Who would have thought that an ordinary carpenter’s handsaw could be used to produce music? But apparently it can, and has been for the past 300 hundred years. And in order to commemorate this bizarre yet unique tradition, the NYC Musical Saw Festival is held in July of every year, in Astoria (Queens), New York City. Ever since the festival was established by founder and director Natalia ‘Saw Lady’ Paruz in 2003, musical saw players from all over New York and the world have come together to preserve and honor this rare form of music. In fact, for saw players in far-flung countries like Germany, Sweden, India, China and Japan, Astoria has become a pilgrimage place of sorts. Every year, the sawist who travels the greatest distance in order to attend is awarded the title of ‘guest of honor’.
At the Musical Saw Festival, the players socialize and hear each other play. There are solo performances and jam sessions as well. They even take the opportunity to educate each other about the different types of saws and various techniques of playing. Overall, the atmosphere is said to be rather friendly and encouraging. But the festival is not limited to saw players. The event is open to the public, so people are welcome to come in and learn about the musical saw, or just enjoy a concert or two. An art exhibit and a workshop are also part of the festival.
Photo: Red Goodman
The festival had quite a humble beginning, with only 5 participants in its first year. But 2009 saw over 50 participants and it was also the year the NYC Musical Saw Festival set a new Guinness World Record for having the ‘Largest Musical Saw Ensemble’ – 53 saw musicians playing together. The festival has received other accolades as well. In 2010, it was honored by Michael Bloomberg, the Mayor of New York. In 2011, the festival was awarded a citation of honor for ‘9 years of artistic excellence’ by the New York State Assembly member Aravella Simotas. Saw music can be produced from any ordinary saw you can find at a hardware store, but the professionals prefer to use specially designed ones with no teeth and multiple-octave ranges. According to Natalia Paruz, “There’s no one technique. Since most players are self-taught, they sort of reinvent the wheel.” Ms. Paruz and her saw have performed at various other orchestras such as the Israel Philharmonic, the Westchester Philharmonic and the Manhattan Chamber Orchestra. She debuted as a musical saw soloist at Carnegie Hall in 2007. “People always consider the saw to be a novelty instrument,” she says, “but it’s totally capable of being a serious musical instrument playing serious music.”
Having heard so much about the musical saw, I just had to listen to an audio clip myself. And I must say, I would never have guessed the music was being made by saws if I hadn’t known. But it isn’t something I would enjoy personally; I had to turn it off after a while. The music is rather eerie; it reminded me of the musical saws played by the ghosts in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (the book, not the movie). Thankfully, one of the saw players, Lisa Mayer, agrees with me, “I personally think it’s a little bit spooky sounding,” she says. An audience member is said to have reported, “After sitting for a couple of hours, listening to songs, I started getting rather giddy.” But the serious saw players believe there’s no pleasing everybody. Perhaps saw music is your cup of tea?