Judge Gordon Sullivan can only afford one key.
"Each piano's journey is complex, spanning 12 months, 12,000 parts, 450 craftsmen, and countless hours of fine-tuned labor."
The philosopher Frederich Nietzsche said, "Without music, life would be an error." I'm not sure there's a statement in the history of philosophy that I am more apt to agree with. Music has always been a big part of my life, but I was playing guitar for more than ten years before I became seriously interested in how the instrument was put together. Sure, I knew all the parts, but I knew very little about the journey from a tree in the forest to a stringed instrument in my hands. Through reading some excellent books (included the highly-recommend Clapton's Guitar), I gained a pretty thorough knowledge of how guitars are built (at least as much knowledge as can be gained without building one myself). Now, I'm jealous of pianists, because with the release of Note By Note: The Making of Steinway L1037 , they have an amazing opportunity to see how one of the greatest piano manufacturers of all time takes trees and turns them into the kind of instruments that the best and most demanding artists want to play. The appeal of Note By Note extends beyond those who play or listen to the piano. No, this film is for anyone who appreciates handcrafted objects, family run businesses, and the pride that comes from doing the best job possible no matter the cost.
Note By Note is a film of many stories, but the primary thread follows piano L1037 from planks of wood although way to installation in the Steinway Concert Division show room. Along the way we hear from the craftsmen and women who put the instrument together as well as some of the companies executives. Because much of the year it takes to build a piano involves waiting, this main story is intercut with interview footage of various famous pianists (including Harry Connick Jr.) waxing poetic about the Steinway product. We also get to see the Steinway Concert Division, where various pianos are available to artists who need a Steinway. Here we watch pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard try to find the perfect piano to compliment the piece he will be playing at Carnegie Hall. It's this latter story that gives the film its tension, as Aimard goes from piano to piano, dissatisfied with the particular attributes of each piano but needing one before his approaching performance deadline.
The main attraction of the film is getting to see how pianos of the stature of those made by Steinway and Sons are built using techniques that have not altered significantly in the last hundred years. They use the most number of handcrafted pieces and artisan techniques of any manufacturer. It really does take a year to create such an amazingly complex instrument, including three(!) different rounds of tuning alone over several weeks. Just watching this would be fascinating enough, but we also get to hear the stories of the various workers who build the pianos. Many are immigrants, many have been working there for decades, and a large percentage them grew up in the shadow of the factory. It's obviously a very familial atmosphere; as workers put it, despite the fact that none of them make enough to afford a Steinway, they all take pride in having built something so wonderful.
The interviews are a little less compelling, if only because the artists are trying to describe the ineffable qualities that make a particular piano special. However, they're bolstered by the fact that each of the artists plays a little something at least once, and it's a treat to watch masters of the instrument perform, however briefly.
Finally, the arc of Pierre-Laurent Aimard provides an interesting insight into the world of Steinway and Sons. Each piano is different, and therefore is suitable to different players and different pieces. Because of the high price tag (we're talking luxury car to nice-house prices, depending on the model), most artists can't afford to keep a fleet of Steinways in reserve. Enter the Concert Division. Here, Steinway rents out pianos to artists, and it's amazing to watch Aimard sit down at a dozen pianos, play them beautifully, but still walk away unsatisfied with their use for his piece. It really reinforces just how unique each instrument really is.
As a DVD, Note By Note is sure to make some happy customers. This was obviously not the most extensively budgeted film, but there were no visual problems that distracted from the story of the piano's journey. The audio, however, is a bit of a mixed bag. On the one hand, all praise is due to the on-site sound recorder. Some of the interviewees go from talking normally to banging on a piano loudly in the space of a few seconds, and the music always sounds clear and free of distortion. It's an impressive feat that filmmakers would do well to study. However, somewhere in the mixing of the track the dynamics got a bit messed up. The difference between loud and soft sounds is much greater than it probably should be, and more problematically, seems inconsistent from scene to scene. It's not unlistenable, but a hand on the remote will almost certainly be necessary. The movie only runs 84 minutes, but this DVD includes over 80 minutes of deleted scene and extra interviews for those who can't get enough of the Steinway story.
Note By Note is a moving documentary about how a group of very different people come together to make a world-class instrument with time-tested techniques. The film shows the value of taking pride in your work and treating your job as something more than a way to earn a living. The fact that a beautiful instrument comes out at the end is just a bonus. I highly recommend this film to anyone with an interest in music and how it gets made.
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