On a whim, I bought a copy of Note by Note: The Making of Steinway L1037, a documentary about the people who build Steinway pianos, as well as about the pianos themselves. For reasons I won’t go into, it’s tough to find a movie that my wife and I will both enjoy. We both dabble in music (she has an actual talent for it, whereas I merely peck at the notes), and we are both amateur woodworkers, so we sat down to watch this documentary with high hopes. Overall, we were pleased with the experience.
Like most good documentaries, Note by Note aims not only to document a complex process, but to tell a good story. This is the story of a concert grand piano, which is intertwined with the stories of the people who are making it.
Some processes are very well described–stretching the strings and the final tuning. Other processes are only shown–the bent lamination of the piano’s case and the construction of the hammers. In many sequences, it takes a few moments to figure out what the workers are doing, because the voiceovers rarely tell you. Nevertheless, the videography is excellent, with many stunning shots, such as a spruce log plunging over a dam on its way to a sawmill or a finished piano (sans legs) being slowly rotated in mid-air.
To fully appreciate this documentary, you need a basic understanding of how a piano works–when you press a key, a soft hammer strikes a set of tensioned strings, and the sound is amplified by a large, wooden soundboard that vibrates. But that’s only the beginning. The nuances of tone produced by each piano (and indeed by each string) are affected by the the tension of the strings, the composition of the soundboard, the texture of the hammers, and much, much more.
The documentary spends a lot of time with the people who build the instruments, and their backgrounds are as varied as the work they do. Quite a few hand tools make cameo appearances, most notably a French smoothing plane and a massive chisel. While much of the work is done by hand-guided machines, there is an amazing amount of hand-tool work that goes into a Steinway piano. I only wish the camera would linger longer over the hands at work.
For us, the best part of the documentary is listening to a number of concert pianists describe their perceptions of their instrument. From Lang Lang and Pierre-Laurent Aimard to Marcus Roberts and Harry Connick Jr., their taste in instruments is as varied as their backgrounds and musical styles, and there’s a Steinway–not just a model but a particular piano–that speaks especially to each musician. The DVD includes several extended interviews with the pianists, as well as short concerts from each one. (You absolutely must watch the extended interview with Franz Mohr, who has tuned pianos for many concert pianists.) Whether you enjoy baroque, jazz, or modern piano, there’s a pianist here to please you. There are also additional details on the history of the Steinway company.
If you’re a woodworker, you should watch this documentary with a musician. If you’re a musician, you should watch it with a woodworker. If you’re neither a musician nor a woodworker, you should watch it while sitting between a musician and a woodworker. You won’t hear a bit of the narration, but you’ll learn a lot anyway. This documentary won’t teach you how to build a piano, but you will come away with a better appreciation of the complexities and subtleties of the instrument.