While next month’s Gilmore International Keyboard Festival is all about celebrating what pianos can do, it's not often that we examine what they are made of.
The festival has partnered with the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts to present the photography exhibition "Inside Steinway," a series of images of the inside of the storied piano factory, shot by photographer Christopher Payne.
"Every step is handmade. There are a few parts of the piano where it doesn’t affect the quality of the music and the tone – they use machines for those, but still most of those machines are hand-operated, and a lot of it is done by eye and touch and feel," says Payne. "So much of it is done by hand, it’s amazing.”
Educated as an architect, Payne has made a name for himself by capturing the insides of mental hospitals, yarn mills, and subway power stations. Now, he has turned his lens to the piano factory of One Steinway Place in Astoria, Queens.
With an up-close intimacy, Payne shows the dissection of every moving musical part, from the bending of the piano rims to the insertion of felt pieces inside of piano parts to prevent the keys from wiggling.
Payne himself comes from a musical family. His grandmother was a piano teacher, his mother is a music teacher, and his father was famed harpsichordist and organist Joseph Payne. But Christopher himself never could master the music world as a performer.
"I never was able to play anything that well. I guess I just found a different calling," he says. "But just being around it made me appreciate music, especially if it's played on a piano and all the work that goes in to that."
Payne took his first tour of the Steinway factory back in 2002, and was so moved by the experience that he knew he had to document it. His images depict not only the parts but the people that work at the building’s factory.
Inside the Ethel Denton Groos Gallery at the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts, exhibitions director Vicki Wright and I walked and talked through the 23 photos on display. It's best to get close and study each groove, wood strip, and curve that falls into place during the assembly process.
"One of the things that we were trying to do was to show the process but also to show the people who were involved, and a lot of these people are craftsmen who have worked at Steinway for a long time," says Wright. "And that's what's great about this show is that it really gives you a sense of the complexity and the fine craftsmanship that goes into these."
Wright herself says that the exhibition has had a great response. She says this behind the scenes education ties in well with the Gilmore Festival.
"People can, I think, get a lot of different things from this show. They can come and really see behind the scenes and learn construction of the pianos - but Chris' photographs are strong photographs as works of art," she says. "There's an aesthetic quality that I think people will appreciate - and there's just something interesting about looking at the faces of the people who've been there and you can almost see how dedicated they are."
In a world where we can create entire symphonies on our computers, Payne hopes that people appreciate the complexity of something so timeless as the piano.
“As much as I’m learning about how a piano is constructed, the more I know about it, the more I realize how complex it is," he says. "The more it just amazes me that these things work so flawlessly onstage. It works so well you don’t even question what’s inside the piano. All you focus on is just the music.”
Payne will be giving a talk about the exhibition at the KIA on Thursday. "Inside Steinway" will be on view through May 25.