I've played the piano with wildly varying dedication since the age of four, but have only attempted to learn how to tune the instrument once. I gave up after struggling for 15 minutes to produce a pure tone from a tuning fork; whatever my limited aptitude for musical theory and performance, it seemed that this did not automatically spill over into the science of mechanical sonic tinkering. But I feel less guilty about this after watching Lilian Franck and Robert Cibis's documentary Pianomania, however; a gentle portrait of aural genius, the film follows Steinway & Sons' chief technician, Stefan Knüpfer, through a series of piano repairs and calibrations during the months, hours, and seconds leading up to star recitals in the famed Vienna Concert House.
Knüpfer's subtle charisma feels more suited to a beefily human New Yorker article than a documentary film: Teutonically bug-eyed and sporty, he realizes the whims of the showboating Lang Lang, the goofy Alfred Brendel, and the shrewd, monk-like Pierre-Laurent Aimard with a kit of prongs and ratchets, as well as an interminable fascination with acoustic minutiae. He speaks at length about the fluid, complex relationship between the physical and the tonal with a technician's precision and an artist's ingenuity. And yet he isn't a musician; whenever his fingers cross the keys of an instrument he's worked on, they seem hesitant, unwilling, or unable to trespass the realm of hammers and glissandos that belongs only to the virtuoso.
There's a nuanced distinction, of course, between sound and music, and no working relationship illustrates this more expediently than that between the musician and the smith or luthier. Franck and Cibis capture many conversations between Knüpfer and the above pianists, simplifying—to the filmmakers' credit—little for the audience's benefit, though the demands of the barely-overlapping magisteria that comprise either side of this lively dialogue necessitate some piquant, colorful metaphors. In his work with the contemplative, punctilious Aimard in particular, preparing grand pianos for a Bach recording, Knüpfer has to respond to strange approximations formed of gestures and similes that require creative thinking from the instrument's bridge to its elegant entrails. (“I know this isn't the issue,” he asks at one point, “but should it sound more 'round'?” “Not quite, but in a way, yes,” Aimard answers, his hands making the “shape” of the sound he wants while Knüpfer's pupils dilate.)
As the subjects rhapsodically speak of hairline changes in timbre, however, Franck and Cibis are faced with a sizable disadvantage that they never quite overcome; it's impossible for their prosumer camera equipment to pick up and render any of these delicate aural peculiarities save for hammer and pad tweaks that alter note cutoff. They compensate for this, too many times, with inane landscape cutaways and video “poetry” (strobe-y city-scene B roll, complete with light trails) that insult the music underneath with screensaver-like prettiness meant to represent generic elation. Yet these clunky passages in a way mirror the cruelest truth about Knüpfer's profession: Most of the hallowed sounds he nurtures will never leave the concert hall, and some won't resonate past the brains of the artists that manipulate them. We wonder if even Knüpfer hears the same thing that Aimard does when, at the movie's admirably understated close, he shrugs as he tells us how satisfied the pianist was with the final product of several month's duress. There's a eunuch's melancholy beyond Knüpfer's humble expertise that might ultimately be the root of his trade.