My favorite scene from the film Another Earth involves the two main characters in a music hall; the composer plays the musical saw for his friend. The director skillfully weaves in scenes of space flight, and the friend (played by Brit Marling, who also cowrote the script) offers a moving response to the music. (I appreciated and enjoyed the quirky film overall despite its problems.)
After I posted my initial remarks, Natalia Paruz—the “Saw Lady”—mentioned to me via Twitter that she played the music of that scene. I’d already seen her perform the “Star Trek” theme on a YouTube video. And, when I was younger, a friend of mine played musical saw. So I figured I’d ask Paruz for an interview. She agreed, and the exchange follows. My questions are in italics.
How did you come to participate in the film Another Earth?
Director Mike Cahill saw me performing in the NYC subway and that gave him the idea to incorporate a musical saw into the film. He asked me if I would help choose music for the saw to play, and then record it for the soundtrack. He also asked me if I would coach William Mapother, the actor who was to act as if playing a saw, to do that.
Did you record the piece specifically for this film? How long of a process was it?
The piece was composed for the film by composer Scott Munson, who is probably the most prolific composer for the musical saw, inspired by the way Mike (the director) described the movie and the feel of the scene in an e-mail. I recorded what was to be a demo of the piece for Mike to hear—I was basically sight-reading the piece. We were certain we would re-record it properly later (if the piece met with Mike’s approval). It turned out that Mike loved the piece so much that he wanted to keep it exactly as is—so we never re-recorded it—what you hear in the movie is the demo! I later recorded the piece again, for my second album.
What was it like working with an actor to teach him to look like he’s playing the saw? Did he end up actually being able to play it a bit?
Working with William was a lot of fun for me because it was different from what I usually do, which is teach people how to actually play. It was challenging to come up with a system of signs that would map out the moves the music requires, for a person who doesn’t read music.
At the shoot I stood in front of William and mimed directions for him while he was “playing.” In the scene it looks as if William is looking as Brit Marling watching him play, but in actuality she wasn’t even there when we shot William “playing.” He was looking at my miming. Later, we shot Brit sitting in the audience. William wasn’t there for that—the director had me play on stage, so that the sound would inspire emotions on Brit’s face.
There is an instant when all one sees is the saw (a shot from behind)—that shot was done with me actually holding the blade. William did an excellent job pretending to play a saw—he never made a sound (he didn’t learn how to actually play) but he looks very convincing. During the shoot I had to give marks to each take, letting the director know which part of which take looked realistic and which didn’t. Editing that scene is a masterpiece of its own—it couldn’t have been easy to assemble all this separate footage, and Mike did such an amazing job!
Can you actually “tune” a saw, as the actor suggests in the film, or was that just made up for the performance?
In actuality one doesn’t “tune” the saw but rather “warms it up” before playing. That is done by bending the blade repeatedly up and down. If the air is cold (say, because of strong AC in an auditorium)—the saw wouldn’t sound good on the first try, and bending it up and down warms the metal to a temperature where it would vibrate more readily. That is what the “tuning” bit is based on.
How big of a deal was the film in terms of advancing your career?
Having a Fox Searchlight film on my bio certainly looks nice next to the other films I played for (Dummy with actor Adrien Brody, American Carny, I Sell the Dead, etc.). Also, the majority of the “Likes” on my Facebook Page are from people who saw Another Earth, so I would say the film certainly helped spread word about musical saw playing in general and myself as well.
As I watched the scene from Another Earth, I was struck by how much the musical saw sounds like a human voice. Usually the violin is described as close to the human voice; is the musical saw the closest to it?
It is amazing how a piece of steel can sound so human. So many times when people hear me playing before seeing me play, they come looking for a singer . . . and when they realize the sound is coming from the saw they find it hard to believe. They put their ears close to the blade to verify the sound is actually coming from there!
The saw’s sound is so much like that of a soprano voice that it was used in a recording of some choir, to do the high notes their sopranos couldn’t reach. I perform with opera singers often. Audience members often remark on how sometimes they cannot tell what sound is coming from the singer and what sound is coming from the saw! I recorded track #13 of my second album especially in order to show the similarity of a soprano voice to that of the saw’s.
I assume one can buy specialty “saws” for music that can’t actually saw anything. What’s the business of producing musical saws like?
About 100 years ago there were many manufacturers of saws made especially for music (see my detailed list of them). Today there are only three manufacturers of musical saws in the USA and some overseas, led by Mussehl & Westphal, which is the only manufacturer who lasted over the years. They have been selling musical saws since 1921. For a few years during the 1920s, sales averaged approximately 25,000 per year! However sales dropped significantly during the late 1930s as the art of playing music on a saw almost disappeared, especially after WWII.
So how did you get involved in this unusual pursuit? How long did it take you to become proficient?
I was introduced to the art of playing music on a saw by chance (or fate). I had mapped out my life as a dancer (I was a trainee with the Martha Graham Dance Company, and I performed with many smaller companies, in musicals, taught dance, etc.) but being run over by a car put an end to that. I searched for an alternate career, but nothing I tried filled the void the lack of dance left in my spirit. To cheer me up, my parents took me to Europe. We went to a show for tourists and part of it was a guy playing a saw, and for the first time since the accident I felt excited about something. It was as if providence pointed its finger to tell me what I was meant to do in life.
Since there was no musical saw teacher to be found, I taught myself, through trial & error (no internet tutorials back then either) how to play. At first I only thought of it as a hobby, but an invitation from a local Salvation Army Center (which heard about my playing from a neighbor of mine who could hear me practicing) changed that. When my phone kept ringing with invitations to perform, I realized that I could turn this into a career.
About 10 years ago I founded the NYC Musical Saw Festival which aims to promote the art form of playing music with a saw. When I started there were only five other saw players, but our numbers grew and we even established a new Guinness World Record for the “Largest Musical Saw Ensemble,” with 53 people playing saws together!
Thank you for the great questions, Ari!
Thank you very much,
all the best,