Music Made on the Cutting Edge
Actually, the Other Side Is the Star at the New York City Musical Saw Festival
By ANDY BATTAGLIA
“It’s a cut-throat industry,” Natalia Paruz said, with a pause, “and nothing pleases me more than sinking my teeth into a tune.” A chorus of groans and guffaws rose up around her—one of many memorable sounds on Saturday at a spirited tribute to a curious subject: the musical saw.
For the 10th annual New York City Musical Saw Festival, some 50 saw players from near and far assembled to celebrate an instrument known for its simple origins and otherworldly effects. Take a long metal saw, scrape its smooth edge with a bow and bend it manually with a handle or just a thumb atop the blade—the act of playing it at once resourceful and absurd.
Dozens of saw players gathered at a church in Astoria Saturday for the tenth New York City Musical Saw Festival, an annual celebration of the tool-turned-instrument. Video by WSJ’s Jennifer Weiss.
It’s also many-splendored, as demonstrated to an audience of more than 300 festivalgoers gathered at Trinity Church in Astoria, Queens. In her opening remarks, Ms. Paruz, the festival’s director, known to most in attendance as the “Saw Lady,” recounted the history of her eccentric event and announced the official declaration, by decree of Queens borough president Helen Marshall, of Natalia Paruz Musical Saw Festival Day.
Ms. Paruz, who is 36, then turned the program over to a motley mix of saw music that ranged from demonstrations of quasi-classical refinement to lively shows of rootsy verve.
“I thought a lady was singing on the street the first time I heard a saw,” said Charity Dudley, a 28-year-old performer from West Virginia who echoed frequent descriptions of the instrument as a vessel for a sort of siren’s song.
Indeed, as the show commenced, the instrument’s flair for glissando charmed and enchanted, sliding among notes like a whistle on a spaceship. Transmissions from the saw are hard to control and less than exacting in their effect, but over four hours of performance, the strange sound supported many musical modes. The Japanese player Shinsaku Murakawa offered a stirring version of “Danny Boy”; the Chinese-born Liming Chen performed a rendition of “Beautiful Spanish Girl”; a German duo did Debussy. Some players were accompanied by pre-recorded backing tracks, while others played with string sections or rustic folk bands.
Hannes Vermeulen had ventured from Langebaan, South Africa, making him the festival’s guest of honor—the saw player who’d traveled the longest distance to Queens. Back home, he’d been a contestant on the TV show “SA’s Got Talent,” so local leaders helped raised funds to send their hometown hero to New York. At Trinity Church, brochures extolling the virtues of Langebaan as a tourist destination (watersports on a turquoise lagoon, an eons-old fossil known as “Eve’s Footprint”) sat on a table in back as the 66-year-old saw man performed a portion of his nation’s national anthem.
Asked why the musical saw is the instrument he chooses to play, Mr. Vermeulen replied, “It’s the only instrument I can play.”
Outside the church, Alexi Faucomprez, an enthusiast from Lyon, France, managed to teach an unsuspecting virtuoso to play in just a few minutes as he tuned up to perform on his own. Mr. Faucomprez, who is 39, makes his own custom toothless saws, one of which features a long 15-second sustain.
Does he sell the saws he makes? “I try to,” he said.
Adam Wirtzfeld, in town from Minneapolis for his fourth Saw Festival, preferred a plain store-bought saw with teeth, the sharper the better. “I like that it’s a beautiful instrument that is also capable of destruction,” he said. In 15 years of playing, he has cut himself only twice. “In both cases, it bled kind of a lot. But it must have been entertaining for the audience to see blood flowing down my hand while I was playing.”
Happily, Saturday’s proceedings were gore-free, though not without streaks of surprise. Mike Weldeck Jr., in town with Ms. Dudley from West Virginia, played a theatrical piece titled “Invention for Saw and Typewriter.” She typed fragments of a poem, percussively; he played saw. “I figured we could have something that was multimedia,” he said.
Christine Suter had come from Long Island, where she took up the tool after attending her first festival five years ago. “I’ve always gravitated toward weird, bizarre instruments,” she said, holding special admiration for the didgeridoo and the mbira thumb piano. Her favorite, however, is the saw she played onstage over Billie Holiday singing “When You’re Smiling.”
As the event’s mastermind, Ms. Paruz conducted the festival with a sense of significance and a spirit that was irrepressible. “It’s important to preserve this art form and to propel it forward,” she said, when asked about why she has remained true to the musical saw for so many years. “I hope the festival will ensure that it won’t disappear.”
“Another reason,” she added, “is that it’s just really fun.”
This article appeared June 3, 2013, on page A24 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal
Listen to the Sounds of Sawing
By Tammy Scileppi
Musicians at the NY Musical Saw Festival in Astoria perform. Photo courtesy of Matt Chilton
Recorded in the Guinness Book of Records as the largest musical saw ensemble ever assembled, the NYC Musical Saw Festival returned to Astoria for its 10th-year milestone celebration, filling Trinity Lutheran Church, at 31-18 37th St., last weekend with 300-plus concertgoers, including many diehard fans and curious folks looking for a new musical experience.
The applause was deafening as 40 international saw musicians gathered on stage to perform together or solo, while the entire six-hour event captured the essence of the unusual instrument that produces haunting, ethereal sounds.
Organizer/director Natalia “Saw Lady” Paruz, known for her subway station performances, was the star. She played a repertoire of beautiful arrangements and tunes, accompanied by a full orchestra of 12 musicians. Her performance of composer Scott Munson’s “Cinematic Suite” received a standing ovation.
During a phone interview, Paruz said she recently received a Declaration of Honor from Queens Borough President Helen Marshall, in which Marshall proclaimed June 1 “Musical Saw Festival Day.”
“It was a huge surprise for me and I’m so grateful to her,” Paruz said. She also got letters of recognition from Councilman Peter Vallone and others, even Mayor Bloomberg.
“It’s really gratifying how the festival took root, and I’m really grateful how the Musical Saw Festival is getting recognition,” Paruz said.
A skilled musician plays the musical saw using a violin or cello bow and creates arrangements by ear, or plays popular tunes using standard musical notes, without any visual indication on the instrument as to where the notes would be. So, for example, quarter and half notes are achieved by gently manipulating the blade back and forth causing it to vibrate, thereby generating sounds that can only be described as other-worldly.
Paruz, who has performed at the Queens Botanical Gardens, Flushing Library, various churches and parks, and yearly at The Astoria Historical Society, started playing the musical saw about 19 years ago and hasn’t stopped since. She says she’s still learning. It all started when she traveled to Europe with her parents at age 6 and happened to come across a man playing his saw on a street in Austria.
“There were no teachers I could go to, so I had to sort of reinvent the wheel for myself. But today I teach, and other people teach, so it evolved,” she said.
Offering lessons from her home, her students range in age from 14 to 83. Paruz said, “It’s not like violin lessons that are ongoing; there’s one lesson and I teach you everything you need to know, and there’s exercises where you practice on your own. Very few people ever need a second lesson.”
And you don’t have to have prior musical training. But it helps.
The Saw Lady says she finds classical music the most challenging to play and her favorite traditional composers are Bach, Mozart and Brahms. Along with performing pop and show tunes, she works with a lot of composers and singer-songwriters. “I don’t compose, but I interpret other people’s music,” she said.
Paruz’s fascination with musical saws grew over the years as she honed her special talent and turned it into a passion that truly defines her. She has shared her gift with thousands. That’s why she still chooses to perform in the subway. It’s not only because of the great acoustics, but especially because her audience is always close by and easy to connect with.
Her favorite stations to play are: Union Square, Herald Square and 59th Street at Lexington Avenue. She usually performs three days a week.
“It’s so nice to see at the Saw Festival how this art form transcends ages and cultural barriers,” Paruz said. “It’s really an art form for everyone.”
Paruz has an upcoming performance June 22 at Parrish Art Museum in the Hamptons, L.I. For more information on the festival and Paruz, check out www.musicalsawfestival.org.
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Assemblymember Aravella Simotas Presents Citation of Honor to NYC Musical Saw Festival
Assembly Member Aravella Simotas presented the Queens based NYC Musical Saw Festival with a citation of honor for “9 years of artistic excellence in Astoria ”.. In her speech at the festival, which took place on July 16th, Simotas said she has a love and appreciation of music since she used to play the clarinet, and she finds it so wonderful that the NYC Musical Saw Festival takes place at the Hellenic Cultural
Center in Astoria and she hopes it will continue to do so for many
years to come.
The festival presented 37 musical saw players who came from
as far away as India , Japan , Germany and Sweden , and as
nearby as Astoria and Sunnyside. Amongst the many performances
in this concert which lasted 4 hours was a world premier of a
composition commissioned by the festival from composer Eyal Bat.
The composition, titled ‘Courts of Heaven’, was written for four
musical saws and piano. This is a historical first for the art form
of playing music on a carpenter’s handsaw, since it is the first time
a composer set out to write for this particular instrumentation. The
piece resembled a fuge form and showcased both harmony passages
as well as individual solo lines. Pianist Judy Dimino provided gentle accompaniment to the otherworldly choir of saws.
Natalia ‘Saw Lady’ Paruz, founder and organizer of the annual festival, presented a few pieces from her new album ‘I Saw the Future’: ‘ Bend ’ and ‘Ars Longa Vita Brevis’ – two piece for string quartet and musical saw by Scott Munson as well as ‘Air on the G String’ by J.S. Bach. ‘I Saw the Future’ is available f rom www.cdbaby.com/Artist/NataliaParuz
The Trinity Handbell Choir, directed by Richard Walker, accompanied Paruz on two classical pieces – Gymnopedie/Satie and Pavane/Faure.
Poet Willa France recited two of her poems about the musical
saw and 12 visual artists presented their paintings inspired
by the musical saw. A little girl named Lillian Carver, daughter
of the “Singer & Saw” duo who presented a comical skit revolving around the musical saw, was so inspired by the art exhibit that
she asked for a piece of paper and during the concert she drew her
own impression from the concert, depicting the music as heavenly
through a visual of the ‘Saw Lady’ playing on a cloud.
Many musical saw solos and duos followed as well as the ‘Roe
Family Singers’ – a band featuring the musical saw. Music ranged
from Liszt & Beethoven to pop classics such as ‘Mona Lisa’ & ‘Bessame Mucho’, to religious tunes such as ‘How Great Thou Art’ to movie music such as ‘Pure Imagination’ from Willy Wonka.
The concert ended with the ‘Chorus of the Saws’ – all saw players playing ‘Over the Rainbow’ together. Eerily mesmerizing, 37 saws playing together is certainly an unearthly sound unlike any other.
After the concert saw players were treated to four workshops that
ranged in difficulty from beginner to advanced. To celebrate the success of the festival, ‘Opa’ Greek restaurant received an influx of
diners carrying musical instruments that evening. The festival,
which is made possible in part with funds from the Decentralization Program, a regrant program of the New York State Council on the Arts, administered by the Queens Council on the Arts, was also supported by local merchants such as Maria’s Hair Salon and Imagination Hairdesigners, who displayed the festival’s poster in their storefront windows.
The 2010 Musical Saw Festival was reported on in the ‘Astoria Times’ newspaper, with photo on the FRONT PAGE:
Making music with a saw and violin bow may sound like a niche interest, but the NYC Musical Saw Festival at the Hellenic Cultural Center in Astoria Saturday proved it is one with an international appeal that only seems to be growing.
Festival organizer Natalia “Saw Lady” Paruz, a 17-year saw player who lives in Astoria, said the event began with four musical saw players and now, eight years later, has grown to 30, with players coming from as close by as New York City to as far away as Japan.
This year also featured the debut of both a new song composed specifically for the musical saw, “Seen and Unseen” by Eyal Bat, and the debut of Paruz’s new band, Ameriklectic, which played compositions in which the musical saw is the featured instrument. Paruz said she is already planning to record with her new band and to hold next year’s festival at a larger venue.
“Astoria has sort of become a pilgrimage place for musical saw players,” Paruz said.
Paruz’s passion for the instrument, which has led her to multiple concert and media appearances from a solo in Carneige Hall to an appearance on MTV’s “Andy Milonakis Show” to NPR’s “Prairie Home Companion,” has made her a lightning rod for other fans of the instrument.
Before she became a musician, Paruz was a dancer but was hit by a car while walking on the street.
“That put an end to my dance career,” Paruz said, “and I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life.”
When she took a trip to Europe with her parents a short time after being hit, she saw a man playing a saw, which she said was the first time she had felt excited about something since the accident. When she started playing, it began as a hobby, but her neighbors heard her playing and asked her to play for a charity function.
Word of mouth spread, first to other venues that wanted Paruz to play for them, which led to Paruz playing the musical saw and other musical instruments such as handbells professionally, then to other musical saw players. Eight years ago, a musical saw player from California contacted Paruz and wanted to come to New York to meet Paruz. She said yes, but only if the other, local musical saw players Paruz knew could meet the Californian as well.
This was the birth of the first musical saw festival. In subsequent years, more and more musical saw players wanted to meet with Paruz, and what began as meet-ups turned into an annual event that now takes all year to plan. The small theater was packed at the Hellenic center at 27-09 Crescent St.
“They just unanimously decided I should be the one to put on the festival,” she said.
Paruz said the musical saw is played by placing the handle between the legs for stability, then using the left hand to bend the blade from the tip as the right hand runs a violin bow along the non-serrated edge. The more the saw is bent, the higher the notes. Any saw can be played this way, although most saws made for music have no teeth or have teeth that are decorative and not sharpened.
“I’ve been playing for 17 years and I’ve never hurt myself,” Paruz said.
Lisa Mayer, a former Hillcrest resident who played at the festival with her husband and Kew Gardens native Sruli Dresdner, said the saw’s use as a carpenter tool and a musical instrument is one of its appeals.
“It’s utilitarian and artistic,” she said.
WooYoung Park, who came from Osaka, Japan, to play at the festival, said the sound of the musical saw is also a prime appeal.
“The sound is beautiful and unique,” she said. “It’s a free sound.”
Paruz said that for her the music has become a way for her to meet people of all ages, religions and backgrounds, in addition to sounding beautiful.
“It’s angelic and otherworldly and spiritual,” Paruz said. “It has a magic to it.”
Musical Saw Festival Opens With Mayoral Proclamation
All participating 26 musical saw players playing together.
Photo Harris Graber
The eighth annual New York City Musical Saw Festival welcomed 26 musical saw players from around the globe to the Hellenic Cultural Center in Astoria on August 7. A proclamation from Mayor Michael Bloomberg was read to open the event.
Ameriklectic, a local 10-piece band, featured the musical saw (played by festival founder Natalia “Saw Lady” Paruz) as the lead instrument in jazz compositions by Scott Munson. Two musical saw trios were presented at the festival, “Moscow Nights”, played by three musical saw players from Osaka, Japan. A ragtime piece by composer Eyal Bat, commissioned by the festival, with musical saw players Chelsea Winter, Sharif Vakili and Paruz, with piano accompaniment by Judy Dimino, had its world premier.
Musical saw player Paul Gherson parodied the lyrics to George Gershwin’s “Summertime”.
“Summer time, and the living is easy,
Bows are swinging, and vibrations are high…
Oh, but sawyers are few, and Natalia’s still looking,
The Carpenter’s Union she invited to try!”
Hip Hop poet Mason Granger presented a poem about the musical saw and musical saw player Doc George Hiller played his amplified musical saw attached to guitar pedals that alter the sound in various ways, making it sound like a Jimmy Hendrix guitar. A workshop where advanced musical saw players dispensed information to beginners followed the concert. At the workshop, two aspiring musical saw players drew their very first note from a saw.
Mark Grant, who has composed for the musical saw, said: “As a composer I learned a little more about the musical saw just by listening at the festival, especially to the [Eyal Bat] trio at the beginning of the program but also to other parts of the program. I was also pleased to get acquainted with Scott Munson’s work as a composer and arranger–his stuff is first class all the way, a ‘good listen’ and very well put together for the band, including the musical saw as a lead.”
“I’ve been wanting to go to the festival for five years, since I started playing the musical saw, and this is the first time I was able to be in New York City for the summer,” said one of the musical saw players.
“I liked meeting like-minded musicians from across the world and the U.S., and I learned a lot from the workshop, where we could talk freely about problems with our own playing, saws, bows, etc.,” said another. Heidi Younger, one of the painters exhibiting works at the festival, said, “I loved the festival! It was a very happy event. I am sorry I haven’t attended in previous years.”
Jeffrey Dayton, an audience member from Long Island, said, “To finally get to see what I have only read about is an experience I will never forget. I will cherish the memory for a lifetime. Every one of the performers was made to feel like they were the star of the show. No talent was too small.”
“Kudos to Queens Council on the Arts for support of the 8th annual NYC Musical Saw Festival: SawLady + gang is amazing,” Clyde Fitch, who lives near the Hellenic Cultural Center, twittered after the festival.
Three people residing in the vicinity of the Hellenic Cultural Center, where the festival took place, said they were inspired to dig into their toolboxes and try to fiddle with a saw when they returned home from the festival.
Audience members are invited to leave comments about the festival at www.MusicalSawFestival.org.
For more information about the annual New York City Musical Saw Festival, held in Astoria every summer, and to see videos from the event, visit www.MusicalSawFestival.org
NYC Musical Saw Festival
8th Annual Musical Saw Festival Held At The Hellenic Cultural Center In Astoria
Musical saw trio. Photographer: Pat Merino
The 8th annual Musical Saw Festival was held at the Hellenic Cultural Center in Astoria. This fine art dates back to 17th century when woodcutting musicians around the world simultaneously began developing the saw as a musical instrument. In time a number of companies started manufacturing saws to cater to this part of the market.
The art form emerged in places as far away as Sweden, France and Japan; but we understand that America has emerged as the center of the art form. The Musical Saw Festival held in Astoria is the world’s largest and the following report captures some of its flavor.
Twenty-six musical saw players graced the stage of the Hellenic Cultural Center in Astoria, home to NYC’s 8th Annual Musical Saw Festival. Some played solo acapellas, while others were accompanied by piano, guitar, vocals and even by a four-string washbasin. ‘Amerikletic’ is a local ten piece band which includes the festival’s founder, Natalia ‘Saw Lady’ Paruz. ‘Ameriklectic’ played a few Scott Munson jazz compositions which were a huge hit.
Three musical saw players traveled from Osaka, Japan to participate in the festival. Another group, including saw players Chelsea Winter, Sharif Vikili and Natalia Paruz played a ragtime jazz piece composed by Eyal Bat which was commissioned by the festival. Judy Dimino accompanied them on the piano.
All participating musical saw players. Photographer: Pat Merino
Saw musicians are not without a sense of humor. Paul Gherson provided alternative lyrics to Gershwin’s Summertime which brought chuckles from the audience. Hip Hop poet Mason Granger recited a poem he’d written about the musical saw. And Doc George Hiller played Jimmy Hendrix style tunes on his amplified saw which he has creatively attached to guitar pedals to create new sounds.
One member of the audience, Jeffrey Dayton of Long Island, remarked, “To finally see what I have only read about is an experience I will never forget. I will cherish this memory for a lifetime”. Segments from the program were broadcast by CBS and Reuters. The program received some funding from the Queens Council Of The Arts.