When we think of bowed instruments we often only think of the obvious ones, the violin, viola, cello and bass. I believe it’s time to shine some light upon one bowed instrument that has been around for centuries but is rarely mentioned in mainstream channels. The instrument I’m referring to is the musical saw.
The concept of the musical saw is brilliant in its simplicity. A carpenter’s saw is a flexible tool that can bend in a wave like motion and vibrate, much like a string on a violin. By bending it or applying pressure at different points along the edge one can lengthen or shorten the amount of the blade that vibrates, thereby creating a broad range of tones or notes. By bending the saw in an S-shaped curve and drawing a bow in perpendicular placement across the bend in the S shape, vibration is produced which in turn produces its sound.
The sound a saw makes is often described and ghostly or otherworldly. The musical saw is commonly referred to as the “singing saw” because it produces a singing sound similar to that of the human voice. The only other instrument that comes close to producing a sound like the saw is its electronic cousin the Theremin. The Theremin is essentially an antenna with an electric field surrounding it. By waving one’s hand around the antenna, a range of tones can be produced. If you’ve watched any old scifi or horror movies, there’s no doubt you’ve heard a Theremin being played.
My name is Christine Suter and I am a violinist and musical saw player. I go by the stage name Saw C-Lady. My love affair with the musical saw started about 12 years ago when I was living in Santa Cruz, California. Santa Cruz gained recognition as a saw player hotspot in the 70s and 80s through a man named Thomas Jefferson Scribner. Mr. Scribner used to play the saw in the streets of Santa Cruz and has been dead for some time, but has been immortalized in the world’s only life-size saw player statue. The statue sits on a pedestal outside Bookshop Santa Cruz in the downtown area, and every year the first day of the Santa Cruz Saw Festival is devoted to a jam session at the Scribner statue.
I have always been drawn to strange and unusual musical instruments so when I heard someone playing a saw one day at my house in Santa Cruz, I immediately knew that I had to learn how to play it. I only ever remember seeing the musical saw played once when I was a young child and I was watching a Swedish made Pippi Longstocking movie. During one of their adventures, the kids in the film spent the night in an abandoned farmhouse and there happened to be an old man there playing the saw. The children thought there was a ghost in the house but it ended up being a man sitting crossed legged on the floor playing the saw. When the saw showed up again in my life many years later, it became an instant fixation of mine.
Someone in my orchestra gave me a rundown on the basics of how to play, but as any traditional saw player will tell you, you can’t be taught how to play the saw; you have to figure it out yourself. One of the greatest things about saw playing is that every saw player has their own unique style and technique. Some people play sitting in a chair while others play standing or sitting “Indian style” on the ground. Some people create vibrato with the hand that holds the saw while others create it by shaking their knee while playing. There are both right and handed and left handed saw players and some people even hold and play the saw in the same way that you would play a violin.
I went to the nearest hardware store and bought myself an ordinary 26” Stanley SharpTooth carpenter’s saw. It took some determination to get a sound out of it but soon enough I got a handle on it. My playing really took a turn when I purchased my first musical saw from Mussehl and Westpahl.
Around 1920 a man named Clarence Mussehl began refining the design of the musical saw by using thinner and more malleable steel that allowed for better tone and vibrato. Musical saws are much easier to play than carpenter’s saws and the teeth aren’t actually sharp, so you don’t need to worry about tearing a hole in your pants. Today, you can find musical saws by Mussehl and Westpahl online for around $100 along with a variety of other types of musical saws from various makers.
During the summer of 2007 I returned home to NY to visit my family and ended up going to the 5th annual Musical Saw Festival of NYC. Although I had never attended a saw festival before, I was welcomed with open arms and big bright smiles. There are only two places in the United States that hold musical saw festivals. The other is held yearly in Santa Cruz, California since the 1980s, while the NYC festival takes place every few years.
I fell in love with the cast of characters that were in attendance at the NY festival. There were people there of every age and every walk of life, including an 80 something year old man from Guyana, South America, who had played the saw for the queen of England when he was a boy in Guyana. Since then I have been a regular attendee at the NYC saw festival and have played solos for the past 4 festivals.
There is no concrete evidence to determine where and when exactly the musical saw was invented. The saw was a tool for building long before its musical capabilities were discovered, but it is believed that saw playing began in Appalachia sometime at the beginning of the 19th century.
By the 1920s the musical saw had gained some recognition through Vaudeville acts such as the Weaver Brothers. Marlene Dietrich had also performed on the musical saw during USO shows she did for troops in the 1940s. The musical saw has seen a revival over the past couple of decades, most notably in the US, Europe and in parts of Asia.
There are several well-known saw players in the New York area, one of the most notable being The Saw Lady, Natalia Paruz. For years Ms. Paruz has been busking in her usual spot at the Union Square subway station in Manhattan, where she still plays at least once a week.. She has played with numerous orchestras and music ensembles in NY and around the world and her playing has even been featured in several films including one of my personal favorites, Another Earth. You can visit Ms. Paruz’s website http://www.sawlady.com/ to learn more about her and the musical saw and you can also follow her on Facebook to keep track of her latest projects and performances.
Another saw player in our area who many people may be familiar with is Dr. Dale Stuckenbruck, an adjunct full professor at LIU Post College, and music Director of the Waldorf school in Garden City, Long Island. Dr. Stuckenbruck is a Grammy nominated saw player who has had several notable recordings including “Sawing to New Heights” and “Ancient Voices of Children.” He, too, has played the saw with many famous music ensembles in the NY area. In addition to being the son of a saw player, both of his children are saw players as well. You can find more about Dr. Stuckenbruck on his website http://www.violin-saw.com/
I cannot say enough positive things about my experience with playing the musical saw and I’m sure other saw players would tell you the same. What I enjoy most about the saw is that there are no boundaries and unlike most musical instruments there is no right or wrong way to play. It’s all about exploration and having fun, and once you get going with it, I can guarantee you’ll be addicted.
The next NYC Saw Festival is due to take place in the summer of 2018 and Ms. Paruz, Dr. Stuckenbruck and myself are sure to be there sawing away!