Several years into the unparalleled task of constructing a miniature copy of an ornate Steinway piano, Paul Gentile started hearing music.
"It was the most incredible piano playing I've ever heard. It started with classical then it was jazz and all genres," says Gentile, who searched unsuccessfully for the source near his Concord, Ont., studio. "It first started when I was at my most discouraged and continued for years."
Wherever it came from, the mystery accompaniment was well timed, helping the miniature artist persevere through a process that felt more arduous than rewarding for much of the 16 years it took to complete.
‘The incredibleness of going 'ding' on a piano is beyond comprehension'
Gentile, who believed at the outset that the project would take three or four years, describes the process as "like doing a life sentence," but one that has now been served. Last week he travelled to New York for the culmination of his epic endeavor: Steinway's unveiling of his 1/7 replica of what's known as the White House Piano, the original of which the company gifted to President Theodore Roosevelt in 1903.
All gold gilding with intricately carved legs, and a mural under the lid, this is no ordinary piano. Gentile has reproduced each element exactly, and the result is so perfect that Steinway has accepted his small twin as one of its own with an official certification - a historic first for an outsider, and a much-needed reward.
Gentile began his involvement with Steinway in 1992, when he first saw the original White House piano during a visit Washington, D.C. As a former designer for prototypes and architectural models, he had experience rendering everyday objects small, and was lured to the creative and mechanical challenges of trying to reproduce the piano.
He was also driven by deep appreciation for the act of making music. "I noticed how few people think about what it takes to create the instrument that creates the music," he says. "The incredibleness of going 'ding' on a piano is beyond comprehension."
A true Renaissance man - "One minute I'm thinking about painting and impressionism, the next about gilding and the next engineering" - he called Steinway to discuss the idea, and spoke to a customer service representative. "He said to me, 'I don't want to insult you, but do you have any idea what goes into making a piano?' " Gentile recalls with a laugh.
Remarkably, he persevered and was able to make a successful pitch to the company, which granted him access to the resources he would need to complete the project, including the original patents and designs from 1902.
The work was painstaking, and compounded by the fact that to create a miniature piano with 12,000 parts, you first have to create miniature tools. These included a scale replica rim press that was designed by the Steinway family in the 1870s. It took a year and hundreds of measurements to find the right dimensions for the miniature iron plate, which was cast by the same foundry in Ohio that has been casting for the company since 1938.
This insanely detailed labour took its toll. A third of the way into the piano's construction, Gentile began experiencing neurological and muscular problems from working in miniature, and his mental health suffered. "Had I known how hard this was going to be and for so long," he says now, "I never would have done this."
Frustrations with things like weight, measurement, wood tolerance, friction, momentum, warp, as well as finances led to a depression. "It really played on my emotions," he says. "I was so out of it once that the only thing I could do at the studio was stare at the wall. I did that for a whole year."
In the end, though, he said it was that same frustration that gave him a second wind. "I was so angry, it made me defiant. The frustration was a tool to push me forward. I either had to give up or push on."
About a year ago Gentile completed the task he set for himself in the early 1990s, and the result at least, is a miniature marvel. Gentile's White House Piano weighs three pounds and replicates the pristine sustaining sound Steinway pianos are known for. It can be played but not tuned, as the parts are too delicate to withstand the strain. Regardless, everyone at Steinway is in "utter amazement" says company spokesman Anthony Gilroy. "To combine something so artistic, yet functional and involving so much complexity truly boggles the mind."
The tiny White House piano has yet to find its new home, but it is for sale. "It's very hard to put a monetary value on this item, since there is literally nothing else like it in the world," says a statement from Steinway. But they will try; Gentile says they are looking at a selling price in the "low eight-figures."
"Wherever it ends up, I hope it's well received and thought-out," he says. "Ideally, I'd like to see it in a museum so people can experience it."
While he'd never consider a repeat performance at this scale - "if I did, I'd need some serious psychiatric attention" - Gentile has kept busy since he finished the piano, completing historically accurate miniatures of classical instruments including a 1679 Stradivarius violin. And he has done so without the company of the music that so mysteriously shadowed him like a muse for all those years. It stopped just a few days prior to the piano's completion, says Gentile, "I've never heard anything like it again."