A grand piano represents a remarkable fusion of engineering and artistry, technical savvy and soul. It's a complicated machine capable of playing the most delicate melodies. Making one takes a lot of blood, sweat, and elbow grease, as Ben Niles proves in his obsessive new documentary Note By Note: The Making of Steinway L1037.
Niles follows a single Steinway piano over the yearlong process of transforming wood, wires, and an endless assortment of precise components into a vessel for musical beauty. All sorts of painstaking labor has to take place before little Johnny can pound away at a crude approximation of "Chopsticks." Niles' film opens up into a mellow, serene meditation on musicians' symbiotic relationship with their instruments, the rewards and costs of craftsmanship in an age of industrialization, and the timeless mystique of the piano, a finely tuned machine with a direct line to the human soul.
The eloquent professional pianists queried here, including Harry Connick Jr. and Lang Lang (who tells an amusing anecdote about how a Tom & Jerry cartoon inspired his lifelong passion for the piano), attempt a spiritual communion with their instrument of choice. Steinway is piano porn for inveterate ivory-ticklers whose hearts skip a beat at the sight of a Steinway glistening in the sunlight. For non-musicians, however, it can be awfully dry, and Niles never explores the bitter irony of fundamentally working-class people painstakingly creating objects of beauty and art they couldn't possibly afford. The Steinway employees and the professional musicians who travel the world playing their products each make their livings with their hands, but in vastly different ways. It's a testament to the film's artistry that it almost never feels like a feature-length Steinway infomercial. Then again, infomercials are seldom this leisurely paced or austere.