In search of the lost chord: Pianomania ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 16, 2011)

Tuner sandwich: Stefan Knupfer at work in Pianomania

“It looks like you’re just poking around in there,” observes a young woman. “Yes,” replies Stefan Knupfer, with a shrug and a laugh, “…that’s exactly what I’m doing.” On one level, he is in fact just “poking around” the innards of an immense concert grand piano. However, as we come to learn from watching Pianomania, a new documentary from Robert Cibis and Lilian Franck, Herr Knupfer is being somewhat modest. He is actually engaging in a much more complex and esoteric endeavor: the art of piano tuning.

Cibis and Franck offer up a “year of the life” portrait of the affable Austrian piano technician, tagging along as he dashes around Europe in a company van (doggie in tow) to service Steinways for a bevy of world-class performers (including Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Lang Lang, Alfred Brendel and Richard Hyung-Ki Joo). I admit that I had doubts going in regarding the subject matter (“That note sounds flat-can he tweak it to A-440 in time for the big concert? I’m on the edge of my seat!”). However, as it turns out, this pursuit of tonal perfection holds the dramatic elements of a classic “quest” narrative.

Knupfer must prepare two pianos (beginning nearly a year in advance) which will be used by Aimard for a recorded performance of Bach’s “The Art of Fugue”. The fastidious Aimard isn’t asking for much…only that Knupfer adjust his instruments in such a way that affords him the option to call up the tonality of a clavichord, an organ and a harpsichord at will. The two artists (for the film bears out that the tuner is just as much an ‘artist’ as the performer) ensconce themselves onto the stage of Vienna’s Konzerthaus and set to work like a pair of mad scientists sweating over a formula.

Nothing fazes the cheerful Knupfer, with exception of a horrifying realization that his new hammerheads are off-size by 0.7 millimeter (prompting an uncharacteristic cry of “Shist!” from our intrepid hero). Knupfer is so empathetic with his client’s vision that when the performer makes a nebulous request like “less air!” he knows exactly what Aimard means (even if we don’t).

Knupfer’s infectious enthusiasm for his gig is a documentarian’s dream; especially when the camera is there for his frequent moments of creative inspiration. While helping Richard Hyung-Ki Joo and violinist Aleksey Igudesma brainstorm visual gags for one of their comedic performances, he comes up with an idea to replace a piano leg with a cheap yet still fully functional violin (in a very funny scene, Knupfer calls an instrument dealer and says he is looking for a violin that costs “like five Euros or something”, to which the dealer instinctively responds, “Do you want to smash it?”) Even the more serious work that he does inside the music box greatly benefits from his ability to constantly think outside the box, as it were (like bouncing tennis balls to temper the strings, for example).

I’m not a keyboard player, or frankly much of a classical piano fan (more of a guitar guy) yet I still found this film to be absorbing and entertaining . As credits rolled, I realized  I previously had no clue as to what a piano tuner  does; like a lot of folks I’ve always assumed it to be more on the technical, rather than creative side of the music.

I can relate to Knupfer’s obsessive nature; I’ve been known to zone out for two or three hours at a time “poking around” with pedal settings and amp adjustments in search of the “perfect” guitar tone. Some viewers may cry foul  that the filmmakers seem to have made a conscious decision not to reveal too much about Knupfer’s personal life. However, the pursuit of excellence and perfection in any field is an admirable endeavor, and  at the end of the day that’s really what the film is about. Sometimes, it not the music-it’s how you play it.

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