The connoisseur Bernard Berenson coined the phrase “tactile values” to express the way great works of art, whether painted, sculptured or merely manufactured, caress the senses with an almost physical tangibility. To look at one of Fra Angelico’s madonnas is to feel with the eye, and to feel is to know.
Surely no artifact is richer in tactile values than a modern concert grand piano — that is, the gleaming 88-key, nine-foot monster perfected by C. F. Theodore Steinway and William Steinway in 1891, and essentially unchanged since. From the moment it begins its life, as various integrants of wood, cloth, metal and (sigh) plastic ivory-substitute cohere under myriad hands, until the first outside player plinks a freshly polished key and listens to the sweet response, the piano is a product of the human body, designed to return to the body as music, with ample power to chasten and subdue. A good piano, that is — not one of those glazed, mass-produced affordables that sound like crockery falling over.
It is the admirable achievement of James Barron’s “Piano” that, in spite of his rather dogged style, he manages to communicate the tactile values inherent at every stage of making CD-60, the big Steinway that now sits in the Grace Rainey Rogers auditorium at the Metropolitan Museum. Barron, a staff reporter for The New York Times, spent 11 months watching this instrument move through the hands of scores of rim-benders, trimmers, bracers, bellymen, laquerers, stringers, action assemblers, tone regulators and polishers in the Astoria, Queens, factory of Steinway & Sons, America’s premium maker of fine pianos. He even accompanied the company’s wood technologist on an expedition to Puget Sound in search of perfect Sitka spruce — an increasingly rare commodity, all but logged out in the contiguous United States. And he stayed with CD-60, off and on, through its first two years of concert life.
The result of all this observation was a series of documentary articles, published in The Times from May 2003 to April 2004, and collected now in book form. It is a parochial survey, in that Barron focuses on one piano, one factory and one monopolistic firm, which, since the bankruptcy of the Baldwin Company in 2001, looms more than ever as a dominant force on the American concert circuit. He thus short-changes Steinway’s other facility in Hamburg, Germany, whose pianos many top musicians prefer — when they don’t choose the magnificent grands of Bösendorfer, Bechstein and Fazioli.
The New York Times seems to have noticed this bias even as Barron’s series was running, and published a balancing article about Steinway’s competitive business practices by Michael Z. Wise. But Barron can hardly be faulted for giving himself a precise assignment and fulfilling it. He seems to share Thomas Mann’s view that “only the exhaustive is truly interesting.”
His conscientiousness pays off in the accumulation of a mass of detail, which to anyone who has ever built anything intricate is satisfying to the point of sensuousness. As a sometime carpenter and, like Barron, an amateur pianist with a Steinway at home, I delighted in passages like this one about the trimmer Louis Nozil:
“When the rim arrives at Nozil’s big table saw, it has rough edges. Though the rim-benders had been careful in matching and marrying the strips of maple to each other, each of the eight strips that formed the outer rim of KO862” — the piano’s original factory number — “is a different height from the one next to it. One towers over another by a sixteenth of an inch; yet another is short by almost as much. There is a run of mountains on the top and bottom of the rim — the peaks of the laminations alternate with the ski runs of now-dried glue that the rim press squeezed out. … Nozil’s task is to steer the entire rim around a fast-spinning cutting head that makes the floor shake beneath his feet and sends a cloud of sawdust floating toward the ceiling.”
Readers less interested in handicraft will find “Piano” slow going. This is partly because the process it describes is slow, and partly because the book betrays its serial composition. In laminating the original articles together, Barron should have used a cutting head to eliminate, for example, the route by which Andy Horbachevsky, Steinway’s manufacturing director, skirts the expressway from Westchester to Queens on his bicycle every morning (“90 minutes, door to desk”).
Interposed sections of Steinway corporate history serve some “background” purpose, but here the doggedness can become dull — as in an overly cozy chapter on Henry Z. Steinway, the great-grandson of the founder. Steinway, who sold his family company to CBS in 1972, may or may not have saved it from Baldwin’s eventual fate in a declining market, but he seems treated with excessive respect.
The Canadian business writer Susan Goldenberg is less charitable in her 1996 book “Steinway, From Glory to Controversy: The Family, the Business, the Piano.” She makes plain that Henry Z., who remained with the company until 1980, bore responsibility for the disastrous “Teflon Era” of Steinway production (eerily coinciding with the rise of the Teflon president), when fluorocarbon bushings were substituted for cloth ones and impregnated the action with clicking noises. My piano dates from this period, and in dry weather it sounds like Madame Defarge at the height of the Terror. Suffice to say that Steinway (now owned by two Californian investment bankers) has long since gone back to the quiet cooperation of wood and wool.
Barron redeems himself with a portrait of
Bruce Campbell, tone regulator of Model D grands at the Astoria plant. His account of this perfectionist’s work is meticulously observed and moving. In an age when even such fundamentals of life as talking, writing and making music are being digitized, to the atrophy of our communicative faculties, one feels a reverence for people like this, whose hands, ears and eyes protect the sonic legacy of Beethoven and Chopin.
“Piano” ends with two engrossing chapters, “Debut” and “Postlude: On Its Own,” that show how CD-60 (rather bright and raw at first, in its brand-new state) achieved mellowness and a surprising variety of tonal timbres, under the hands of pianists like Jonathan Biss, Ruth Laredo, Peter Serkin and Emanuel Ax. The fact that they each have different opinions of it proves that in piano playing and listening, subjectivity is all. One man’s “raw” is another man’s “toned-down.” Or, in the famous indiscretion of Steinway artist Garrick Ohlsson, “the Rolls-Royce of pianos” may well be a Bösendorfer.
During my own performing career, which lasted for seven minutes in Zankel Hall last winter (at a benefit concert of musical amateurs), I was exclusively a Fazioli artist, and can only say that the thrill of sitting behind nine feet of solid mahogany and Italian spruce, pealing like bells and sustaining like an organ, was greater than anything I’ve experienced at a Steinway. Yet a professional such as Manny Ax can stroke a few of CD-60’s plastic keys and produce sounds of the purest beauty. Put it down to the old mystery known as “the riddle of the pianist’s finger” — and to the tactile values of those nicked, bruised, sawdust-wheezing craftsmen with names like Stavrianos and Beharovic and Verasammy and Shiwprasad, working across the East River for an average of $15.50 an hour.
(c) New York Times
Edmund Morris is the author of, “Beethoven: The Universal Composer.”