Friday, April 18, 2008

Note by Note: The Making of Steinway L1037 (2006, Ben Niles)

One of the strengths of cinema that other media can't touch is its ability to show, in detail, how an act is performed. Sadly, this procedural aspect is too often neglected, especially by fiction filmmakers, who are all too eager to move the story forward. However, when it's done right, I'm fascinated. It's one of many reasons why I love The Son, it's why I prefer the first half of United 93 (with its detail re-enactment of how shit went down on 9/11) to the second, and it comprises the one scene in Zhang Yimou's otherwise risible The Road Home that had my full attention. With Note by Note, the procedural stuff is foregrounded for a change, as we follow the creation of a brand new grand piano from the lumber yard to the concert hall. All in all, a Steinway concert model requires roughly a year to make, a task that's accomplished with old-school hand craftsmanship. And through the process, we meet many people who are in charge of various aspects of production, from the guy who selects the wood to the men in charge of the "belly" of the instrument, to the technicians who put every piano through a battery of tunings. It's also interesting to see the makeup of the people who create the pianos- working-class types, many of them immigrants, all of whom despair that too few young people will carry on the tradition they've worked so hard to maintain. It's this tradition that attracts many gifted pianists to Steinway, and a "subplot" of the film finds renowned pianists- from jazz men Bill Charlap and Kenny Barron to concert pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard- testing out Steinway after Steinway to find the one with the character and timbre they want. With the human touch all over the making of each Steinway, there's no wonder that no two instruments are exactly alike, and this is appreciated mightily by those in the know. To the film's credit, we come to appreciate this as well, not simply because the people onscreen say so, but because when they test a room full of Steinways in rapid succession, the differences quickly become apparent. But whether you're Harry Connick Jr. (who also appears) or one of the lucky kids whose parents purchased them a Steinway during the factory sale we see in the film, there's no substitute for quality. I for one hope that the Steinway company is able to maintain their traditional methods for years to come. Rating: 8 out of 10.

Side note: Back in my piano-playing days, I had a huge crush on French concert pianist Hélène Grimaud, beginning when my mother took me to see her perform Chopin. Part of it no doubt had to do with the fact that she was probably the first young, hot female concert pianist I'd ever seen perform, but I was pretty smitten back then, and I found as many of her recordings as I could. Imagine my surprise when she turned up here, as delightful as ever. Will have to seek out some of her more recent albums and do some catching up.

1 comment:

Nick Plowman said...

I totally have a screener of this, but am too lazy to watch it. Maybe I should give it a try.