“I see,” said the blind man as he picked up his hammer and —
Today is the 8th Annual Musical Saw Festival, held in Astoria, Queens. I thought it would be a fitting time to reflect on some some of the musical saw players I have known over the years and see if we can’t learn what makes some one grab a tool out of the woodshop and start rubbing a violin bow against it.
1. Moses Josiah is the one actual musical saw player I have presented. He was in my show No Applause, Just Throw Money: the Show That Made Vaudeville Famous at Theater for the New City in Fall 2008. A native of Guyana, nearly 80 years old, he would come in with his saw and play along to cassette tapes of easy listening hits. Unfortunately I didn’t get recording of his set in my show, but here’s some video of him performing in the subway.
2. Natalia Paruz is the founder and director of the musical saw festival. We’ve never met properly but she’s always smiled at me when I take her business card out of her basket when she plays in the subway.
Here’s the result of our e-interview:
I was a professional dancer. I was a trainee with the Martha Graham Contemporary Dance Company, I was a tap-dance teacher and demonstrator for Dance Masters and Dance Educators of America. I earned a living performing in musical theater – in short, I was a happy dancer – until… One day, on my way home from Lincoln Center, I crossed the street and was hit by a speeding taxi-cab. This was the end of my dance career. I suffered permanent damage to my upper spine.
Needless to say, I was devastated. I have dedicated my life to dance, and now what was I going to do?
To cheer me up, my parents took me on a trip to Austria. You see, as a kid I loved the movie ‘The Sound of Music’. I went to the movie theater 14 times just to see it on the big screen! So, my parents took me to the country where this film was made. While there we attended a show for tourists. One of the acts was… you guessed it – a musical saw player! Now I have never seen nor heard of a musical saw before. This was totally new to me, and it blew me away. I thought the sound was phenomenal, and what really appealed to me was the visual – the fact that the whole instrument moved when being played. It was like a dance!
I went back stage to talk with the sawist. With my broken German I managed to ask him to give me lessons. His answer was a flat and resounding ‘No’. Of course I said I would pay him, and asked how much he wanted, but he just told me that I didn’t need a teacher. “Pick up a hand saw, hold it the way you have seen me do on stage, and figure it out” was his instruction. As a “bonus hint” he told me that the more expensive a saw I get – the better it would sound.
Armed with these instructions I borrowed my landlady’s old saw. It was rusty from time and woodwork, so it only had 6 notes left on it.
A trip to the local hardware store was an interesting experience. The owner was furious about the “whistling” that somebody was doing in his store… He was very puzzled when he saw where the sound was coming from, but let me continue to test all his saws when he realized I was going to purchase an expensive saw…
I never thought of making a career out of playing the saw. It was just a hobby. But when God shut the door of the dance world on me, he made sure to open the musical saw world window for me and usher me in…
My neighbor, who could hear me practicing, told the local Salvation Army Center about me. I got a phone call from them inviting me to perform for their Senior Citizens group. They asked me to come back for more performances, then they recommended me to a Senior Citizen’s Center in Woodside. They in turn recommended me to a place in Sunnyside, who then recommended me…you get the picture. Invitations to perform were pouring in. As a dancer I continuously went to lots of auditions, trying to get work. But as a sawist – the phone just kept ringing with invitations to perform! I didn’t think I was any good, but I just couldn’t say ‘no’ to all these nice people that wanted me to play for their events. And so, a whole new career blossomed out for me, without me ever intending it to happen.
That was about 17 years ago. Today, my resume includes playing the saw with many orchestras such as the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by maestro Zubin Mehta, at such venues as Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall, Carnegie Hall, Madison Square Gardens, etc.
Today I am so happy to be a sawist that I have forgotten to be sad about not being a dancer anymore!
Tell me about the origins of the musical saw festival.
To begin with, there were only 4 of us saw players in the NYC area [that I knew of]. One day a sawist from California e-mailed me to tell me that he is visiting NYC, and could he come visit me? Being too shy to meet with him on my own, I invited the other three local sawists to attend. For them it was the first time they ever met one another. It seems that all the saw players know me, through my website SawLady.com or from having run into me when I perform, but they don’t realize that there are more saw players, too. For some bizarre reason, all the saw players unanimously decided that I should be the one to organize a festival… As the years went by, more and more saw players came out of the woodwork (sorry – I couldn’t resist the pun…) and also more and more people are inspired to learn to play the saw. It’s really cool seeing the wide variety of people who are interested in saw playing. Last year we had a 15 year old sawist and an 83 year old sawist at the festival – and every age in between. The musical saw connects people of different ages, different origins – we’ve had saw players from Japan, China, India, Canada, Germany, Belgium etc. Last year we had 55 saw players present, and 53 of them got into the Guinness Book of Records for playing together as the ‘Largest Musical Saw Ensemble’.
What do your friends and family think of your abiding interest in the saw?
I have been playing the musical saw for 17 years, so by now my friends & family are completely used to it. The other day a friend of mine, who is also a musician (singer) told me that he doesn’t think of the musical saw as a novelty any more. He just thinks of it as another musical instrument. I am very happy about this – it means my work of integrating the musical saw into the established music world is succeeding.
What do you like about the saw as a musical instrument?
I like it’s angelic, spiritual, other-worldly sound and I also like the visual I create when I’m playing it – the fact that it is constantly moving, creating a wave like shape – it’s like dance!
Can you tell me a little about the history of the saw as a musical instrument?
People were playing saws since at least 300 years ago. (We don’t know about prior to that – it is possible people were playing saws before that, too).
I have done extensive research about the history of the musical saw, including interviewing many older people (who unfortunately are now no longer alive)about the musical saw – people who used to play saw, or that their relative played saw or that they remembered someone playing a saw when they were little. I plan to publish a book about the musical saw and its history at some point.
What are your plans for the future?
I’m currently working on two musical saw CDs – a classical/contemporary music one and a jazz/pop one.
At the Musical Saw Festival this Saturday I am launching a new band, ‘Ameriklectic’ – a 10 piece jazz band featuring the musical saw as the lead instrument, with compositions by Scott Munson. I hope to continue working with this band in the future.
This is a video from last year’s festival: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vuQp5WZY6fM
3. Julie LaMendola is not only my friend Robert’s room mate (and sometime band mate), but she’s a bona fide stah. While she’s not participating in this weekend’s festival, she’s one of the most prominent musicians identified with the instrument, through her band Ching Chong Song and as a frequent collaborator of the likes of Jason Trachtenburg of the Tranchtenburg Family Slideshow Players. In addition to singing like an angel, and playing the saw, she also plays a mean uke. I will undoubtedly write more about her in future; she does and says interesting things every minute of her life. In the meantime, I peppered her with a question about saws. She a-salted me with an answer.
How/when/where did you happen to take up the saw?
I started to play the saw in 2001 because I lived in Memphis and I heard it and it sounds like a singing mermaid. I went to bars and asked rough looking guys if they knew how to make it sing. Finally someone told me i had to sand it down good and shape it like a S.
Quite so, quite so. You can hear Julie sing and play the saw in all manner of places. She’s in part one of Nature Theatre of Oklahoma’s new opera Life and Times (which seems to be touring German cities mostly at the moment. Hopefully it’ll perch sometime in the U.S.) A French label is releasing Ching Chong Song’s new record With a Thought We Change The WORLD in spring 2011.
Says LaMendola, “chicken+mouth trumpets=me.”
I knew it all the time.
To find out more vaudeville type music, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.