Excerpt from The Ensemble by Aja Gabel, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Ensemble

by Aja Gabel

The Ensemble by Aja Gabel X
The Ensemble by Aja Gabel
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  • First Published:
    May 2018, 352 pages

    Jun 2019, 352 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Rebecca Foster
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Part 1

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.

Excerpted from The Ensemble by Aja Gabel. Copyright © 2018 by Aja Gabel. Excerpted by permission of Riverhead Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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