Creative musicians have figured out how to get an amazing sound out of a saw.
You're running late, low on coffee and patience, trying to catch that 7:45 train without stepping on the heels of the casually strolling tourist family in front of you.
Just then, you hear someone weeping. Or singing. No, that's not a person. It sounds so melancholy, so impassioned, so haunting. What is it? You walk toward the train platform. The noise, the smell, the tension on your shoulders from that grueling morning New York City subway commute ... it all seems to dissipate the closer you get.
The crowd clears. Your gaze lands on a redheaded woman playing a violin. Wait. She's using a bow, but ... no, that's not a violin. Above her head, a banner reads "The Saw Lady." As she moves her hand away from her body to bend the top of the saw, you realize it's also written on her shirt.
You start to study her face. It's almost as if the sound is emanating from somewhere inside her – the instrument is just her amplifier. Her gentle swaying, every bend of her wrist, the way she meets your gaze, as if you were the only one on that platform – you suddenly forget what you were on your way to do that morning.
That's exactly what Natalia Paruz, the self-professed "saw lady" who makes her living as a subway busker and session musician, wants her audience to experience. Paruz moved to New York City from Israel at age 14 and has performed all over the world, both as part of an orchestra and as a solo act in New York, Utah, Connecticut and France as well as in her home country. She considers herself an authority on saw playing and is the founder and director of the biennial Musical Saw Festival in Queens. Her eerie, ghostly performances can be heard on the movie soundtracks to "Another Earth," "I Sell the Dead" and Richard Gere's poignant new film "Time Out of Mind."
For Paruz, the saw has a significance that goes way beyond entertaining subway commuters and providing spooky background music. It essentially saved her life.
"I was a professional dancer," she says, recalling her early years as an NYC transplant. "I was a trainee with the Martha Graham 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." But that happiness was about to be tested.
"One day, on my way home from Lincoln Center, I crossed the street and was hit by a speeding taxi cab," she says. "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?"
She needed to regroup. But she found herself stuck.
"To cheer me up, my parents took me on a trip to Austria," she says. "You see, as a kid I loved the movie 'The Sound of Music.' I watched it 14 times! 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," she continues. "This was totally new to me, and it blew me away. I thought the sound was phenomenal – spiritual, angelic and different from any sound I'd heard before, but what really appealed to me was the visual – not the fact that it is a tool, but the fact that the whole instrument moved and the sawist’s upper body along with it. It was like a dance!"
At that moment, Paruz became obsessed with learning to play this unusual instrument. She managed to get backstage to talk to the sawist after the show. She asked him to give her lessons. He said 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," she says. “'Pick up a hand saw, hold it the way you have seen me do on stage, and you’ll figure it out,' was his instruction."
She figured out later that this rejection was the mark of any good sawist – you don't take lessons. You play around, you see what kind of sounds you can get. Either you've got the knack or you don't.
And she did.
"I am very grateful to [the Austrian sawist] now, for having given me the satisfaction of being able to say that I did it all on my own," she says.
From then on, Paruz focused on turning her new talent into a career. She began playing in the subway at first just to see what kind of reaction she would get. She now says she's addicted to it, and she plays every day, in and out of the subway around Manhattan, in addition to her studio work.
She's also witnessed firsthand the growing popularity of saw playing, and it's a point of pride for her.
"When I started the NYC Musical Saw Festival in 2002, I had only four other sawists performing beside myself," Paruz says. "Last Saw Festival, we had 55 sawists."
The movement may still be relatively small and a bit of a novelty, but to fellow sawists like Angela Perley, that's what makes it special.
Perley, a Columbus, Ohio-based musician who tours around the U.S. and U.K. with her band, Howlin' Moons, says she tries to incorporate the saw into all of her gigs.
"I think the saw brings another element of magic to the live shows," says Perley, who first heard the saw played on old blues and folk recordings growing up. "The sound is just another interesting direction to add to the songs. It seems to unite and surprise the audience, and it’s always a great icebreaker for those seeing us for the first time."
Like Paruz, Perley became drawn to the instrument's ethereal tone, and once she heard it, she was determined to learn it.
"It was a beautiful sound with a hint of melancholy, and I felt really connected to it," Perley says. "I acquired one and just locked myself in my bathroom for a while until it started to make sense; bathrooms have the best natural reverb, I love them! I started out with a drum mallet on the saw, and once I started to figure out the notes, I moved to a bow. The rest is history."
The musical saw, also known as the singing saw, can be the hardware-store variety or a more specialized version made for playing, depending on the player's preference. Its sound has been compared to the Theremin, an early electronic instrument that's also been used in horror films. And if you're prone to injury, fear not – the serrated edge of the saw that's commonly used to cut wood is not necessary for playing, so it's sometimes filed down or removed. The sound comes from bending the saw blade into different shapes and curves, while sliding a bow across the back edge of the saw or by striking it with a mallet. The sound that's produced tends to hang in the air for awhile and can carry through several notes.
Performers such as Marlene Dietrich and Victor Victoria played the saw, the former having performed for troops during World War II. There's a bronze statue in Santa Cruz, Calif., of famous sawist Thomas Jefferson Scribner. So the art form, while still obscure, has always enjoyed a healthy following.
"I feel like the saw is always going to be fairly underground, but there will always be a steady group of people that will play it," Perley says. "I feel like there is already a pretty large group of people playing the saw; it is just spread out. I’ve seen the saw used a lot in cities like New Orleans, Louisiana, and Asheville, North Carolina – basically anywhere where there is a big street performer scene. I’ve also known a handful of women that started playing the saw because they saw me play it and it inspired them to learn, which is cool."
And, to date, both Perley and Paruz are happy to report that they've never been seriously injured by the saw – though Paruz says she was once approached by a police officer who threatened to confiscate her instrument because of its weapon-like qualities.
"I actually dropped and scraped it against my leg several times," Perley says. "Nothing crazy or serious, just a creepy-looking scratch of saw teeth lines."
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