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.