Jobs They Love: Musical Saw Player
Lucky are they who look forward to Mondays with joy in their hearts! Meet the folks whose talents and passions are happily matched to the jobs they have.
NATALIA "SAW LADY" PARUZ
She is known as “The Saw Lady,” because she is a master at playing the musical saw. The melodies and harmonics she creates by drawing a violin bow across the blade of a carpenter’s saw are eerie and otherworldly – the perfect accompaniments to heighten the tension of emotional dramas and horror films. You may not know who New Yorker Natalia Paruz is, but chances are pretty good that you’ve already heard her play.
In fact, her saw playing has been featured in 20 major films including “Dummy,” “The Heart is a Drum Machine,” “Time Out of Mind,” “Another Earth,” “American Carny,” “I Sell the Dead,” and the HBO series “The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst.”
Paruz has also bent the saw for many TV commercials; ABC, NBC, MTV, VH1, PBS, FOX, and History Channel TV programs and WBAI, NPR and SiriusXM radio; live performances; and music festivals.
And, if you’ve ever visited New York City or are a native, it’s likely that you’ve heard her heavenly compositions floating above the din of the crowds and trains at any number of subway stations where she often busks, playing classical, pop, and contemporary tunes to surprised and appreciative crowds.
Paruz has won many awards and international accolades for her work. Her music has been recorded on Atlantic Records, Capitol Records, and Universal Records labels. She has also performed with orchestras around the world, including the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (conducted by Zubin Mehta), the Royal Air Moroccan Symphony Orchestra, Carnegie Hall, and Lincoln Center's Avery Fisher Hall with PDQ Bach composer Peter Schickele.
An accomplished bellringer, Paruz also plays 65-pitched cowbells, English handbells, and 4-in-hand hand bells. Not surprising, she also is adept at playing the theremin and glass harp, acoustical cousins of the musical saw.
Where did you grow up?
Simple question but complicated answer. Because of my parents’ work, I got to live in many countries as I was growing up: France, Switzerland, Germany, UK, Spain and Israel before finally getting to my permanent home – NYC, USA. I think this influenced me, because it taught me that I can make friends and belong in any culture. I feel at home in each county I’ve been to.
The musical saw is such a strange old instrument. What led you to picking it up?
I was a trainee with the Martha Graham Dance Company of Contemporary Dance. I was a tap-dance teacher and demonstrator for Dance Masters and Dance Educators of America. I earned a living performing in musical theater. In short, I was a happy dancer, until…one day, on my way home from Lincoln Center, I crossed the street and was hit by a speeding taxi. That was the end of my dance career. I suffered permanent damage to my upper spine. Needless to say, I was devastated. I had dedicated my life to dance, and now what was I going to do?
To cheer me up, my parents took me on a trip to Austria. You see, as a kid I loved the movie “The Sound of Music.” I watched it 14 times! So, my parents took me to the country where this film was made. While there, we attended a show for tourists. One of the acts was a musical saw player! I had never seen or heard of a musical saw before.
This was totally new to me, and it blew me away. I thought the sound was phenomenal – spiritual, angelic and different from any sound I heard before. But what really appealed to me was the visual. Not the fact that the saw is a tool, but the fact that the whole instrument moved while being played and the sawist’s upper body along with it. It was like a dance!
The musical saw is one of very few instruments where the entire instrument moves (unlike a violin for example, where only the bow moves but the body of the violin never changes shape) and changes shape constantly as you play it.
Do you practice at home? What do the neighbors think?
Because I don’t want to disturb my neighbors (particularly since the pandemic – they all work from home now), I only learn a new piece at home but as soon as I’ve learned it by heart, I practice it in the subway. It is the best practice space, since I get immediate feedback from passersby who are not biased with their opinions (they are not my family or friends so they don’t have to be polite to me and spare my feelings if they don’t like how I play). I can measure my progress with a given piece by people’s reactions to it.
My neighbors are actually enthusiastic about what I do and they watch my live online performances and videos. Actually, it was a neighbor who got me to become a professional sawist! My neighbor heard me practicing at home when I just started to play, and she recommended me to a local Salvation Army community center, who then invited me to perform.
A funny story with a neighbor during those early days was that their dog would howl along with my playing, every time. But when I got good at playing – he stopped howling! Everyone’s a critic, I guess :-).
How many other saw players are there? Do you ever get together to jam or play ensemble pieces?
It is hard to tell how many, since the majority are hobbyists who don’t perform in public. Maybe a few thousand people? The number has been steadily growing, I am happy to say, since I initiated the NYC Musical Saw Festival.
I had five sawists perform in the first one and 68 performing in the 11th one. I commissioned pieces for multiple saws for the festival (up to a quartet) and we also had all sawists play together. We got into the Guinness Book of Records for the “Largest Musical Saw Ensemble,” beating the previous record which was held in Poland. They had 23 sawists, we had 53.
You made a music video about death called “Like a Wild Plant.” And I’ve heard that you also write children’s ghost stories -- both macabre topics. Were they inspirations of the sometimes mournful sounds of the saw, which the Boston Globe called, “…halfway between the music of the spheres and a human sob”?
The saw can be played in different ways, including to sound comedic, like a whistle, or Halloween-y, or like a sound effect. It can be played to produce a thin sound or a “meaty” sound. I felt, like many musicians, that I needed to establish my own sound.
Early on, I happened to get a gig performing at an event that took place at a cemetery. My employer was satisfied enough by my performance to invite me to do more gigs there, but I wasn’t satisfied with how I played. I played there in the same way I played at any other gig, and it just didn’t feel right to me, like I wasn’t connecting with the space I was in.
It was at my 3rd performance at that cemetery that I finally connected: I was to play inside a big mausoleum that housed bodies from the 19th century. Before the audience came in, I walked around the space, reading the inscriptions on the burial spots. One captured my mind: it was the resting space of a mother and her baby, who died only a few days before she did. I started to improvise on the saw, and as I played, the saw in my hands became in my mind the baby being rocked in his mother’s arms as she was grieving over his death. The sounds I was playing felt so right to me – for the first time I connected with the space.
When the audience came in, I ditched my planned play list and instead continued to improvise. I got a confirmation to my good feeling when The New York Times singled my performance out in this event. That is how I came to realize my sound goes really well with the subject of death. Not scary, horror movie type death, but rather the spiritual kind, more Victorian in approach, with the aim of healing, helping people accept the inevitableness of it in a positive way.
When my father died, I was hurtled into a couple of years of intense mourning. The only way I knew how to express my feelings was in my art. I have made some cemetery music videos before about a guardian angel and about a ghost, but the short film, “Like a Wild Plant,” went deeper. I staged my own funeral in it. I find that the musical saw helps me express my innermost thoughts and feelings.
I don’t think I could have done it with any other instrument – the saw just happens to fit my character. And so I am writing children’s ghost stories that if turned into films, would totally benefit from a musical saw soundtrack. Somehow what I wish to say, and the sound of the saw, seem to match, and I’m not sure which lead to which.
I’ve seen you play many times in the subway and your presentation style is irresistible. By that I mean, it’s clear that you love what you are doing – you are always smiling and visually connecting the joy you’re feeling with your audience. What are some of your favorite audience reactions to hearing you play there?
Thank you for your kind words!
What happens often is people don’t believe the sound is really coming from the saw. They think I am singing, humming, or that the sound is recorded, and that I am just miming as if playing. I love saying to these people, “How much money do you bet that the sound is not coming from the saw?” I then proceed to show them how I play without any recording going on, and I play while talking to them so that they see that the sound of the saw is not coming from my mouth.
They often put their ear close to the blade to verify. Then they all have the urge to touch the blade for some reason. Of course, they lose their bet, but I don’t hold them to it :-).
One time I was playing at Union Square. A guy came up to me and said he had been on the platform below where he heard the sound my playing and thought he had died and was hearing angels singing. He had to follow the sound to find out if he was in Heaven!
I was playing at 59th Street when a really tall, somewhat scary looking guy was hanging around me. I was a little scared, thinking he might be plotting to steal my donation bucket. He approached me and kneeled in front of me by my bucket, but his hand did not reach for the bucket – instead he reached for my hand and kissed it. He then got up and boarded a train.
Some homeless people come to ask for their favorite song. The nice thing is that they always ask for something they heard me play before – never just a random song. One homeless man somehow always found me, no matter which station I played at. He would come, nod “hello” to me, sit on the floor a few feet away and drink a whole bottle of some hard liquor, which made him cry and laugh at the same time. He would always end by tossing the empty bottle to break it on the floor, and he would walk away, only to find me again the next day and repeat.
I have to say one of the most touching reactions was by a guy at 59th Street. One day I went into a coffee shop and a guy sitting there asked to tell me something. He said there was a time when he lost his job and things were so bad with him that he was going to kill himself.
He happened into the 59th Street subway when I was playing on the opposite platform from where he was. Listening to me play gave him hope and he did not kill himself. The man asked me for my e-mail address at that coffee place, and later his wife e-mailed me, to confirm his story and to thank me.
This is the amazing thing about playing in the subway: your sound travels and you don’t even know who is hearing it and how your sound weaves into the soundtrack of their daily life. To me, this is priceless.
Your name was a clue in a 2011 crossword puzzle in The Washington Post (“5 Down: Instrument played by Natalia Paruz”). You know you’ve made it when you show up in a crossword puzzle! How did you find out about it?
The way I usually find out about stuff like this -- a stranger in the subway tells me!
The funniest moment was when I was riding the N train – I wasn’t playing or anything, just riding the train. A guy standing by me was reading The New York Times. He kept looking at me and I thought that was weird. Finally, he said, “I think I’m reading about you!” and showed me the article. I am grateful to my local informants!
Photo by Rod Goodman