Movie Review: Note by Note: The Making of Steinway L1037

A slimy log dumped into frigid Alaskan waters emerges as the hand-selected Steinway for a world-class performance.  A fascinating look at the mini-city within New York City where hand work still prevails.

The Steinway factory is in Astoria, Queens, New York City.  The company is about 150 years old, one of the oldest piano companies in the world.  It is a survivor in an international art capitol where virtually all companies like it have disappeared, victims of overseas technology.  The Steinway piano survives as one of the last mass-produced pianos in the world that is almost entirely hand-built.  A story is born.

In all fairness to the filmmakers, this movie is part story and part sales piece.  Regardless of whether or not Steinway actually helped fund the film (there is no indication they did) such a movie with the trade name echoing in every scene certainly promotes the product.  But even given that fact, once entering the mysterious world of the Steinway factory there is no turning back.  Even the least handy of viewers will find themselves saying “So that’s how they do it!”

Every person watching will be amazed at the number of people involved.  It is hard to believe that the outside casing of the instrument is actually glued together as a lamination.  Wood is not supposed to work like that, bending through impossible curvatures and ending up looking like a piano before the lightest finish is applied. 

As each hand-applied step is completed, the worker is interviewed about their step and their overview of the entire process.  Many of them were born and raised in the neighborhood, playing amongst the stacks of wood as small children, before the factory was sealed off with barbed wire fences.  Thus comes the nostalgia.  Steinway is home to these people and the history of Steinway is the history of their ‘hood.

The technically inclined will watch many of the Steinway steps and think “There has to be a better way.”  The opportunity for machine work is everywhere, but the firm still does it by hand.  Producing about two thousand units a year, Steinway is competing with mechanized firms that make twenty times that many.  But are they as good?  That probably depends on what “good” is.

As many New Yorkers know, Steinways have appeared, almost exclusively, on the stages of the New York Philharmonic, Carnegie Hall and the majority of the other principal venues in the city since time immemorial.  It turns out there are two reasons for this.  The first is that Steinways are not as “good” as machine-made instruments, because they have variation.  Their hand assembly and adjustment puts a human touch into them that can not be replicated by machines.  This allows the most persnickety pianists in the world to try a dozen or more Steinways before they choose the one that’s right for them.

After the piano is chosen, it is the one delivered to the performing hall to await the master’s touch.  So the concert is not just the personality of the artist, it is the personality of the Steinway as well.  This something that is as impossible to duplicate with a machine-made piano as it is to duplicate with a digital keyboard.

Interviews with the craft-persons are interspersed with interviews with star pianists and, of course, some world-class playing.  Harry Connick Jr. provides New York hipness while Marcus Roberts radiates cool professionalism.  The beautiful Helene Grimaud alternates with the effervescent Lang Lang.

Throughout is the selection process mandated by Pierre-Laurent Aimard who turns out to be the piano buyer from hell.  Turning down one after another for his upcoming concert at Carnegie, in the end he finally identifies the one that works for him.  The audience sighs with relief.  What would we have done if he didn’t want any of them?

Model L1037 itself is taken by Helen Grimaud.  There is also a charming vignette of the purchase of one Steinway for home use by a budding prodigy.  Apparently purchased at the annual factory sale (yes, even Steinway has them) the family was able to knock something off the usual $100,000 price tag and bring the beauty home for a cost only slightly exceeding several new cars.

More than just an assembly line, “Note by Note” is the story of a family, a neighborhood and a machine with a heart.  When these are gone, it will be digital keyboards and synthesizers—and the magic will be gone as well.

Release: November 7, 2007
MPAA: Not Rated
Runtime: 80 minutes
Country: USA
Language: English
Color: Color