To close out November I'm pairing two music-focused books together! First up is a novel about a string quartet that I heard about indirectly via a horror-themed TV show last year. And then I've got a book about jazz, written by a member of a legendary family of jazz musicians from New Orleans.
The Ensemble by Aja Gabelarticle relating 'The Terror' to her family's own experience of being incarcerated in California and Utah. I decided to see what else Aja had written, and that's how I learned about her book, The Ensemble. I bought it much later on when I happened to see a copy of it in a B&N, and I read it sporadically this year before finishing it this month.
The titular ensemble is the Van Ness Quartet, consisting of four classical musicians who become partners in both music and life over the course of their nearly 20-year career, from 1992 to 2010. The quartet members first meet and join forces at a conservatory in San Francisco, and their home base switches between the Bay and New York City as their collective journey evolves. Jana is the leader and first violinist, hyper-focused on her career longevity to the extent of occasional meanness and ruthlessness, but always with what's best for the group in mind. Brit is the second violinist and the most sensitive member, valued as part of the group but often not taken seriously enough because she received an inheritance from her parents and is the most outwardly naive and love-starved of the four. Henry is the young protégé of the group, a viola player who seems to maneuver life and the music world with the most ease and faces consistent outside enticement to go solo. (Henry's basically the Beyoncé of the group.) And then there's Daniel, the precise but emotionally-detached cello player and the oldest group member, who often resents how much harder he's had to work to be a professional musician and maintain financial stability than his fellows have. Outside of their work together, Jana and Henry have the closest friendship, whereas Brit and Daniel have a non-committal romantic relationship. Parts 1 and 3 are written from Jana and Britt's perspectives, parts 2 and 4 are written from Henry and Daniel's perspectives, and the coda at the end revisits the group's very first rehearsal back when the quartet was first formed.
I don't know what exactly I was expecting from The Ensemble, but upon finishing it, I felt like something was missing. I learned more about certain happenings in the characters' lives than I cared to know, and less or nothing at all about developments that I actually wanted to know more about. (Warning: spoilers.) Henry opts to leave the quartet so his wife Kimiko can finally pursue her career in earnest (and because tendonitis is threatening to shorten his career anyway), but then they start planning for a third child? And we never learn how Kimiko's career goes? Jana (a white woman) adopts a daughter from Ethiopia, in the early 2000s, and nothing is brought up about about the racial implications of that decision, or how Jana may or may not be taking adequate measures to help her daughter nurture her Black/African identity? The only difficulty mentioned is that Jana doesn't turn out to be as motherly as she hoped, and worries about becoming like her own aloof and self-absorbed mother?
Even though we follow each of the characters closely through nearly two decades together, I felt somewhat distanced from the quartet's collective journey to renown and success. This is because each chapter presents them in a new phase to which they've somehow managed to ascend since the previous one, even despite the crisis moments readers have just witnessed. Things just keep working out for Van Ness somehow, and I feel like I connected to and learned more details about each member's interiority than the group's story as a whole. But I'm almost wondering if that was intentional? Gabel impresses open readers how essential unison and cohesion are amongst chamber music players, and she also explains how the bond and intimacy that ensemble members have is something that's rarely felt or understood from outside the group. So perhaps the readers are actually meant to feel like we're on the outside looking in? I'm not sure.
I played alto sax from 5th through 12th grade and we played lots of classical music, so I can appreciate the genre but am not an expert on it. It's not necessarily my thing. I mention that to say that of all the classical music references Gabel includes, I was pleasantly surprised to find myself rapt by two pieces in particular: Antonín Dvořák's "American" String Quartet in F Major, op. 96, no. 12 and Felix Mendelssohn's Octet in E-Flat Major, op. 20. I'd never heard of those pieces before, but I went out of my way to listen to them on YouTube because Gabel included them in this book, and I'm really glad that I did.
If you're a music enthusiast of any sort, are curious about how classical musicians live, want to digest ample philosophical takes on what it means to make music, or simply enjoy reading about interpersonal drama amongst people who
are required to have chosen to stick together for the long haul, then read this book!
"For Henry, sense-making was perhaps the opposite of the point. He had fun in the chaos of four people; the chaos was what made it feel like art, like beauty... Choosing to stay in the quartet was not the obvious, logical decision. But for him, obvious and logical had nothing to do with real music-making" (85).
"Jana allowed herself to accept something most people spend their days running from. She stood in the knowledge that there were people who saw the parts of her that she did not want to see herself—the anxiety buffering the nastiness, the desperate quality to her ambition, the tarnished sheen of her past—and that one of those people was standing right in front of her, seeing her be seen" (206-07).
"And now she was nearly forty, and it was about time she admitted that the life she was living was actually her life, not some precursor to her life, and that the reason she wasn't living another, perhaps better, life was that she'd met someone decent with whom she'd had something very important in common: a desire to be in love" (217-18).
"First was the music, which was servant to nothing. Second was everything else, servant to her music" (246).
Moving to Higher Ground: How Jazz Can Change Your Life by Wynton Marsalis with Geoffrey C. Ward
"Because jazz musicians improvise under the pressure of time, what's inside comes out pure. It's like being pressed to answer a question before you have a chance to get your lie straight. The first thought is usually the truth" (8)."Through jazz, we learn that people are never all one way. Each musician has strengths and weaknesses. We enjoy hearing musicians struggle with their parts... [Miles Davis] would release recordings with mistakes, and they still sound good. The imperfections give the music even more flavor and personality" (12)."It takes all kinds of time to develop first-class technical skills, and to expose your true feelings in public can be very discomforting. But exposing your feelings and transforming a bandstand with them is a powerful thing, so powerful you'll sacrifice almost anything to experience it. Art—creativity of any kind in any field—needs food, and that food is your experience, whether you're on the bandstand or in the audience" (66)."When you find a style of music you can relate to, it's like finding a friend" (71).