I Saw Her Standing There

The Tenth Annual Musical Saw Festival took place at Trinity Lutheran Church, located in deepest, darkest Astoria, Queens.


The gathering has been recorded in the Guinness Book of Records as the largest musical saw ensemble ever assembled. It features musicians and fans who are rather intense about keeping alive the 300-year-old art of playing music on a carpenter’s saw. I’d always been curious about the saw and liked its sound when I heard it in a song. Which wasn’t too often, however.


Arriving during an intermission, I wandered around the pews  and found people in an almost giddy state of shared purpose. There was a musical saw art exhibit, musical saw poetry, the premier of musical saw score for the movies, and solos by dozens of sawists from around the world. Workshops were scheduled for novices and experts alike. There would even be a “chorus of saws” in which all the musicians present would work out as a group, accompanied only by a piano.

If you wanted to, you could bring home a souvenir T-shirt.


Where did this art originate, I wondered? Information abounds if you are motivated to look. The gently bent metal blade creates a keening or wavering tone when a bow is drawn across it and is capable of glissando. Marlene Dietrich entertained the troops with her saw, that I know. I actually think Wikipedia has a pretty good handle on the technicalities.  Of course, you can always consult the International Musical Saw Association. (Robert Armstrong does these cheery illustrations for them.)


Some of the festival highlights included a sawist in a turquoise polo who delivered an energetic version of Tom Jones’ hit Delilah. He turned up the amplifier to heighten the drama of certain segments.


The audience roared its approval.

I saw a man with a gag hat from which protruded the business end of a saw on one side, the handle on the other. Also intriguing, a burly guy with a musical clef tattoed in black on each his forearms.

A duo played an original composition titled Poor Nietzche, “about Neitche going crazy” according to the m.c. The elegant blonde on the saw was accompanied by a 12-string mandolin player in a pork pie hat. It was an edgy performance the likes of which I could not have anticipated encountering on a Saturday afternoon in Queens, but artsy types seem to have embraced the musical saw.


Another pair put on a hipster duet with a saw and an old-fashioned typewriter against a fog-machine backdrop.

Then there was the Chilean dude who had only been playing for a year and who performed a soulful tune from the “New Chilean Song Movement of the 1970s.” The melody was emotionally affecting and perfectly interpreted by this dark-eyed, shaggily handsome prodigy.

There seemed to be an underlying competition of some sort about just how genuine your instrument really was. One musician, it was announced, would perform on a “26-inch Stanley fine-finished saw from the hardware store.” People toted about bare saws and saws in canvas covers, wielding their bows as if they might commence playing at any moment. These musicians use the same rosin on their bows, I was told, as a ballerina uses on her slippers.

I think my favorite player was a woman named Gisela O’Grady-Pfeiffer, from Germany, who told me she was nervous going up on stage every year.


She needn’t have been. Her Debussy piece, Claire de Lune, was haunting, her musical sawing exemplary. She came, she saw, she conquered.


Filed under Jean Zimmerman

15 responses to “I Saw Her Standing There

  1. Glad to be at least partially correct. It was a fun piece, you guys were great.

  2. hi, the elegant blonde on the saw was the – well, elegant tine kindermann and the song was called “poor friedrich” for nietzche of course and i (john kruth) was playing a mandolin, which has 8 strings but hell i don’t wanna be picky do i? i’ll just be content to be artsy instead… thanks for the mention!

  3. no argument there and we now have our very own craft micro brewery (Singlecut) over by the piano factory not to mention an emerging rock/jazz music scene with lots of funky clubs to hear it…

  4. Home to some of the finest food in America.

  5. will probably see you there – we live in …deepest, darkest Astoria ;-{)

  6. The Nietzche was indeed odd and fun. I’m going to be sure to go back next year!

  7. Enjoyed your posting – this was probably my fifth Saw Fest and each has a nice bit of surprises – this years was highly entertaining and edgy I especially liked Mike and Charity on the typewriter with steam & saw! The duo who I believe call themselves WOOL and their Poor Nietzche were fun to watch and of course my perennial favorite Doc George and his improvisations with the hammer is a crowd favorite 🙂

    Regrettably this year a technical issue with a memory card has delayed my sharing some images but I’m hopeful that the manufacturer can salvage something off of it ? When and if I’ll post them up ASAP.

  8. Yes, she was great, but she had a lot of fantastic competition. The festival was really inspiring!

  9. timothy eno

    I was there. i’m a competent sawyer. there were several sawists much better than me. (Natalia’s in a class of her own). Giselle was my favorite. she has an interesting style of bouncing her bow on the saw. she’s fast. she played clair de lune.


    Enjoyed the Saw Lady’s report…and yours… OTHERWORLDLY… indeed.

  11. Saw Lady, thank you so much for the link. I was sorry to miss that performance! But I enjoyed hearing and learning about this unique instrument and the people who dedicate themselves to playing it. It was a great afternoon.

  12. Thank you for attending the Saw Festival! The Wall Street Journal has a video report (where you can see snippets of the 12 piece orchestra you missed) http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887324063304578521463449383982.html?dsk=y#articleTabs%3Dvideo


    Yes. (Fondly referring.)

  14. Are you referring to the fact that I am such a splicer?


    I’ve known SAWYERS (evidently descended from manufacturers of saws) but never a sawist. I’ve heard of them though. And I bet that our Musical Instrument Museum has a display about them (if not also some good videos like this one of The Saw Lady: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jpPTY59i8Mg ). Oh… though I cannot yet bring myself to use it with any degree of ease (even if the comma function were operable on my keyboard) … I must also concede that my still-reluctant understanding of the COMMA SPLICE increases almost daily.

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