Monday, November 8, 2010

Mini-Review: Note by Note

Note by Note: The Making of Steinway L1037. 
Directed by Ben Niles. 2007.

While professional pianists may sit down at a modern concert grand piano and dominate the instrument, or get to know it, I think most of us approach the massive structure with some degree of reverence. The big shiny thing, usually the largest and often the only instrument at a concert, at least commands a lot of attention. It has quite the history too, from primitive designs in the middle ages, through the refinements of the Cristofori, the variations of the Viennese and English actions, and its ascendancy to dominance in the 19th century. Today it's hard to imagine a piano concert without a shiny grand, and arguably the biggest name in grand pianos is Steinway & Sons.

In part, then, this 80 minute documentary feels a tad like a commercial for Steinway. We don't get a look at other manufacturing techniques and no other brands are mentioned except to mention that Steinway is the only company which still does so much work by hand. Still, the tour of their facility in Queens, NYC makes quite an impression. What comes off most from this documentary is the tremendous degree of specialization needed to produce such a massive and intricate instrument. Indeed until recently pianos were likely the most complicated devices most people came into contact with and as such the tour of picking out the wood, the case's shaping, the painstaking fitting of the soundboard, the laying and stretching of the strings, the many phases of tuning (degrees of pre-tuning aka "chipping," rough-tuning, and fine-tuning) and the finishing is quite revealing.

Still, though, considering the tremendous energy and variety of specialization needed to bring you a pencil,[1] the process of bringing you a piano must be considerably more than depicted and I would have liked to see more of it. I'd have liked to see more about the shaping, weighting, and balancing of the keys, the construction of the hammer action, and the treatment of the wood. As wonderful as it is to see the shiny new Steinway arrive at a family's home and to see their son start to play for his parents and grandparents, I couldn't help feel we had skipped a beat somewhere.

Nonetheless Steinway is rightly proud that so much of their process is done by hand, from shaving off infinitesimal layers of wood for a perfect fit to the subtlest adjustments of pitch. Parts of this process, some of the craftsman say, you really cannot explain. There is no precise measurement for how much to cut or stretch or shave. There is some, considerable perhaps, intuition involved. Those variables, the variable of the different experiences the many craftsman bring to how they work, and the variety of material makes each piano a little different. They all have their own personality. Some fight back a little and some are easy going. Some have a massive sound, others more subdued. More interesting indeed is this point, but still too belabored. It seems this aspect was mentioned by everyone in the film and by the time pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard finds a suitable one in the great cellar of Steinway and Sons on 57th St. we've had the drift for a while.

Pierre-Laurent Aimard made the best point about the instruments the Steinway method produces, which is that it would be a tremendous bore and a great loss if every piano were identical. The variety produces not only the opportunity to find an instrument especially well-suited to a particular piece, but to find one which brings something totally unexpected to a performance. Harry Connick Jr. commented on this apparent capriciousness inherent in musical and piano performance: unlike in other mediums, what you create at the piano disappears when you are done. Each performance is a new experience, with differences in both the performer and the instrument.

Too, then, each performance contains the work of the many craftsmen who built that instrument, and they are rightfully proud of their work. They're quite a diverse lot, but they all looked middle-aged and older. I saw a couple of younger fellows here and there in the background, but I certainly hope there are more waiting in the wings, studying under the master craftsmen. Someone in the film mentioned how sad it would be if one day people wondered how Steinway made such instruments. Indeed, and let it not be necessary to have to rediscover it. Making this instruments is certainly demanding physically, but the  concentration needed to maintain such attention to detail, and the persistent risk of ruining someone else's hard work (at great expense too), seems to me quite enough to keep you on your toes. More importantly, though, if so much is indeed intuitive in this process it is even more important that they pass on their knowledge to successors.

Note by Note is an affectionate little documentary, and you come away with a great appreciation for the company which has remained in this business for over 150 years and succeeds by making a unique product, and the many craftsmen who put painstaking work (and their own personality) into each instrument. All of that work and variety in each instrument, from each performer, and each composer, added to the differences of each listener, make ever concert a unique experience. We ought never take one for granted.



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