Music is the most incorporeal of the arts; a composer's canvas is time itself. But of course the instruments used to create these airy canvases are the products of a world far less mystical and floating, a world of metal and wood, of hammers and felt, of thousands of parts assembled by hundreds of people to measurements that must be accurate to minute fractions of an inch.
That at least is the world of the Steinway & Sons piano factory in Queens. It is situated just a few miles from Carnegie Hall but it occupies another universe altogether. Connecting these two worlds is the essence of "Note by Note: The Making of Steinway L1037," a modestly scaled but enjoyable new documentary by Ben Niles that opens tonight at the Museum of Fine Arts.
The film traces the path of a 9-foot concert grand over the course of a year, from a mill in Alaska where the wood is processed all the way to its eventual parking spot among its siblings in the basement of Steinway Hall on West 57th Street, in Manhattan. Along the way, we meet classical pianists Lang Lang, Pierre-Laurent Aimard, and Hélène Grimaud, and jazzmen Harry Connick Jr., Marcus Roberts, Bill Charlap, and Kenny Barron, among others. We watch them try out different pianos and talk about how each one sounds - and feels - distinct beneath their fingers. "It would be terrible to imagine only similar instruments," says Aimard. "This would be a dream of robots."
Despite the presence of these celebrity players, the film's real heroes are the sympathetic Steinway craftsmen we get to know as the camera pauses at their respective work stations. Speaking in a goulash of accents, many of them tell of working at the factory for decades after having arrived as immigrants. Others grew up just blocks away in Queens. One man proudly brandishes a tool that he brought with him from Croatia in 1969. Their jobs have marvelously Orwellian titles: we meet a grand finisher, a tone regulator, a final tone inspector, and a foreman of the belly department. All of them appear to take immense pride in their work. A humble plate fitter speaks of once going to Carnegie Hall and announcing: that's my piano.
All of this said, the image provided is more evocative than complete. "Note by Note" is short on hard facts about the company or the manufacturing process. It supplies little or no information on Steinway's history, its other plant in Hamburg, or its competitors. It mentions not a word about Steinway's less savory tactics of allegedly strong-arming concert pianists into maintaining brand loyalty. Niles even avoids explaining how a piano actually works. His goal seems to be a mistier form of collage. It's most effective when, beneath a soundtrack full of Bach and 19th-century Romantic piano music, the camera marvels at the industrial ballet taking place on the factory floor.
Passages like this make "Note by Note" feel like a love letter to a vanishing mode of production, with more than a hint of elegy. The factory comes off as a bastion of tradition-minded craftsmanship in a soulless digitized world. The truth is of course more complicated, but this film will at least make you look differently at the next Steinway grand you encounter on a concert stage. For those who attend tonight's screening, that instrument will be the actual L1037, which will be used in a post-screening performance by Robert Wyatt.
Jeremy Eichler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.