March 17, 2012

Robert Cibis and Lilian Franck, 2009  


You would be forgiven for thinking that a film about piano tuning would be enough to test the stamina of even the most hardened cinephile, but despite the rarefied world in which PIANOMANIA is set, the film is far from minimalist. This fine documentary about master piano technician Stefan Knupfer is a lucid and engaging film, one that manages (with seeming effortlessness) to take the viewer remarkably close to the esoteric heart of the creative impulse.


Pianomania first screened in New Zealand at the 2010 Auckland International Film Festival. Alas, the film had to suffer the ignominy of the unforgiving Academy Theatre sound system, where every second note was battered into distorted submission. It was a sad state of affairs for such a refined portrayal of the subtle and very exacting business of searching for the perfect sound. Thankfully, the Madman DVD allows us to fully appreciate Knupfer’s inspirational quest for sonic perfection, particularly when played through a good sound system where one might catch glimpses of the ultra-specialised nuances that he and the musicians painstakingly strive to articulate.


Stefan Knupfer is inspirational. The film follows him for a year as he prepares for the recording of a set of Bach pieces to be performed by Pierre-Laurent Aimard. One of the striking things about Knupfer is how extraordinarily alive he is to his work. As an employee of Steinway charged with the responsibility of servicing the pianos in all of the major Viennese concert houses, one would expect him to be a person with a high degree of technical focus and articulation, but his dedication runs much deeper. His contribution to performances and recordings goes way beyond mere piano tuning, in fact his passion and commitment blurs the line between artisan and artist. Indeed, his ability to comprehend the subtle variations of tone and colour (not to mention the lengths he goes to serve the requirements of musicians) is akin to artistic collaboration.


At one point someone makes the comment that the contemporary piano has a certain ‘inhuman dimension’, like a temperamental wild beast that has to be tamed, and it's not too much of  a stretch to liken Knupfer to a kind of ‘animal-tamer’, deftly nudging his wild animals into submission armed only with a handful of tuning instruments. Of course, the most unpredictable animal of all is the musician.


Musicians know how crucial an empathetic and perceptive sound engineer is to a recording, but there is a limit to what any engineer can do given that the sound finally has to be made by the musician, and every one of them is different. As a recording engineer and musician, I know how different an instrument can sound depending on the musician. Some years ago I worked on an album that had three guest pianists, all of whom recorded on the same day and played the same piano. I set up the mics as usual, but the piano sound was unfocused and lifeless, that is until the second pianist arrived. Suddenly the instrument came to life, but the only thing that had changed was the pianist. The musician is the most crucial component in the equation, and in many respects they are the main element that the Knupfer’s of this world work to fine tune.


There is also a significant difference between the sound an instrument makes in a room and the process of capturing that sound in a recording given the variables an engineer must contend with: from the microphones themselves and their placement, the recording equipment, the mixing and mastering process, and finally the transfer to CD (with its inherent 16bit limitations). At each stage sound is vulnerable to ill-conceived tampering and technological limitations, before the end user finally squeezes it through their potentially destructive audio equipment ... the one step in the chain that perfectionist engineers and musicians simply have no control over. It would be fair to say that we all hear the same piece of music very differently, even in a concert hall.


The majority of the second half of Pianomania is taken up with the Bach recording, and as the title of the film suggests, the search for sonic perfection treads a fine line between the very real demands of high end music making and an esoteric obsession bordering on madness. For Knupfer (the piano tech’s piano tech), there is no greater reward than to hear a musician confide that the sound they achieved was one he had only dreamed of. It’s a sound that only they, the two of them, are likely to fully appreciate. In this respect, the creation of art is first and foremost a dialogue between the artist and their work. Beyond that, the world will make of it what it will.


Originally published in The Lumiere Reader


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