See what goes into the construction of a high-quality piano.
Dir. Ben Niles, 2007, 80 min, Viewed via Netflix Instant
Pianos are so wonderful. I’ve started and stopped taking lessons in playing them at several different points in my life, and now it’s a big regret of mine that I never learned to play. Yeah, I can start learning again any time I want, but I’m past the point where I could absorb the necessary skills so easily. Oh, well. That can’t stop me from enjoying the sound. There’s something so soulful about the way a piano note sprouts into being and lingers on the air. If I could better describe the way its tinklings and plunks affect me, I’d be a music critic instead of a movie critic.
The title of Note by Note: The Making of Steinway L1037 is fairly self-explanatory. It follows the making of a single piano by Steinway & Sons. The company is world-renowned for their pianos for a reason. Eschewing factory production, they hand-craft their product, in a process that takes a full year. This doc follows every step of this journey, beginning in the wilds of Alaska as the manufacturers hunt down the perfect wood, and ending as Steinway L1037 finds its home in the basement of Steinway Hall.
One remarkable aspect of this construction is that the creators of this instrument of high culture are purely blue-collar. One thoroughly New Yawker man hones away at rough edges as he describes the rough aspects of his life. The stringers and carpenters and tuners aren’t men in suits, but men with tattoos and scars. They pour personality into L1307 at each stage of its development. Although Steinways are built to strict specifications, since they are hand-made, there is room for tiny variations that give every piano a unique feel. They are like snowflakes. Big, black, wooden, keyed and stringed instrument snowflakes.
The movie also functions as something of a love letter to Steinway itself. Numerous famous musicians, including Helene Grimaud and Harry Connick Jr., come in to rave about how great the company’s pianos are. If it were anyone else, this kind of fawning attention would be grating, but there’s a reason something like 90% of the pianos in the world’s concert halls are Steinways: they are simply the best. This movie shows us why.
A piano can play any kind of tune, but this film’s mood is closest to easy jazz. It’s light and drifty, often making great use of comfortable silences as it contentedly watches craftsmen at work on L1037. The movie itself is a song of creation, not of orgiastic bursts of being, but of a gradual concretion of elements into something that slowly shapes into a complete being. Its greatest success is making L1037 its own character. When it was finally finished, I teared up just a bit.
Note by Note is the best surprise I’ve had in a while here at Days of Docs. It’s a great film about how true art is earned through hard sweat, and the beauty of the song of the piano. If nothing else, check it out for the ridiculously lovely musical stylings on display.