Note By Note: The Making of the Steinway L1037

The attention to detail and sheer amount of time devoted to building a piano is extraordinary, and Niles makes a compelling case for Steinway’s approach.

Note By Note: The Making of the Steinway L1037

Distributor: Docurama
US DVD Release Date: 2009-09-15
“I’ve been doing piano for 42 years and I talk about pianos, I live pianos. Piano is my whole life.” – Wally Boot (Final Tone Inspector)


Ben Niles’ documentary on the making of the Steinway L1037, a nine foot concert grand piano, offers an unprecedented glimpse into a disappearing art form. A piano of the caliber of the L1037 takes up to a year to build. In that time, the piano goes through innumerable steps in order to reach the final approval of the company. The process, virtually unchanged from 100 years ago, is a staggering series of steps brought together by the skills of long-time craftsmen.

There is a focus on the real sense of ownership from those involved in the long and involved process of making a piano. The fact that most other piano companies have mechanized much of what Steinway still does by hand makes a case for the very specific skill sets held by those working for the company. While Steinway produces about 2,000 pianos a year, a “small number” of which are concert grands, other piano companies put out as many as 100 a day. The attention to detail and sheer amount of time devoted to building a piano is extraordinary, and Niles makes a compelling case for Steinway’s approach.

Equally surprising and impressive is that Steinway also employs the use of aural tuning throughout its many steps of the tuning process. At other piano companies, tuning by ear has largely been replaced by computerized tone and pitch programs that do not take into account the specifics of each piano. One of the tuners likens the outcome to the sound of keyboard versus that of a piano – a striking difference, indeed.

The work that goes into creating a piano such as the Steinway L1037 is emphasized time and again throughout the documentary. Niles’ interviews with those involved includes job titles as specific and varied as tone inspector to grand finisher to wood technologist. The precise knowledge needed for each of these steps is at the core of Note By Note. Warren Albrecht, wood technologist, is shown in an Alaskan timber mill hand selecting pieces of wood to be used for the pianos; Ante Glavan, bellyman, works on the belly of the piano with an array of tools, one of which he brought with him when he emigrated from Croatia; Dennis Schweit, tone regulator, speaks of growing up, getting married, and starting his own family all within a few block radius of Steinway’s Queens factory. Their connection to the process is clear and a real portrait of these craftsmen begins to emerge.

While Niles’ focus is clearly on the Steinway factory and those working in it, he also devotes some time to musicians and their perspectives on choosing a piano for themselves. Lang Lang, Harry Connick, Jr., Marcus Roberts, Helene Grimaud, and Pierre-Laurent Aimard, among others, all offer opinions on the reasoning behind their choices. There are some nice scenes of Aimard trying out different pianos at the Steinway offices for an upcoming concert. The specifics he requires are all based around the piece he will be performing, and the glimpse into his method is fascinating.

Steinway’s annual factory sale offers a portrait of the amateur pianist. Here children and their families find a piano for the beginner while amateur adults pick an instrument for themselves. Niles gives us a picture into a family’s purchase of a piano for their son, Raphael. His talent for the piano has been attributed to his grandfather, whose emotional connection to the instrument was passed along. Raphael’s ability as a young pianist is obvious. The moment when the family gathers around their newly delivered piano for an impromptu concert by Raphael is one of the more touching moments in the documentary, and lends a more relatable feeling to what could have been a documentary strictly focused on the mechanics of building a piano.

Niles makes use of space and ambient noise to allow the viewer the time to really see and understand the level of work that goes into building a piano. One early scene has a group of seven or eight men wrapping the body of piano around the wood and the sheer strength required to do so is impressive. The use of classical compositions throughout many of the factory scenes also lends the work a performance-like quality and in turn, tends to elevate it, as well.

The extras include deleted portraits, performances, and scenes. The performances in particular, are worth checking out, and the additional deleted clips give a fuller picture of Niles’ focus.


This book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Marcelino Truong launched his autobiographical account of growing up in Saigon during the Vietnam War with the acclaimed graphic novel Such a Lovely Little War: Saigon 1961-63, originally published in French in 2012 and in English translation in 2016. That book concluded with his family's permanent relocation to London, England, as the chaos and bloodshed back home intensified.

Now Truong continues the tale with Saigon Calling: London 1963-75 (originally published in French in 2015), which follows the experiences of his family after they seek refuge in Europe. It offers a poignant illustration of what life was like for a family of refugees from the war, and from the perspective of young children (granted, Truong's family were a privileged and upper class set of refugees, well-connected with South Vietnamese and European elites). While relatives and friends struggle to survive amid the bombs and street warfare of Vietnam, the displaced narrator and his siblings find their attention consumed by the latest fashion and music trends in London. The book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Keep reading... Show less

The World of Captain Beefheart: An Interview with Gary Lucas and Nona Hendryx

Gary Lucas and Nona Hendryx (photo © Michael DelSol courtesy of Howlin' Wuelf Media)

Guitarist and band leader Gary Lucas and veteran vocalist Nona Hendryx pay tribute to one of rock's originals in this interview with PopMatters.

From the opening bars of "Suction Prints", we knew we had entered The World of Captain Beefheart and that was exactly where we wanted to be. There it was, that unmistakable fast 'n bulbous sound, the sudden shifts of meter and tempo, the slithery and stinging slide guitar in tandem with propulsive bass, the polyrhythmic drumming giving the music a swing unlike any other rock band.

Keep reading... Show less

From Haircut 100 to his own modern pop stylings, Nick Heyward is loving this new phase of his career, experimenting with genre with the giddy glee of a true pop music nerd.

In 1982, Nick Heyward was a major star in the UK.

As the leader of pop sensations Haircut 100, he found himself loved by every teenage girl in the land. It's easy to see why, as Haircut 100 were a group of chaps so wholesome, they could have stepped from the pages of Lisa Simpson's "Non-Threatening Boys" magazine. They resembled a Benetton knitwear advert and played a type of quirky, pop-funk that propelled them into every transistor radio in Great Britain.

Keep reading... Show less

Blending a dazzling array of musical influences and directions for more than two decades now, Thievery Corporation have come to represent one of the 21st century's boldest bands in both genre-blending style and lyrical impact.

The Halloween season is in full effect on this crisp Sunday evening in San Francisco that precedes All Hallows Eve by two days. With the traditional holiday falling on a Tuesday, music fans are out for as much costumed fun as they can get as evidenced by the costumed revelers here at the Masonic in the Nob Hill area. Thievery Corporation is in town, and the Bay Area "thieves" as the band's fans are known are ready to let it all hang out with one of the few bands in the music industry that isn't shy on telling listeners the truth about what's going on in the world.

Keep reading... Show less

Despite the uninspired packaging in this complete series set, Friday Night Lights remains an outstanding TV show; one of the best in the current golden age of television.

There are few series that have earned such universal acclaim as Friday Night Lights (2006-2011). This show unreservedly deserves the praise -- and the well-earned Emmy. Ostensibly about a high school football team in Dillon, Texas—headed by a brand new coach—the series is more about community than sports. Though there's certainly plenty of football-related storylines, the heart of the show is the Taylor family, their personal relationships, and the relationships of those around them.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.