Wednesday, September 16, 2015

The Singing Blade

It conjures a delicate, haunting sound that, once heard,
is never forgotten. It predates the theremin and the history
of recording and serious composers have written serious
music for it, but the musical saw remains something of
a musical enigma.

The saw has been a part of human life for 5,000 years -
everyone from the ancient Egyptians down has used the
saw to shape and build their worlds, but no one is quite
sure where exactly the idea came up of making music with it.

Some say the idea came from up a dark holler in the Ozarks.
Some say it was a drunken violinist in an Argentinian lumber
camp while others are quite certain it was woodcutters in France.

The musical saw became popular in the hands of circus and
variety-theatre artists from 1900 onwards. It was cheap, easy
to carry and hard to break. Street musicians, circus clowns,
singers, rock bands and country music groups had taken it to
the people long before ‘serious’ like Henri Sauguet and
Georges Crumb began to compose for it.

One of the greatest exponents of the musical saw was Marlene Dietrich.
Marlene was musically gifted- in addition to singing, she also played the
drums, piano, guitar and accordion.

She was taught to play in 1927 by her fellow actor Igo Sym, who gave
her the instrument as a farewell gift. She took it with her to Hollywood
and mesmerized directors and crew by playing on the set of at least
six films between takes.

People who play the saw are known as "sawists" or "sawcerors".

You play the saw seated or (more rarely) standing, holding the
wooden handle between your legs, and the end of the blade with
your left hand to bend the blade to an ‘S’ shape. Rubbing a given
spot of the blade (depending on its curvature) with a violin bow
alters the pitch of the note.

Like the glass harmonica and the waterphone, the saw belongs to
the family of friction idiophones. When well mastered, it can reach
great delicacy of expression. Its sound range can cover over three octaves.

While the French may or may not have invented it, they are
perhaps the world's leading manufacturers of musical saws,
notably thanks to the singing blade, a toothless version of the
saw invented by Jacques Keller in 1948.

It's popularity started a long, slow decline after 1921, when
the Hawaiian steel guitar came in but like many folk instruments
in recent years, it has seen a revival of interest.

There are clubs and festivals dedicated to it and musicians
pursuing it's ghostly tones in Germany, Finland, France,
Japan, China, Canada and the US.   

Learn all kinds of things about the musical saw
with these helpful links!

1 comment:

  1. Great article!
    did you see the TED talk about the saw?