July Fiction: Excerpt from THE ENSEMBLE by Aja Gabel

An excerpt from Aja Gabel's novel on music, friendship, and love.
July 2, 2018

From THE ENSEMBLE by Aja Gabel. Published by arrangement with Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2018 by Aja Gabel


She feared they were already too old. That they’d wasted too much time getting here, to the start of their career, and that now it was too late. It had taken Jana a while to figure out, and to accept, that her path wasn’t toward a solo career, but rather this webbed, collaborative endeavor. It had taken all of them a while, she supposed. And it almost hadn’t happened.

Jana and Henry met at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, where they’d both been excellent soloists. Jana was drawn to Henry’s raw talent, and playing in a quartet with him was the closest she could get to the force of it. He’d been a bright, boundless light on campus, younger than everyone else, taller than everyone else, a better musician than everyone else and eager to play anywhere and everywhere. He played with the confidence only prodigies had. 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. The idea of failure had never gotten near him. He lived in a world without it. Jana loved that about him.

She’d met prodigies before, but she’d never met anyone like Henry. He always said yes. Did he want to play one more? Did he really like ensemble work? Did he want to go out after? Did he want to write music? Did he want to conduct? Did he want to try this new viola, this new restaurant, this new drink? Jana didn’t know what it was that made someone so fearless. He was enthusiastically up for anything.

Once, after they’d finished a night of playing with two other first-year players (neither as good as them) and began packing up, Henry asked Jana about her life before. He assumed their lives in music had been similar.

“I used to be really jealous of my sister, Jackie,” he said. “She didn’t play anything, ever. She didn’t even want to. The only thing I hated was all the stuff I missed out on because of practicing and lessons twice a week, like, I don’t know, intramurals? I would have been good at soccer, I think. Jackie got to do all of that. Who did you study with in California?”

She said the name of the Russian violinist who’d taken pity on her when Catherine had shown up drunk to pick her up from lessons. He’d given her a deep discount on lesson fees, and even still she did office filing for him after school to pay the rest. A few times she had to go down to only two lessons a month, when it was all they could afford.

“When I was really little,” Henry said, “my mom wouldn’t come to my recitals. Because it would make her so nervous she would sometimes throw up. For real.”

Jana smiled and said nothing.

He went on, “But now she doesn’t care that much. She’s seen me play so many times. She doesn’t come to my performances, but not because she’s nervous. Because she already knows how I play.”

Jana couldn’t think of something similar to say. She struggled in the silence where she was supposed to respond. She finally said, “My mother’s never seen me play.”

Henry’s face changed, lost some of its brightness.

“She doesn’t really like classical music,” Jana said. “But also, she kind of only likes herself. And vodka. And I don’t know my father. So in a way, I guess it’s good. I had no one to impress in the audience but strangers. And myself.”

Henry put his viola case down. He studied her with a worried look. “Well, I heard you,” he said. “Back in first year. You were good.” And he hugged her, his long arms around her stiff body. One thing she knew for sure about Henry was that his talent was only matched by his tenderness. He hugged with his whole body, as though he wasn’t afraid she wouldn’t hug back. He hugged without needing someone to hug him back. She did hug him back, eventually.

So nothing bad had ever happened to him. That was it. That was what made someone unafraid.

Henry’s peculiar absence of fear made him very popular with women, though Jana never thought of him sexually, romantically. She had no interest in being one of the girls (always older and less talented) he fell into bed with. What she wanted, instead, was for her playing to be associated with his playing, for his playing to scorch her and change her and better her. And while Henry’s popularity at conservatory was far and wide, it hadn’t translated into real friendship for him. There were the girls and there were the players, and no one offered themselves up to him in the middle ground. No one except Jana.

While they both let the conservatory push them toward solo or orchestral careers, they privately built a friendship upon hours of playing chamber music together. The other players who rotated in and out of their groups saw it as an extracurricular activity and always abandoned them for more promising paths. But Jana and Henry stayed a consistent pair. She knew a solo career was what you were supposed to want and what Henry had been primed for his entire life, but she also knew that both of them had always been more engaged and more creatively determined — and simply had more fun — playing in string quartets.

One night during their last year, while they were playing late in a stuffy practice room, she brought it up. “What if we formed a quartet, like a real one?” she asked.

Henry needed some convincing. How could they find one person they liked, let alone two, and where would they find them? Why couldn’t they just go on as they were, and keep playing together like this when they had time? Jana had prepared for these questions and produced the application for the chamber music certificate at the San Francisco Conservatory. It would be only two years, three at most, and they’d meet people there who wanted the same thing, she was sure of it.

“Otherwise it won’t go on like this,” she said. “I know what will happen. You’ll be traveling or living abroad and you’ll be famous and busy forever. And you’ll forget about me.”

That was when he’d decided. Jana saw it. She’d so rarely been vulnerable like that with him, with anyone. But it was the truth: she was afraid his career would eclipse their connection. And he hadn’t ever had anyone outside of his family who valued his companionship over his potential career.

“Plus,” she said. “You’ll be lonely.”

So they left behind the years they’d put in, and veered off in search of a quartet. They’d met Brit and Daniel almost immediately, both of whom had wasted their own time at regular colleges — Indiana University and Rice. So their start as a group was late. That was undeniable. For Henry, time wasn’t such a big deal. He was young. But for Jana, the official commitment to the quartet was the beginning of the churning worry inside her that she would run out of time before she was ever successful, that she needed to ascend faster and more fiercely than normal, at Henry-like speeds.

That was what was on her mind the morning of their last rehearsal in San Francisco before the competition, instead of the sixteenths in Beethoven’s “Serioso,” which did need some attention, and suddenly she was anxious. She had the score in her lap and they were waiting for Henry to tune. He’d left his viola beneath a slightly open window in his apartment that morning, and the cold had contracted the strings and wood. He and Jana both had perfect pitch, so tuning could take forever to satisfy their testy ears. Daniel made no secret that he found this annoying and refused to sit for it, instead pacing the back of the stage. Jana knew he was just infuriated he didn’t have perfect pitch.

They were due to fly to Canada that afternoon, with the first round of performances the next night. Four of the sixteen groups would be cut then, with three more rounds to go. Just focus on round one, Jana told herself. They would play the Beethoven, which had gone more than decently at the conservatory recital a week earlier, but in the time since, had started to feel brittle.

Now they were testing the sound on stage, as if it were going to matter. They’d already played on this stage during their recital, and Esterhazy was going to be on a different stage, thousands of miles away. And besides all that, if Jana had learned anything from relentless performing, it was that chamber music was made up of a hundred minute responses to even more minute changes in both the environment and each other’s bodies. Sometimes she was momentarily embarrassed at how well she knew Brit’s thin left hand or the elfin knobs of Daniel’s knees, perhaps better than she knew either of them.

In any case, Henry’s scroll was propped on his knee and his ear was turned close to the wood, and Jana was still worrying about their age. She and Brit were both 24. Henry was newly 20 (an ambitious, antsy prodigy), and Daniel somewhere near 30 — he didn’t like to discuss his age. The groups winning the Esterhazy competition were getting younger each year, some still in conservatory. Nineteen-year-olds. And there they’d been, toiling away at a master’s certificate in chamber music, as if it mattered to anyone but their teachers, whom they were too old to have any longer.

But she’d needed to study more, and they’d needed to find Brit and Daniel. Still, Jana often thought of how it would have been so much easier if they’d all found each other earlier, if they’d all gone to conservatory together the first time around. What Jana really wanted wasn’t to have studied more, but to have grown more as a whole group. To grow faster, now. Or to somehow turn back time to five years ago and start growing together then. If they’d solidified their connection earlier, they might be more comfortable now with these big performances. This biggest performance.

“What’s wrong with you?” Jana said.

Brit looked up, her eyes alarmingly wide. She’d been reticent all morning, making barely any noise but for her own private tuning. Her face was colorless except for a suddenly noticeable splash of freckles across her pale cheeks, her long hair tied back in a bun. Jana was annoyed.

They couldn’t afford to be lackluster.

Brit snapped back, “What’s wrong with you?”

“Tuned!” Henry announced, running a hand through his long hair. He beckoned to Daniel. “Tuned! Sorry, guys, forgot it was going to be cold this morning. It’s all good.”

“Could you please get a haircut before the concert?” Jana said to Henry.

“Why don’t you ask me five more times?” he said. “Call my mother and tell her to remind me?”

Daniel took his place again, stabbed his endpin into the rockstop. Jana cleared her throat. They agreed to run through only the openings of every movement of all three pieces. Jana had always been a firm believer that you have one good performance of any given piece in you a day, a superstition handed down by her first teacher, the Russian. Their conservatory coach had decried this idea, saying that if you don’t have more than one good performance in you a day, you shouldn’t be a professional.

He’d have made them rehearse everything all the way through until their fingers were raw, then tell them to go zone out for three hours before coming back to the hall. But Jana liked the mysterious quality of keeping a full run-through of a piece until they were really on stage. It was like keeping a bride from her groom until she walked down the aisle — the groom knew what she looked like, but the deprivation made her appearance more sacred.

Not that any wedding was as important as the concerts they would play at Esterhazy.

Anyway, it was two days until their first appearance at the competition, but Jana felt that it was too close to risk a full rehearsal.

Her hunch about a lackluster attitude proved true in their run-through. She felt so stuffed with that idea that she tried not to speak at all while they were rehearsing. Brit was clearly in a mood, and Daniel was just an okay foundation, not his usual vocal self. Henry tried to smile at her across the stands, but she scowled back. They ran a couple of known rough spots, which were smoothed out, if devoid of the life they were capable of applying.

At the end, when there was nothing else to run through, Jana couldn’t help it, the words came out of her mouth like a sneeze: “Bad rehearsal.”

“Not really a rehearsal,” Brit said.

“Well,” Jana said. “We could use one.”

“Bad rehearsal, good performance, isn’t that what they say?” Henry said.

The four of them looked at each other in a swath of silence. What they’d just done in rehearsal hadn’t made any sense, and no superstition was going to make Jana feel good about it.

The silence curled away like fog, and they dispersed from the chairs. As Jana put her violin in its velvet case, she heard Daniel clicking his case snaps shut and walking off stage, and Henry saying something quietly to Brit, trying to make her laugh a little. Jana didn’t turn from her violin. There was nothing to say. The space had the unnamable yet pervasive feeling of a holiday spent alone.

As she slung her case over her shoulder, she felt Henry’s presence behind her and turned to find him smiling, joyful. “It’s going to be fine,” he said, holding out his arm. She slid hers through the crook and they walked into the wings, through the cold backstage and out onto 19th Avenue. Outside, the fog had lifted, and a warm May afternoon alighted. The warmth was fleeting, though. It always was in San Francisco.

They walked north on 19th to Noriega, where Jana would tuck herself away in her apartment in the Sunset. Henry would continue walking, turn east along the park, to his apartment in the Haight. He liked walking. He had excruciating amounts of energy and always seemed about to fly off the ground with it.

“So, what” — Jana said, cupping her hand around a cigarette to light it — “you never have … doubts?”

“About what?” Henry smiled down at her. He was so tall and wide-shouldered and lanky, with floppy brown hair and an elastic face — pointy nose, wide smile, expressive eyes. Too much of everything in Henry: height, hair, skin, money, optimism, talent.

“I don’t know. Don’t make me say it.” She exhaled.

“Say it.”

“What if we’re doing the wrong thing? What if we’re wasting our time when we should be booking gigs at Alice Tully? Are we happy? Are we even moving toward happiness? I won’t believe you if you say you don’t think about it. I just won’t. You’re an android if you say it.”

The street tilted dramatically up and they were slowed by a steep hill. Henry was unlike most people, she thought, totally unencumbered by pedestrian anxieties, never self-loathing and never too arrogant, exactly as confident as he needed to be, with an endless fount of warmth for music first and musical people second. It was what she loved about him and what made him so very different from her. She knew what he would say.

“I just don’t think about it,” he said. “I’m sorry. I can say what you want, if you’d like. If it’ll make you feel better.”

“It won’t make me feel better. You’re a bad liar.”

“I wake up and I think, fuck, I get to do a whole day, you know? Write music, play music, listen to music. Eat, dance, drink —”

“— take a ballerina home.”

“Take a ballerina home. Exactly. Though they’re not much for eating and drinking.”


“What I’m saying is if I thought about all the ways I could be unhappy, I’d be … unhappy. Not to mention exhausted.”

“So you just choose … not to think about it?”

“It doesn’t feel like a choice. But yeah, I suppose it is. A choice I made so many times that I don’t even have to make it anymore.”

“Everything’s going to be terrible.” Jana thought of Henry and the ballerina he’d been with two nights earlier. How easy it was for him, everything. Sometimes she thought maybe she crawled into bed with him just to suck some of that optimism out of his pores.

Henry unthreaded his arm from hers and pulled her close. “No. Some things, maybe.”

Like when you leave us, Jana thought, but did not say. Or when we win the Esterhazy competition because I slept with one of the judges. “Exactly,” she said. “You can’t tell the difference. So what’s the point?”

“Of what?”

“I don’t know. Life?”

“Are you seriously asking me that? Do we need to go to a hospital?

Are you suicidal?”

“Henry. Come on. I’m serious.”

“You’re not. You can’t be. You can’t play the way you do and not understand the value of … pain.”

“Who said it — Mozart or someone? ‘With ease, or not at all.’ What if nothing’s easy?”

“Okay, one, I don’t think he said that. Two, if he did say it, he’s lying. And three, you misunderstand ‘ease.’ I think whoever said that means joy, not the quality of being easy. And difficult things can bring joy. And joy can bring ease.”

They were nearing the corner where they’d split off, and Jana would walk the remaining two blocks to her apartment alone. With ease or not at all, she thought. Would there be joy at Esterhazy? Could there be joy with suffering? And who would do the suffering, anyway? And what would they be suffering from?

What she didn’t confess, but so badly wanted to: I blackmailed Fodorio into giving us a win, joy or no joy. Henry wouldn’t have understood. He didn’t see it the way she did, and not because he chose not to think about how hard it all was, but because he didn’t have to. He never had to. What she’d done was the opposite of ease. She would never tell anyone.

“We’re going to be fine,” Henry said.

“You always think that,” she said. “It’s easy for you to think that.”

“I love you, Miss Jana,” he said, kissing the top of her head. Henry was a different species than the rest of them, Jana thought. He would leave them because of it. Someday.

“Don’t leave your viola by a window today, genius,” Jana said. He let go of her and continued north, grinning back at her. “I love you, too,” she said, waving a suddenly chilled hand.


Aja Gabel

Aja Gabel's writing has appeared in The Cut, BOMB, The Kenyon ReviewGlimmer 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.