Reviewing the documentary “Note by Note”
Yoko Miwa Trio fans who liked the posts From Key to Ear and Note by Note, or who watched the short Youtube video tour of the Steinway factory we shared on our Facebook page some months back, would appreciate the 2007 Ben Niles documentary Note by Note: The Making of Steinway L1037.
“L1037” in the title is the serial number of a specific piano, one of Steinway’s concert grands, and the film follows the year-long process of crafting the instrument. From planing the first boards and crafting the sounding board to stretching the strings and several iterations of tuning, the film interviews craftsmen and women from throughout the process. While mass-produced pianos exist, the Steinway concert grands are as far from mass-produced as you can get, and you can see many parts of the instrument stamped with the serial number as they move along the production process, because each piano has its own character, and all the parts must fit together perfectly.
The film shows the seasons change as L1037 is slowly crafted, but it intersperses scenes following this particular instrument with scenes from the rest of the Steinway factory and scenes of musicians testing and selecting instruments. Located in the Bronx, the factory is both a hometown anchor and an international meeting place. Many of Yoko’s experiences, in Japan and the U.S., at Berklee, and at numerous music festivals, have demonstrated the same thing the film shows – that love of music is a global feeling that can bring people together.
One worker described having sneaked in to play between stacks of lumber in the factory yard as a kid, while many of his coworkers took the job shortly after immigrating. From the way these workers talk about what they do — and, in many cases, have done for decades — it’s clear that a lot of love goes into those pianos. To be sure, the film doubles as a promotion for the company, and it’s not designed to be the kind of documentary that exposes anything that may be wrong, but there’s a ring of truth in the way these workers describe their craft.
Other than the lovely background music (mostly classical, but some jazz), one of the best parts of “Note by Note” is the intimate details of life at the factory: footage of a man blowing sawdust out of his hair with some sort of air hose, the personal items tacked up on the walls of a tuner’s workshop. The film is slow-moving at parts, but never dry, and one that all piano enthusiasts should check out.