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Saw Scene

Sawyers come out of the woodwork for the East Coast's musical saw festival, right here in Richmond.


"It's the cheapest instrument. Anybody can play one!" Hoffa says. Although several companies manufacture saws specifically as instruments, often making them edentulous — without teeth — and longer for a greater range in pitch, "You can't say one kind is better than another," Hoffa asserts. "The bigger saws have quieter, mellow tones. With the smaller size, it's gonna be really high and clear. A lot of people choose that."

Like a true folk instrument, the history of the musical saw is lost in time. No single culture or style of music can claim it. Stephen Christoff, an itinerant musician and sawyer who currently plays in Williamsburg and Richmond, says he's heard a legend that it originated in the Brazilian rain forests when two men cutting a tree with a crosscut saw realized that it would make a note when it was struck. Another story has it that a German immigrant in Pennsylvania dreamed that his saw spoke to him, telling him to scratch its back.

Attempts to describe the musical saw's sound are as numerous as the speculations about its origin. While Christoff calls the songs he chooses to perform on the saw "languid," he describes its sound as "piercing." Hoffa admits that her husband patiently endured "earsplitting" sounds when she was learning to play. But a saw well-played is reminiscent of a human voice, lush and ethereal, as if vowels and consonants were being erased as they streamed from the mouth of a faceless singer. It's beautiful the way a vanilla-scented candle is fragrant. It's beautiful the way full-cream cheesecake with fudge frosting is delicious.

The saw had its heyday in this country about 80 to 100 years ago, primarily on the vaudeville circuit. Marlene Dietrich, herself, played it on a radio show, and while it has made brief incursions into the classical concert hall, it mostly remains in the hands of people who play in backyards, around campfires or on street corners. Most sawyers are in their 60s or older, but in the past several years the instrument has gained a foothold among younger musicians.

"Its popularity has exploded," says Hoffa. "It used to be that you couldn't find any records, any books, anything about the saw." She cites a number of recent bands that use the saw, including The Flatlanders and Trailer Queen. "I never feel like the saw is misplaced when these groups use it," she says. "Sawyers play best with other players anyway. It brings out the best sound of the saw."

Many sawyers only know each other from message boards on the Internet, so a gathering gives them a chance to meet and exchange stories about their experiences with different saws and methods. It's a culture of sharing and innovation, says Hoffa. "At last year's festival, people showed up with things they had invented to make playing the saw easier. One man had invented his own saw and microphone."

Not everyone plays the saw the same way, so festivals are a good way for experienced players to share techniques and for novices to learn about the possibilities. The basic principle is to hold the saw so it bends in an S-curve, but it can be made to vibrate by striking it or bowing it. Cello bows are often used, but some sawyers construct their own bows from hardware-store materials.

Saturday is your chance to hear the best of the musical saw at the Second Annual East Coast Saw Festival at Dogwood Dell picnic shelter from 5 p.m. until dusk. Broken Hips, which includes Hoffa on saw, will play around 5 p.m. After that, there will be open time for sawyers to play and an informal workshop session for anyone learning the saw or those who are just curious. Hoffa invites people to bring any instrument along, since all kinds of casual music-making will be inevitable.

"I'm not into total organization," says Hoffa. "Sawing is certainly not an exact science, so I don't think it would make sense to have a rigid schedule."

There will also be a picnic dinner hosted by The Fete, an organic foods cooperative of which Hoffa is a member. "Sawing is about bartering, sharing. I thought it would make sense to have the food come from the co-op," Hoffa says.

Sawer Christoff remembers that he first heard someone playing the saw at a music festival in Ohio. He was so inspired that he approached the man, a crotchety old fellow who told him to buzz off, though in more blistering language. Christoff ended up buying a saw and moving to New Orleans to learn to play it on the streets. Fortunately for would-be sawyers and folk music lovers up and down the East Coast, such drastic action is no longer needed. S

The 2002 East Coast Musical Saw Players Picnic takes place Saturday, Aug. 17, 5 p.m. - dusk at the Dogwood Dell Picnic Shelter at Byrd Park. Tickets for the picnic are $7. For information call 342-1295.

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