Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Coming Soon: Note By Note

For jazz pianists, the process of paying dues often involves showing up for a gig and finding a crummy, out-of-tune upright piano. They pay those dues for the opportunity to perform on the elite concert grand pianos handcrafted by Steinway, a process documented in producer-director Ben Niles’ new film: Note By Note: The Making of Steinway L1037 (trailer here).

Eschewing mechanization, Steinway’s manufacturing techniques have changed little in the company’s 150 year history. Note takes the audience step-by-step through the year-long process of making one instrument, the film’s protagonist: L1037. Wood hand selected by Steinway specialists is carefully molded into the basic frame and rests for several weeks before the various production phases can continue. You see the stringing, staining, assembling, and tuning, all done by specialized craftsmen. Almost imperceptible variances in production can affect the piano’s sound in ways that cannot be predicted.

In between production periods, we see classical and jazz musicians testing various models in the Steinway showrooms. Jazz listeners will be happy to see artists like Bill Charlap, Hank Jones, Kenny Barron, and Marcus Roberts presented on a par with classical artists like Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Helene Grimaud. Throughout the film all the musicians speak eloquently about their relationship to the piano and what they prefer in an individual instrument. Harry Connick, Jr., for instances, prefers a piano “that pushes back a little.”

It is fascinating to see the audition process, as Aimard tests pianos for the precise sound he is looking for. Due to the fidelity limits of film, the subtle shades of difference are not really audible to the audience, but that is sort of the point. As Hank Jones say at one point, perfection is unattainable. The subtleties of sound resulting from fractional variances of the thousandths of degrees are so mysterious they defy quantification and can best be heard only in live performance. That mystery of what gives one piano its distinctive sound and personality lies at the heart of Note.

Most of the music heard is fragmentary in nature, designed to test the feel of each instrument. However, if you want to hear every note ever recorded by Charlap or Barron, than you will want to hear them test-driving Steinways with “The Very Thought of You” and “Yesterdays.” We do actually hear more classical, but Aimard’s hunt for the perfect piano for Ives’ Concord Sonata is a sizeable plot point, and not to be a spoiler, but Grimaud’s Rachmaninoff is a fitting conclusion to L1037’s story.

Obviously crafted by music lovers, Note is a surprisingly good looking film. The Steinway facility in Queens must have the best natural light of any factory in America, as it often appears bathed in Golden sunlight. For their part, the Steinway employees, while taking obvious pride in their work, relate to music in different ways. Some are quite respectable on the ivories themselves, while one Deadhead involved in the early tuning process speaks of how much his work has helped his theoretical approach to music on guitar and other instruments, but he now refuses to play any sort of keyboard.

Note may well be the most effective and extended product placement ever filmed, if one can afford the six figure price tag for their concert grands. It is obviously worth it though. Despite the rarified reputations cultivated by Fazioli and Bösendorfer I have heard many jazz pianists profess their partiality for Steinway. As is clear in the film, many classical artists share that preference.

Following L1037 through the production process is quite a satisfying viewing experience and Note is itself a well-crafted film. Surprisingly, it engenders patriotic feelings, as it shows an American company based in Queens, meticulously hand-crafting pianos sought by world-class artists. It plays at the Film Forum November 7-20, and filmmaker Niles will be attending the 8:00 screenings on the 8th and 9th.

(Note: Still in Prague, so blogging will continue to be light.)