Steinway & Sons offers Silicon Valley services
“There is of course a black box, inside the piano, a small computer and a lot of electronic components that process a lot of data”, blows Eric Feidner, the group’s technical director and head of innovation. He is the master craftsman of Spirio, an automatic playing system integrated on demand into the brand’s grand pianos, since 2015. And the most successful version of which was used during the demonstration at the Elbphilharmonie. Through the play of artificial intelligence, the sound produced by the automated piano is exactly the same as that played by the artist miles away. A little prodigy, the result of a decade of research and development.
Eric Feidner, technical director of the group, during the presentation of Spirio R in New York, in March 2019. “Inside the piano, a small computer and a lot of electronic components process the data”, he explains. (M. Coppola/Getty Images/AFP)
Who would have thought that Steinway & Sons, a respectable house founded in 1853, would one day afford the services of a chief technology officer, like a Silicon Valley start-up? And that it would complain about the impact of the global shortage of semiconductors on its production lines where more than 80% of handling is still done manually?
The best Steinway pianos made today
The shock of cultures seems to have been absorbed by the workers of the Hamburg factory, located less than 7 kilometers from the Philharmonie. In these red brick buildings, completely rebuilt after the bombings of the Second World War, are reproduced the age-old gestures, perfected over time by the house craftsmen. What makes the leaders of the company say today that the best Steinway pianos are made in our time. Adaptations, small and large accommodations make the history of Steinway & Sons.
The Steinway & Sons workshop in Hamburg. Hundreds of craftsmen are trained for ten years at Steinway University, the in-house learning structure. (Steinvay & Sons)
In 1835, when Heinrich Steinweg secretly made his first piano in Brunswick, near Hanover, Germany had 200 piano makers. The profession is extremely regulated there and the artisan carpenter does not belong to any guild. The political climate was then highly unstable. Might as well try your luck in the new world. His emigration to New York, with five of his sons, in 1850, constitutes the founding act of the company. On the other side of the Atlantic, the upright piano market is booming. After having Americanized his name – it’s better for business – Heinrich, alias Henry, founds his business, Steinway & Sons, and opens a factory in Manhattan, which will later be transferred to the Astoria district. Success was immediate: a store was opened in London in 1875 and a second factory was built in Hamburg five years later.
Pressing and strapping the wood. About twenty layers are necessary, a well-kept secret. (Photos: Steinvay & Sons)
Fixing the strings of a piano. Each instrument is made up of approximately 12,000 parts and more than 80% of the making is still done by hand. (Photos: Steinvay & Sons)
Home learning structure
This two-headed German-American structure persists today. The two factories use the same manufacturing processes, implemented by hundreds of craftsmen trained for ten years by Steinway University, the in-house learning structure.
Long time is part of the company’s culture: three years are needed to assemble an instrument made up of 12,000 parts. Including two years for the drying of the wood in order to bring its moisture content to 8%: maple, mahogany, poplar, beech, spruce for the white keys, ebony for the black ones… The methods of pressing and strapping the wood constitute a well-kept secret. For the model D, the grand piano used by concert performers, around twenty layers of wood are superimposed, and the composition of the natural glue that assembles them has been kept in the safe for generations.
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In addition to the extreme sophistication of its instruments, the stroke of genius of the Steinway family, carried by Theodore, the eldest of the siblings, is to have associated with its success, from the start, the greatest pianists, transforming them into ambassadors of the brand. The Steinway club now has some 2,000 artists, including Diana Krall, Keith Jarrett, Billy Joel and Hélène Grimaud. The house assures that “97% of the 120 greatest international soloists” are faithful to it. A very informal club, defined as “an artistic and human rapprochement” by Enzo Ungauer, the head of marketing and relations with the artists. The manufacturer does not offer sponsorship or financial support, but it offers privileges and “lots of love”. In particular, the pianist can use the rehearsal studio installed in each of the 119 Steinway & Sons showrooms around the world.
The conditions to become a Steinway artist
Two conditions must be met to become a Steinway artist: to be a concert performer and to own a piano of the brand, whose prices vary from 60,000 to 340,000 euros. To which are added 30,000 to 60,000 euros for the Spirio option. The first version from 2015 allowed you to connect your piano to an iPad controlling a collection of 312 artists and more than 4,000 titles. A little fantasy for the wealthy owners of a Steinway, who can thus appreciate, in their living room, the exact replica of the Goldberg Variations by Glenn Gould – without its legendary humming – or the hard-hitting playing of Thelonious Monk. But chief technologist Eric Feidner didn’t stop there.
In 2008, he established a roadmap with the leaders of Steinway, when they bought his Californian start-up ArkivMusic, which specializes in online music distribution. His vision: a unique product, “combination of art and science”, as he calls it himself. In 2019, its team of researchers finalized the R version of Spirio, which allows artists to record themselves, then edit and replay their work, still with the iPad as an interface.
Then in 2021, Spiriocast was released, an innovation that allows pianists to reproduce their performance in real time, between brand instruments equipped with technology. Eventually, Eric Feidner imagines a concert broadcast live to thousands of Steinway pianos around the world, through private living rooms or performance halls. Lang Lang’s recital was, in a way, just a dress rehearsal.
To discover Steinway & Sons Paris store. 230, boulevard Saint-Germain, Paris (7th). Tel.: 01-45-48-01-44. Tuesday to Saturday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.
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