WORDS BY REBECCA SEIDEL '15
As the wails of forty demon mermaids pushed against my temples, I wondered if Jesus was drowning, too.
Nailed to a crucifix facing the pews, Jesus gazed at the sea of saw blades rippling beneath his feet: forty toothy bands of silver bending against the caresses of forty violin bows. There is no scripture that captures this sound, no Biblical testament to its shivery power. But when you bear witness to dozens of musical saws shrieking in unison—particularly when they’re shrieking the opening notes of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”—you know what it feels like to be dragged through purgatory.
Evening streamed through the stained glass windows of Trinity Church in Astoria, Queens. “Over the Rainbow” was the finale of the tenth annual Musical Saw Festival, a gathering of sawists from around the world. Sitting among 300 audience members, I’d experienced a duet between a musical saw and a typewriter, an ensemble of bearded men sawing through ’60s folk songs, a German duo taking on Debussy, and a 66-year-old man from South Africa playing his national anthem. Each saw looked and sounded slightly different: variations on the classic Home Depot wood-cutting model. But the sound of bow dragged across blade was unmistakable, and it had carved its way (perhaps literally) into my skull: an ethereal feminine voice, thin but piercing, a Siren beckoning Odysseus.
Some people say that the saw carries the voice of an angel. Natalia “Saw Lady” Paruz, the coordinator of the festival, told me about a man who heard her performing on a subway platform and thought he had died and gone to heaven. One musical saw, straining against the strings of a violin bow, can achieve serenity in its eeriness. Put forty saws together, though, and you have an orchestra straight from hell: glassy-eyed angels of death advancing from all sides, mouths gaping, arms outstretched, seaweed-green hair fanning in every direction, lulling you into oblivion with their wails. So when a day’s worth of performers gathered in front of us, under the crucified figure of Jesus, and began pulling their bows across their blades to the tune of “Over the Rainbow,” I wanted to run—but I also never wanted to move again.
“Over the Rainbow” is a creepy song to begin with; transposed to the high-register shriek of the saw, its well-known lyrics lose all meaning. My spine straightened in the low-to-high glide between “some” and “WHEEEEERE.” My eyes darted between flashes of light reflecting off the blades.
The crisp-looking, suspenders-wearing man in the front of the ensemble played with a crooked smile on his face; the Japanese woman in the corner swayed with her eyes clenched shut as she bowed. At the center of the group, Natalia Paruz, an Israeli woman in her thirties with red hair pulled into a ponytail, arced her saw with the smiling grace of a ballet dancer. Put the scene on mute and it’s a joyful celebration, in spite of the proliferation of sharp objects: musicians of all ages, from all over the world, gathered in this one corner of New York City to share their love for an offbeat instrument. Turn on the sound and your spine will tingle forever.
As the mermaid chorus echoed into silence, the saws’ shrieks faded into a single humming note inside my brain. The performers sat straight in their chairs, holding their saws still in the suspended moment between performance and applause. As we all recovered our faculties for human thought, Jesus looked down at us from his crucifix, witness to our collective resurrection.