Note by Note: The Making of Steinway L1037
Like walking into an ancient castle, or a stately old library or museum building, Ben Nile’s quietly compelling documentary is akin to stepping into another time; an age where work was done by hand and craftsmen and their craftsmanship were highly valued. Note by Note: The Making of Steinway L1037 documents the making of a 9ft Steinway concert piano, right from shaping the long planks for the frame through to the final product being put into Steinway’s concert collection. Sure, this may not sound like the most action packed 80mins, but Note by Note is an exquisite, if slow-burn, exploration of wonderful creativity inherent in the human race and the way can bring together the disparate social strata in our society.
For a debut effort, director Ben Niles has done a great job of structuring this film which essentially consists of interviews with two sets people at either end of the production process. On the one hand, we meet the range of craftsmen and women responsible for creating these modern handmade masterpieces, and on the other we meet the pianists who use their skill and creativity to make these masterworks come alive with the music they were designed to produce. Niles ties these elements together around the creation of a particular individual instrument over a period of a year – the L1037 – upon which we see the various craftspeople ply their trade, and, which one of the concert pianists (Hélène Grimaud) finally plays and effuses over. This piano is like a character in its own right; present and alive with possibility, showcasing the precise and beautiful process with which a handmade grand piano is brought into being.
Apparently Steinway – a business that has been operating for over 150 years – is one of the few that still handcrafts their pianos. This up to a year long process that the director lays out for us is fascinating to watch. Each of the many people working in the Steinway factory in Queens, New York, is learning skills passed down from generation to generation. Highly specialised work that requires meticulous attention to detail and passion is carried out at each stage of production and we hear from each artisan as they describe their job, their particular methods of working, and their perception of their role within process as a whole. It is clear that all these people – or at least the ones who’ve made it into the final edit – love their work and take incredible pride in being involved in such a complex and age-old business; the production process having changed very little since it was developed in Europe hundreds of years ago. There is something very soothing in watching these people work, using a blend of honed technical skill and developed intuition. The irony in this situation is that it’s hard to connect these well and truly blue collar New Yorkers with the world where their wares will be used.
The interviews with various concert pianists occur in Steinway’s special showroom where they keep the best of their concert grand piano’s to be hired out to professional musicians as they require them. We see well known classical pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard searching for a “monster” instrument that will breathe life into a piece that he will be playing at an upcoming gig at Carnegie Hall. Overenthusiastic Yang Yang dances his fingers over one or two pianos while informing the audience about the individual personalities of each instrument. Harry Connick Jr talks of his experience of learning piano and explains that he’s known to be “heavy handed” and needs an instrument that can respond to this. Old Jazz legend Hank Jones oozes a passion for music and an almost emotional connection to the pianos he sits at. All the musicians agree that each piano has a different tone and feel, and that finding the right instrument for the player is essential. Several described the experience of being on the right piano as making things easy and fluid and, conversely, playing the ‘wrong’ piano as being like a ‘battle of wills’ to make it perform as you would like. One or two of the pianists’ thoughts turn briefly from the instruments themselves towards those who have made them, and there is a brief sense of connection with these people so far removed from their world.
Watching Note by Note I was reminded of a song by New Zealand band The Mutton Birds, A Thing well Made, in which Don McGlashan sings about the experience of a man surveying a thing well made (in this case a gun) and how the beauty of it – not only the of object itself, but also the process of work that went into producing it, and the craftsperson who fashioned it – makes him, for a moment, forget all his troubles and think about the wonder of life and humanity. A particular lyric from the song goes:
When a man holds a thing well made
When a man holds a thing well made
And this is something akin to my feelings watching this documentary: the sense of connection between these disparate social groups, wistful thoughts about an age past when craftsmanship was more highly valued, and a sense of the possibility and potential that is inherent in humanity – not only in complex manual tasks, but in the way we live together in the world.
Reviewed by: Jacob Powell
Duration: 80 mins
Director: Ben Niles
With: Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Kenny Barron, Bill Charlap, Harry Connick Jr, Hélène Grimaud, Hank Jones, and Lang Lang.
Country: USA (2007)