HOLLYWOOD -- It takes more than a year to construct a single Steinway concert grand piano, but it takes the beguiling "Note by Note: The Making of Steinway L1037" just 81 minutes to tell not one but several captivating stories.
Directed by Ben Niles, "Note by Note," as its title indicates, is focused on the construction of one particular piano. We follow it from an Alaska forest that provided the wood to the Steinway factory in Queens, N.Y., to the glamorous Steinway showrooms on 57th Street in Manhattan, just across the street from Carnegie Hall.
Because Niles also works as a graphic designer, he and cinematographer Ben Wolf are sensitive to the beauty inherent in the factory experience. And because these are pianos we're talking about, the film's soundtrack features beautiful music from the world's great composers.
Pianos like this, the Steinway employees tell us, are still made the old way, using tools and techniques that have not changed in 100 years. The only difference is that there once were 1,600 companies making pianos; now there are only a handful.
It is the stories of those employees that are the great joy of "Note by Note." The satisfaction that the hand-crafting of pianos gives the Steinway workers is palpable and a real example of how much we have lost by our country's inability to give more people this kind of employment experience. "What do I know about pianos?" asks one worker, resplendent in a football jersey, with a rhetorical flourish. "But you take pride in it, you feel like you're actually accomplishing something."
The other people in this film are the professional pianists, who talk with passion about the intimate process of finding a piano that suits them best.
Several pianists, including jazz artist Harry Connick Jr. and concert virtuoso Lang Lang, are seen trying pianos out and commenting on the process. When pianist Helene Grimaud explains that it's a question of "how the instrument responds to your physical approach," it becomes clear that picking a piano is very much like falling in love.
As a meditation on the making of pianos and the making of music, as well as an aesthetic experience in and of itself, "Note by Note," like the Steinway company, does things the old-fashioned way.
No MPAA rating. Running time: 1 hour, 21 minutes. In limited release.