Yesterday, I watched a doc while riding my bike trainer inside. As both a piano player and a filmmaker, I have to admit that “Note by Note: The Making of Steinway L1037” is the kind of doc I wish I’d made myself!
It’s been sitting in my Netflix queue for a few years. Why did I wait? The film traces the year-long “birth” of a concert Steinway through a long line of skilled craftsmen who follow incredibly precise methods until the piano is complete.
The film, by Ben Niles, makes a strong case for the tradition of hand-made pianos. The sound is better, has more character, more soul. It’s a temptation to modernize some of the process, says one guy. Most piano manufacturers have.
One thread follows an elite French pianist selecting the appropriate grand for a big concert he’s doing in Manhattan. He plays piano after piano after piano like a kid in a candy store (really, Steinway’s basement), but none are up to snuff. Soon, his protestations are annoying. But the nerdy, passionate delight he takes in describing infinitesimally subtle details of tone, feel, and dynamics . . . you forgive him. He is deep in his art, at the pinnacle of his craft.
By contrast, one segment shows a teenage boy piano shopping with his Orthodox family. Back home playing the piano for the first time, the boy’s grandparents begin to cry. It’s a poignant scene: even the amateur interpretations of this young man can transport people. Music is a mainline to emotion, memory, and perhaps liberation.