88 Keys: The Making of a Steinway Piano

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88 Keys: The Making of a Steinway Piano
Miles Chapin
Hardcover & Paperback; 144 pages
ISBN: 1574671529
Random House

Here's an intriguing trivia question: what's the most complex piece of handmade machinery in the world? Answer: a Steinway grand piano. This is the core premise of 88 Keys: The Making of a Steinway Piano, written by Miles Chapin and illustrated by Rodica Prato. It is the first item in a plethora of information readers will learn about a Steinway, comprised of 12,000 individual parts and requiring several years and more than 500 skilled craftspeople and artisans to produce. The process, Chapin tells us, involves mechanical engineering, design, wood technology, carpentry, cabinetmaking, wood finishing, and metallurgy. His book leaves one with a heightened appreciation of how all these disciplines converge in that marvelous invention we call a piano.

One doesn't have to be a pianist to appreciate this book (to paraphrase the old joke) but it sure helps. This observation points to one of many contradictions about the book that both enhance it and detract from it. The first of these double-edged swords is the author himself. Chapin is the great-great grandson of Henry Englehard Steinway, a German immigrant who founded the firm of Steinway & Sons in 1853.

It is somewhat surprising to learn that Chapin himself does not play the piano. Now, there is no reason someone not a professional musician is precluded from writing a good book about piano-making. However, Chapin, an accomplished actor, is not really a professional writer, either (although he does dabble as an arts journalist) and this is a more critical drawback. Pointing to Chapin's "rather pedantic prose," a critic writing for Kirkus Reviews complains that he does too much "puffing" for the Steinway Company, dismissing the book as "an oversize advertising pamphlet."

Other critics have also decried a perceived lack of substance, no doubt due in part to the book's style. At first glance, 88 Keys looks like a cross between a coffee table volume and a children's book. A slim edition with wide margins, the text is double-spaced and typeset in a somewhat frilly font style. Further detracting from any sense of gravitas is the total absence of any photographs. Instead, the charmingly elegant illustrations of Rodica Prato are featured throughout. This, too, has drawn the ire of the technical-minded who prefer the unadorned precision of camera and blueprint to the stylized artistry of pen and ink. (It probably doesn't help things, in this regard, that Prato is best known for her illustrations of two Martha Stewart books)

Jazz fans may be struck by the way in which this bookish debate parallels a musical argument between purists and popularizers. Like the 1970s "jazz/fusion" of Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock, this book is designed, first and foremost, to be accessible to a general audience. This will leave mechanical engineers and master cabinetmakers hoping for a technical manual on piano construction somewhat disgruntled. But 88 Keys is written for music lovers and amateur enthusiasts, points out another reader with a bit more generosity of spirit, comparing it to a college course on the history of science for liberal arts majors who are not interested in becoming scientists.

It also seems a bit unfair to accuse Chapin of being a flack for Steinway. It's one thing for an advertising copywriter or PR agent to shill for whatever company will pay his/her fee. But Chapin, after all, is a scion of a world-renowned line, and although the Steinway family sold its interest in the company in 1972, Chapin can be forgiven for an understandable family pride.

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