Note by Note
- The making of Steinway L1037
Directed by Ben Niles
Interviews with Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Hélène Grimaud, Lang Lang, Harry Connick Jnr and others.
With bonus material: deleted scenes and extended interviews and performances
rec. 2007
NTSC. Dolby; 5.1 surround. Region 1.
DOCURAMA FILMS DVD NNVG146510 [81:00 + extras]
This marvellous documentary tells the story of the production of one concert grand piano in the New York factory of Steinway and Sons, a journey of fully twelve months that takes us from the timber yards in Canada to the audition room in the Steinway showroom basement. It traces the stages of manufacture in a way that gives the outsider an insight into how such a complex instrument is made, without turning it into a woodwork lesson. You can see a trailer for the film on Youtube.
Steinway pianos are still all hand-made in a way that the company’s first craftsmen from 150 years ago would recognise. From the interviews with the employees, it seems that most of them have spent most of their working life with the company. It is a piece of manufacturing history that somehow has been preserved into the 21st century and remains cherished in this era where squeezing the last ounce of profit out of a product is the default.
I was surprised that the factory produces hundreds of pianos each year (not all concert grands) and even more that the “big” companies produce tens of thousands - I had no idea there was such a demand for pianos.
Unusually for a documentary, there is no narrator. The story is told simply, but effectively by the Steinway “family” - the great-grandson of the founder, management, supervisors and factory floor - and the professionals who use the pianos. There is a palpable sense of pride and of community within the ethnically diverse group of men and women (and yes, there are some women) who craft these instruments. Some have no musical background at all, others are good enough to have played professionally. They are virtuosos in a different way in the factory.
The professional pianists emphasise how different each of the pianos are in character and sound, and the selection process that Pierre-Laurent Aimard undertakes before a Carnegie Hall recital is one of the ongoing themes of the film.
For someone such as myself who can’t play the piano and struggles to hammer a nail in straight, it was both inspirational and illuminating. Next time I am at the Sydney Opera House with a Steinway being played, I will reflect that I now have some sense of the extraordinary care, pride and workmanship that went into its making.
David J Barker
Inspirational and illuminating.