Monday, July 13, 2009

An Interview with The Saw Lady!

Natalia
Natalia "The Saw Lady" Paruz with Garrison Keillor after her performance on A Prairie Home Companion

This coming Saturday, July 18, marks the 7th annual Musical Saw Festival. We had the privilege of asking the festival's founder/director, Natalia "The Saw Lady" Paruz, a few questions about her passion for the distinctive instrument and her goal to steal a Guinness World Record from Poland...

YSC: Can you tell us a little bit about the history of the musical saw?

TSL: The far past of the art form is shrouded in fog, but we are pretty certain that it existed at least 300 years ago. It started with lumberjacks & carpenters in many different countries and continents around the world, without one knowing of the other.

At first it was a folk tradition, used for sing-alongs around the camp fire.

Paolo the Clown playing a musical saw in 1954Fast forward 100 years, and you can find the musical saw in liturgical music: priests and missionaries used it to lead hymn singing at their churches.

Fast forward another 100 years and you find the musical saw in show business: there was practically no vaudeville show in the USA that didn't have a musical saw player in it. In Europe, circus clowns used it in their acts (please see www.sawlady.com/Clowns.htm).

Since WWII there was a steep decline in the popularity of the art form but at the dawn of the 21st century a resurgence of interest began.

YSC: How and when did you first discover the instrument and your skill with it?

TSL: 16 years ago I was a professional dancer. I was a trainee with the Martha Graham Dance Company of Contemporary Dance. 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—until… One day, on my way home from Lincoln Center, I crossed the street and was hit by a speeding taxi-cab. 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?

To cheer me up, my parents took me on a trip to Austria. You see, as a kid I loved the movie The Sound of Music. I went to the movie theater 14 times just to see it on the big screen! So, my parents took me to the country where this film was made. While there we attended an Austrian folklore show. One of the acts was… you guessed it—a musical saw player! Now, I have never seen nor heard of a musical saw before. This was totally new to me, and it blew me away. I thought the sound was phenomenal, and what really appealed to me was the visual—the fact that the whole instrument moved and the sawist’s upper body along with it. It was like a dance!

I went back stage to talk with the sawist. With my broken German I managed to ask him to give me lessons. His answer was a flat and resounding "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. “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. As a “bonus hint” he told me that the more expensive a saw I get, the better it would sound.

Armed with these instructions I borrowed my landlady’s old saw. It was rusty from time and woodwork, so it only had 6 notes left on it.

A trip to the local hardware store was an interesting experience. The owner was furious about the “whistling” that somebody was doing in his store… He was very puzzled when he saw where the sound was coming from, but let me continue to test all his saws when he realized I was going to purchase an expensive saw…

Indeed the Austrian sawyer was right. I did figure it out all on my own, and I am very grateful to him now, for having given me the satisfaction of being able to say that "I did it all on my own."

YSC: Do you have any personal favorite songs that feature the saw? Have you heard of Julian Koster of Neutral Milk Hotel and The Music Tapes, and an avid singing saw enthusiast?

TSL: I wish somebody would tell Julian Koster about the saw festival; I would love for him to play but I don't know how to reach him.

I have recorded the saw for many singer-songwriters. Some of my favorites:
...to name a few.



YSC: When did the Musical Saw Festival begin and what is your involvement with the festival?

TSL: I am the founder/director of the annual NYC Musical Saw Festival. I started it 7 years ago. I had 5 sawists the first year and it looks like there will be 50 sawists this year. We've grown!

YSC: When did you decide to show Poland what's what and break their Guinness World Record for "Largest Musical Saw Ensemble? Are you confident you will walk away victorious this year?

TSL: Poland was my inspiration. I thought that the art form of playing music on a carpenter's handsaw could benefit from the publicity that a Guinness World Record attempt can bring. It would expose a whole new set of people to the possiblity of learning to play a saw.
The current world record is 27 people playing the saw together. So far 50 sawists registered to perform at the NYC Musical Saw Festival, so I am pretty confident that we will set a new record.

YSC: What are you looking forward to most about this year's festival? What should those attending expect to see and hear?

TSL: You mean besides looking forward to all the hard work of putting the festival on to be behind me?!

I'm looking forward to meeting all the saw players with whom I've been corresponding over the years and haven't met yet. Some of them I've "known" for 10 years through e-mail.

People attending the festival will experience the different styles and techniques of playing the musical saw through a diverse group of performers who each use different types of saws, bows, different playing techniques, and play different genres of music. Solos, duets, saws played through electronic devices, and of course the 'Chorus of the Saws'—all sawists playing together. That is really wild. Not only the visual of 50 people ages 18 to 83 playing saws together, but the sound is like a wall of sound. It's like nothing else.

Four world premiers of music written for the musical saw will be featured, with participation of a string quartet and handbell group. There is also an art exhibit of paintings that have to do with the musical saw. This will be the largest festival, with 2 sawists coming from Japan, 3 from Germany, 1 from Belgium, 3 from Canada and the rest from all over the USA—a real 'once in a lifetime' experience.

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