Sunday, September 13, 2009

Tomorrow on PBS: 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 lovingly documented in producer-director Ben Niles’ Note By Note: The Making of Steinway L1037 (trailer here), which airs on many PBS stations tomorrow night.

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. As a result, 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 plays back a little.”

It is fascinating to watch the audition process, as elite artists like Aimard test pianos for the precise sounds they are 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 says at one point, perfection is unattainable. The subtleties of each instrument’s sound are so mysterious they defy quantification and can best be heard only in live performance. That mystery is what Note is all about.

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

Obviously produced by music lovers, Note is also 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 others might be musical but refuse to play any sort of keyboard.

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

Ultimately, it is almost shocking how emotionally satisfying it is to see L1037 finish its journey. Also quite surprisingly, Note engenders real patriotic sentiments by showing an American company based in Queens, meticulously hand-crafting pianos sought by world-class artists. It is a finely crafted, thoroughly engaging film that should not be missed when it airs tomorrow at 10:00 PM here in New York on WNET 13.