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CAPTAIN SENSIBLE | Exploring The Musical Saw Scene

By Michela Comparey on November 12, 2015

Marlene Dietrich, the "first lady of the musical saw"
Marlene Dietrich, the “first lady of the musical saw”

Researching the music saw was like diving into a parallel universe. Not only did I discover a whole sub-culture of musical saw enthusiasts, I learned about an entirely different instrument classification system.

In the Hornbostel–Sachs system of musical instrument classification, the musical saw is considered an idiophone. An idiophone is an instrument that produces sound by the whole instrument vibrating, without the use of strings or membranes. Many percussion instruments, such as triangle, claves, and marimba are part of this category. Clamping the handle of the saw between your knees and drawing a bow across the non-serrated edge causes the saw to vibrate and produce an ethereal, somewhat wobbly, but very pure sound. Bending the saw prevents the bent section from vibrating and thus changes the pitch.

It’s easy to imagine pioneers coming to the new world prioritizing tools over musical instruments and getting creative to entertain themselves, but some sources claim that the music saw was actually invented in Russia or Argentina. Sometimes called a singing saw, the instrument was never really popular outside of the United States, which casts some doubt on the Russian/Argentinian origin theory. The vaudeville era contributed to its popularity where the novelty made it a staple of the Weaver Brothers’ set. During the wars, the production of the instruments all but stopped because the metal was needed for the war effort, and the popularity of the instrument waned.

Recently the Saw has been undergoing a renaissance. In 2009, the NYC Musical Saw Festival set a Guinness world record for the largest musical saw ensemble, consisting of 53 people. But according to the Festival’s own website, the 2015 festival attracted 60 saw-players, smashing the old record. The International Musical Saw Association holds an annual competition in California, now in it’s 38th year. Membership to the association is $5 USD, and competitors come from all over the United States as well as Canada, China, Japan, Czechoslovakia, England, France, New Zealand, and Australia.

Part of this resurgence to popularity is due to the increased use of the singing saw in folk and bluegrass music, but one musician, in particular, has been credited with shining the spotlight on the instrument while also giving it some more classical legitimacy. Natalia Paruz, also known as the Saw Lady, has performed with an impressive list of professional orchestras and as a soloist in such esteemed venues as Carnegie Hall. She has released two full-length albums that include pieces she commissioned and music that was featured on the soundtrack of the 2011 movie Another Earth. She also performs in the subway in New York, giving greater visibility to what is still very much a niche instrument.

20th-century composers, including George Crumb, Krzysztof Penderecki, and Aram Khachaturian have also embraced and written for the musical saw though sometimes modern orchestras replace it with a theremin or a fretless electric guitar. Sometimes cellists and other string players will perform a piece or two on a saw as a bit of shtick in solo recitals and concerts. According to most musical saw websites, learning it is done mostly by ear and through experimentation, and is apparently fairly easy to pick up.

While the musical saw still remains quite a niche novelty instrument, the growing appetite for new and unique sounds in the music world will probably contribute to its increased use in the future. As the website, musicalsaw.com points out, “No matter what type of music you play (from Rap to Classical), a Musical Saw will fit in”. ($10 goes to the person who can actually find me a rap song that has a musical saw in it.)

For more on the Toronto musical saw scene, check out this article: http://www.torontostandard.com/culture/youre-playing-the-what-the-singing-saw/


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Michela Comparey

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