“Turner’s saw solo was brief, breathtaking, and the high point of the evening. This simple, flat piece of metal became, in Turner’s hands, an instrument of sheer beauty. He plays with impeccable intonation, and his phrasing and sense of nuance are extraordinary.” – Mitchell, the Denver Post
You have not heard of this album. It may as well not exist, for all you know. It is the rarest album I’ve ever posted on this blog (discounting the Clarence White bootleg tapes), and it’s one of the most striking and unique. It was released by Owl Records, a tiny company in Boulder run by naturalist Oak Thorne (what else could he be, with that name?). Though Oak’s still alive, he’s not making any moves to reissue these records, so it’s safe to assume that it will never be reisued, exept as a Grapevine exclusive!
“In his many concerts, Jim Turner has been billed variously as a “musical sawyer”, “saw-ist”, and “psawchologist”. At the time of this recording he was 31 years old, and had been performing on the musical saw since 1956. His first encounter with this little-known instrument was in a high school play in Lewistown, Montana, where he was cast as an 82-year-old man who played a musical saw. The uniqueness of the instrument suited Jim’s personality, and his quick sense of humor made him a popular local performer, much sought after for all manner of occasions. He is an invenerate punster and manages, somewhat in the style of Victor Borge, to provide an evening of agonizing puns and absolutely intriguing music. His remarks about “A-sharp saw” or the instrument he uses for Handel’s “Water Music”, the “C saw”, are invariably followed by a truly amazing musical virtuosity.”
What allowed Jim to be such an incredible saw player is the same as what allowed him to later take up musical wrenches, musical rocks, and eventually musical glasses: he has perfect pitch, and a seemingly-inherent musicality. I mean, how many other saw players can play with orchestras? Only about three: Natalia Paruz, David Weiss, and Jim Turner. And of the three, Jim plays with the most humor and spark. The album presented below consists of folk pieces and classical works, at least one of which was composed for Jim Turner to play. Accompaniment ranges from from full orchestra to guitar, dobro, banjo, vibraharp, drums, electric guitar, piano, musical glasses, dead aspen tree, and barking dogs.
And though nobody appreciates puns more than Jim, and he allows a good deal of humor in the performances of folk pieces, he also knows how to craft a solo (sawlo?) more haunting than anything you’ve ever heard. I consider his version of Summertime to be the best ever recorded, and his rendition of Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise is every bit as good as Clara Rockmore’s theremin rendition. Also his take on Wayfaring Stranger is timeless and his renditions of two brief Bach pieces put the old master into a new dimension. Sadly, this glorious quodrisonic vinyl had to be reduced to a mere 2 channels in this paltry digital format of ourse, so you won’t be able to hear the overdubbed rounds of Frere Jacques coming from all around you. But don’t fret; these singing teeth’ll temper your spirit and moisten your loins.
The saw is a musical instrument. Perhaps the most ubiquitous musical instrument in the world aside from the human voice. It is more likely that a household possesses a handsaw than a piano, violin, or trumpet. Some people would have you believe that the saw is merely the tool of carpenters and woodcutters. But those ill-informed who espouse such a secondary usage should be relegated to the ranks of extremists, alarmists, and proselytes. For the saw’s true beauty is not derived from its capacity to crosscut lumber or to rip through timber, but rather from its ability to cut across the boundaries and limitations of preconceptions.
Saws, like people, come in all shapes and sizes; and at least as far as saws are concerned, size does matter. The ordinary handsaw found in most hardware stores and households has a bladelength of 26 inches. Longer saws, including some specially-made “musical saws”, may be 28, 30, or even 36 inches in length. The additional length tends to lower the tone of the saw, in effect creating a tenor, baritone, or bass saw, while increasing the pitch range (tessatura.) Saws shorter than 26 inches tend to have a higher pitch and a shorter pitch range.
Equally varied from saw to saw is the quality of the steel, its gauge, and temper. (It’s interesting to note that the verb “temper” can also mean “to tune”; how appropriate for the saw.) The number of points per inch defines the saw’s “point”; i.e., an 8-point saw has 8 points (but 7 teeth) per inch; a 10-point saw would have 10 points (but 9 teeth) per inch, etc. The French even have an edentulous version of the musical saw called la lame sonore (trans. sonorous blade), in effect a “zero-point saw.” Obviously it can be used only for music since it would not be able to cut anything except soft butter.
Though some consider the Musical Saw an American folk musical instrument believed to have gotten its start somewhere in the Appalachian Mountains in the 19th century, the origins of the musical saw are actually not confined to one country. Some sources state the saw was invented in Argentina, or Russia. Most of what we know today is about Europe, but it is believed that saws were played in all continents without the people knowing of other people doing so in other places. Carpenters and lumberjacks all over the world discovered that their tool could make sounds, thus, no country can really claim ownership over the invention of making music with a saw. Saw playing probably started at the end of the 17th century, when saws were mass produced with pliable steel blades.
The pioneers who couldn’t afford bringing musical instruments with them to America brought tools for building houses, etc. Thus saw playing became popular in the USA at a time when there weren’t other instruments easily available. During the 19th century (and probably before) many priests played the saw during church services. Later, the saw became a staple of Vaudeville shows.
The saw is generally played seated with the handle squeezed between the legs, and the far end held with one hand. It is generally played with the teeth facing the body. In the early 20th century the Musical Saw began to get very popular in America and Europe as well. It is also known as the Singing Saw, as it produces a very pure ethereal tone, and can sound similar to a woman’s high singing voice.
The Musical Saw also sounds a bit like the Theremin. Theremin virtuoso Clara Rockmore said that when Leon Theremin was working on inventing the theremin, the musical saw was very popular (in Vaudeville) and that he was aiming at recreating the sound of the saw electronically.
Musical saws have been produced for over a century. In the early 1900s, there were over ten companies in the United States alone manufacturing saws. These saws ranged from the familiar steel variety to gold-plated masterpieces. However, with the start of World War II the demand for metals made the manufacture of saws too expensive and many of these companies went out of business, and only a few companies exist today.
To create a note, the player bends the blade into an S-curve. The parts of the blade which are curved are dampened from vibration, and do not sound, while at the center of the S-curve a section of the blade remains relatively flat. This is called the “sweet spot” which vibrates across the width of the blade, producing a distinct pitch. The sound is created by drawing the bow across the back edge of the saw at the sweet spot, or by striking the sweet spot with a mallet. Harmonics can be heard by playing at varying distances on either side of the sweet spot. The sawyer 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. Sawyers can add vibrato by shaking one of their legs, or wobbling the hand that holds the tip of the blade. When a sound is produced, it can sustain for quite a while, and can be carried through several notes of a musical phrase.
Though regular wood cutting saws were used (and some still used today), in 1919 Clarence Mussehl began perfecting the manufacture of the instrument. His innovations included using a special steel which was much more malleable and gave the plaintive tones more sustain and vibrato.
Through using thinner steel and experimenting with the width Mussehl was able to create a saw capable of producing approximately 16 to 20 notes. It was in 1921 that he began selling them commercially for the express purpose of playing music. During the peak of the Musical Saw craze, sales of the saw averaged approximately 25,000 per year.
As playing the saw requires a strong left hand, most players were men, though one well known lady saw player was actress Marlene Dietrich. She has played the saw at her performances for the soldiers during WWII, in a movie, on radio, and for friends at parties.
Year: circa 1971
Label: Owl Records
1. Bach: Minuet in G
3. East Virginia
4. Grandfather’s Clock
5. Wayfaring Stranger
6. Wildwood Sawyer
7. Frere Jacques
8. Careless Love
9. Timbermill Mountain
10. Vivaldi: Largo
11. David Burge: Serenade for Musical Saw & Orchestra
12. Rachmaninoff: Vocalise
13. Bill Perkins: Textures for Musical Saw & Percussion
14. Bach: Bourée
stranger than an ill-tempered wild wood.
vinyl | mp3 >160kbps vbr | w/ scans
if you dig this and you haven’t heard Clara Rockmore, check out her album Art of the Theramin
and you’ll hear a bit more saw played by filmaker Terry Zwigoff with R. Crumb and his Cheap Suit Serenaders