A saw may be a carpenter’s best friend but the musicians who gathered in a hall in New York City in August were celebrating another unusual quality of this handy tool, the haunting sound it produces as a musical instrument.
Around 30 eclectic musicians gathered from across the United States and the world for the eighth annual NYC Musical Saw Festival.
How a saw is played
The saw is generally played seated with the handle squeezed between the legs, and the far end held with one hand. Some sawists play standing, either with the handle between the knees and the blade sticking out in front of them, or with the handle under the chin (like a violin). The saw is usually played with the teeth facing the body, though some players face them away. To make a note, a sawist first bends the blade into an S-curve. The parts of the blade that are curved are dampened from vibration, and do not sound.
At the center of the S-curve a section of the blade remains relatively flat. This section, the “sweet spot”, can vibrate across the width of the blade, producing a distinct pitch: the wider the section of blade, the lower the sound. Sound is usually created by drawing a bow across the back edge of the saw at the sweet spot, or sometimes by striking the sweet spot with a mallet. The sawist controls the pitch by adjusting the S-curve, making the sweet spot travel up the blade (toward a thinner width) for a higher pitch, or toward the handle for a lower pitch. Harmonics can be created by playing at varying distances on either side of the sweet spot. Sawists can add vibrato by shaking one of their legs or by wobbling the hand that holds the tip of the blade. Once a sound is produced, it will sustain for quite a while, and can be carried through several notes of a phrase.