartet.

You got the idea for the book from the St. Lawrence Quartet. How did they inspire you?

I went to their quartet summer workshop at Stanford for a couple of summers. They bring this verve and energy and life to something that people think is stoic and vague. I was inspired by this idea that there were actual people behind this music-making, and they were interesting and dynamic, and they had lives beyond the music. It never occurred to me before that.

Are there any writers that have influenced you?

One novel I read a couple time was “After This” by Alice McDermott. It’s an unassuming little novel about a family, and it had a feeling that I wanted to emulate. And Zadie Smith’s “On Beauty” is also about a family. It felt like these works could help guide me in looking at the bigger picture through the lens of intimate moments.

I’m interested in families and their complications, and this book (“The Ensemble”) was my interpretation of what it takes to be in one. You have to choose it over and over again. And you have to make art with it, which is very unusual.

Did you do any special research to write this book?

I read the “Emerson” book and the “Guarnari” book, which are memoirs and biographies of these famous quartets. But most of what I did was listen to music. I would watch YouTube videos, and that helped to see how different people move. I’d watch the Banff (International String Quartet) Competition winners because they are young.

Is there a character that you relate to the most?

When I was writing the book, I felt closest to Brit (the second violinist), and I felt very protective of her. In a lot of ways, she was the easiest to write because I know all her motivations. As I’ve gotten to know everybody else, I would say I understand Daniel the cellist’s frustrations. Wanting to be better than you are and having expectations that get in the way of yourself. But the great thing about writing a novel with four main characters is that you never get bored.

Can you see this book as a film?

We are looking at that right now, but I feel like because it’s episodic and across an entire life, it feels more like a TV show to me. If that happened, there would be more story I’d want to tell. But it’s really in the early stages.

Were your readers surprised by anything in this book?

I think the greatest compliment I have ever received is when people say, “I don’t know anything about music, but I loved this book.” Because it’s really hard to write about a specific world, but you’re not preaching or teaching — you’re experiencing them as people.

What do you like about living in Los Angeles?

I’ve never lived in a big city before, and I really like that everybody is trying to do something here. I moved from Portland, Oregon, where everyone was really happy but also happy to do nothing. I’m much more comfortable around people who are much more ambitious, and everyone has these crazy ambitions. There are a lot of writers here.

Why do you prefer to write at night?

I like when everybody else is asleep, and they’ve gone away. In the daylight, it feels like I should be doing productive chores. In the nighttime, no one cares.

What do you miss about Sonoma County?

I don’t think I understood when I was growing up there how lucky I was to live in some place that was so naturally beautiful ... The book tour (ended) in Healdsburg, and that’s kind of a nice way to end this journey, because Sonoma County is where it began.”

You can reach Staff Writer Diane Peterson at 707-521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @dianepete56.

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