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Sawists and Sawchestras

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Sawist at the Eisteddfod in Denbigh in 2013

Anna Savory on the revival of the saw as a musical instrument.

On a recent trip to New York, I was stopped at Heathrow when a saw was spotted in my hand luggage. A security officer fished it out, held it aloft and looked at me with an air of accusatory triumph. It was indeed a carpentry saw, and as such it could be banned from being taken on board in one’s hand luggage, along with scissors, knives and other sharp instruments. Its serrated teeth could perfectly well be used to saw a plank of wood – but it was also, I explained to the sceptical security officer, a musical instrument which, placed between the knees and played with a cello bow, produces beautiful trembling notes, like a cross between an opera singer and a theremin.

The musical saw has been with us for 300 years or so. Long played by folk musicians in the Appalachian Mountains and in lumberjack camps, it made its way into liturgical music in the early 1800s. Priests on the American frontier and missionaries in Africa couldn’t take organs with them, but there was often a saw to hand, and generations of preachers led their congregations in hymns to its suitably ethereal warble.

The saw’s golden age was the 1920s. The ‘singing saw’ was popular in vaudeville halls on both sides on the Atlantic. Marlene Dietrich perfected her saw skills in Berlin, while Mussehl and Westphal, two stateside saw players, sold ornate gold-plated rhinestone-studded saws to a public eager to try their hand at the ‘greatest novelty instrument on the market’.

The Second World War, however, not only saw the end of vaudeville but, with most metals going into munitions, the virtual cessation of saw manufacture. The saw as a musical instrument faded from public consciousness – until about ten years ago. Its current revival was the reason for my visit to New York.

After some discussion the baggage inspector and I struck a deal: my musical saw would travel across the Atlantic in the hold, on the understanding that it was handled with the same care given to a cello, and not tossed in like a drill or a toolbox. We were reunited at JFK, and went through the same process with burly American security officers before driving on to the beautiful Trinity Church in Queens, home to the 11th Annual Musical Saw Festival.

The festival is a saw extravaganza, designed to promote awareness of the instrument and provide a forum for saw players, or sawists, from across the globe. And sawists were out in abundance: ‘Sawchestras’ from Brighton, the entire Japan Saw Orchestra, French and French-Canadian players, Chinese, Dutch and Australian indie recording artists had all travelled to Queens. No matter where they’d travelled from, everyone had their own story of trying to get their saws through airport security. At the helm was Natalia ‘Saw Lady’ Paruz, a New York musician who single-handedly organised the festival and is, to some degree, responsible for the resurgence in saw playing as an art.

One of the most interesting aspects of the weekend of performances and workshops was the sheer variation in technique. Because the saw is an instrument without an established canon – and certainly without any formal tutelage – there is no definitive way to play. Every­one was self-taught and each player had developed their own technique. The Japanese Saw Orchestra brought small yellow mallets, and tapped their saws smartly like steel drums, while a classically trained cellist and London College of Music examiner played a customised long saw with the teeth removed for extra range and resonance, and bowed the edge closest to her. Sawists always saw across the smooth side, but more usually with the teeth side facing towards them, for maximum danger. A cello bow produces the best sound, though a violin bow will do, too, and is cheaper. The bowing technique itself is not ­difficult – it is the action of bending the saw ­correctly in order to produce the sound that is more problematic.

‘It’s good to see the subculture we’ve unwittingly become part of,’ a fellow- sawist whispered to me as we listened to a pair of Japanese players who were wearing Latex cat masks. It’s also very beautiful, as when a 95-year-old sawist – the oldest at the festival, from Virginia – took to the stage and played Southern spirituals.

The legacy of the saw as a spiritual instrument is very much alive; even now, a surprising number of the sawists are missionaries, working in Uganda and Romania. Everyone agreed that, quite aside from its angelic sound, the musical saw has something of a parable about it: a poetic re-purposing of the destructive into the creative – and perhaps a larger metaphor about unexpected beauty residing in overlooked objects or people. But it was easy to forget this highfalutin’ stuff when we were treated to a medley of rousing, saw-based numbers from Bugsy Malone.

The festival closed with a group piece, the ‘Chorus of the Saws’. This year it was ‘Ave Maria’. Afterwards Natalia thanked everyone, and reminded those who weren’t already saw players – quite a few locals had turned out to see the novelty – that they probably all owned an instrument already, so why not give it a try?

It’s a good piece of advice, and well worth passing on. The saw isn’t difficult to play, and you can use any one providing it is rust-free. So dig through the toolbox and get playing.

This story was from October 2015 issue. Subscribe Now