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Home: The Toast

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I looked up from busking to see a school bus full of kindergartners, their noses and chubby fingers pressed hard against the glass. I knew what they were looking at. I stopped playing, raised my bow, and pointed it at them. I did not smile. They screamed, piercing little screams that I could hear from the street, and the light turned green, and the bus pulled away. A couple in matching peacoats put a dollar in my hat. “Very spooky,” they said.

People get a kick out of a musical saw, especially on Halloween and especially when the sawyer is in full skeleton makeup. If there’s one thing I always strive for, it’s to make people look at me twice, either by making them laugh or making them scream. Or both.

And am I born to die?
To lay this body down?
And must my trembling spirit fall into a world unknown?

I open all my lectures and presentations with the question everybody asks me: Why did I pick up the musical saw, an aural oddity? I don’t know for certain. Much like the origins of the musical saw itself, my draw to it is murky and primal. I cannot explain what about it is about its spectral sound that compelled me, but in recordings of my own playing I can hear the echo of that element.

Does everybody hear it in the sound of the saw? That pull towards the blade, that glimpse into a second, veiled world where we feel things instead of saying them? Where we understand and hurt more deeply, but are left confused, perturbed, and unresolved?

There is a second part to the question some people ask me, often left unspoken: Why did I pick up the musical saw, an aural oddity, when I’d had a promising start as a classical pianist? They think I dropped the ivories for a carpentry tool, that I traded Dvorak for Doc Watson, but the trade was really this: a creeping darkness of the soul and idle hands exchanged for what has been my most genuine of musical encounters, a toothy blade tamed and bent to make a pure and high melody.

First, music set me aflame. Then it threatened to burn me alive. Now, it only rumbles.

In the music program of a small, private liberal arts college on the West coast, I studied as a prospective piano performance major. In high school, I had cultivated an obsessive love for Chopin, my stand-in boyfriend. It became clear within the first two quarters of college that my former piano teachers, though kind people who instilled in me a love for music, had not been rigorous enough to ensure that I had, among other things, the music theory background necessary to pass my theory classes. My peers had taken lessons at well-known colleges when they were middle-schoolers. They had an expert understanding of counterpoint and the devil’s interval. They talked about jazz theory in their spare time. They were brilliant, but immature; they made beautiful music, then immediately counteracted it by saying something so ugly it shocked me.

Music school is always competitive, but in the early undergraduate years it is brutal. Every person has something to prove. I practiced and auditioned and listened and studied. I did my homework in other classes while feeling vaguely guilty for not spending more time in a practice room. I spent each day with my heart in my stomach or my throat, wondering what I would do wrong that day. I was so behind in theory, I didn’t even realize I needed a tutor.

One day, my adviser, who was also my music theory professor, sat me down for a talk. “To be honest, you have not passed a single theory quiz on the first or even the third try.”

I looked past him, out the window, across the quad to a building covered in ten shades of green ivy.

“I don’t know if this is the best place for you,” he said.

Oh. Well. “Can I still take piano lessons?” I asked.

“Of course,” he replied, probably relieved that I wasn’t making a fuss. “You just have to register after the real music students.”

I took piano lessons for six more months. I sang in the Chorale for another year. Then I stopped. My fingers were eaten to the bone with bitterness. Each note I played struck a nerve.

I never told anyone about the conversation with my advisor. Instead I said I had circulation problems that made it physically difficult to play, that I didn’t like the atmosphere of music school, that I wanted to study art history instead. All of that was true, but the real moment I gave up was when my gentle, humorous, brilliant music theory professor said, I don’t think this is the place for you. He was saying what I was thinking and couldn’t accept: it wasn’t the place for me at all.

A land of deepest shade,
Unpierced by human thought,
The dreary regions of the dead
Where all things are forgot.

I wouldn’t realize for another four years that a musician’s place is only occasionally in a music school. They gave me a Bachelor’s degree in art history, and nobody ever said a word to me about why I left. After I got my Bachelor’s, I moved to Seattle, worked in the library at the University of Washington, and started an MLIS. My first quarter there, I lived about forty-five minutes north by bus. My bus rides home were through residential neighborhoods. They were crowded, at first, but I lived so far north that I always got a window seat eventually. I would press against the glass window of the bus and watch families taking walks. I watched kids play in sprinklers; then I watched them crunch through leaves; then the skies were too dark and rainy and I couldn’t see them at all.

Soon as from earth I go,
What will become of me?
Eternal happiness or woe
Must then my fortune be.

YouTube searches reveal the musical saw to be a bit of a novelty act, but I took it up because I thought the sound it made was ethereal and a little inhuman. I wanted to own that sound, produce it with my very own body. I missed playing the piano, too. I was tired of coming home from school and hiding in my room, drinking tea and watching Netflix. One day I watched the movie Delicatessen, and I ordered a crosscut saw from Amazon and a children’s violin bow.

I lived in a dark room behind a yoga studio, and as winter approached, I learned to draw from the dull steel a sound that filled me with gleeful dread and terror. While there are musical saws specifically manufactured for playing music, they are not standardized in any way, so bowing on the same spot on two different saws will produce two radically different sounds. Not to mention the fact that the original music saw was an actual saw: untempered, sharp-toothed and shrill.

There were no rules. There was no music to read. There were recommended techniques, which I was grateful for, but each saw is like a human voice. It is unique in tone and timbre, and nobody can cultivate its sound with greater love than its owner.

It is important, among saw players, that you teach yourself, which is why nobody gives lessons.

I think people who leave other spheres of the performing arts to play the musical saw often are in need of reconciliation of some kind — with music, or with their identities as performers or musicians or dancers. The sawyer Natalia Paruz began playing the saw after an accident left her unable to dance. June Weaver, the first female saw player, traded her fiddle for a saw after seeing that her brothers’ saw playing was what was going to put their act on the silver screen. She hadn’t tried before because her brothers played by sitting on the saw and letting it stick out in front of them while they struck it with a mallet, and her skirts didn’t allow for this. But she knew the only way to remain part of the band was to play that saw, so she turned it upright and played the way we see it played today. Weaver is also credited as the first person to play it with a bow instead of a soft mallet, and although she was a terrific fiddler, the saw inspired her commitment and creativity in the same way it does mine.

Saw players are folksy, friendly, enthusiastic personalities when they discuss their saws, but they all have a streak of melancholy running through them. They will play ou every song they know on the saw, but push for more — about the saw’s history or theirs — and you won’t get more than a wink and a nod. Saw players don’t give lessons because that time you spend alone, tinkering, trying anything you can think of to make a sound, is how you earn your chops. And that sound you produce, when it finally sounds like a high, lonesome melody, and you can finally hear it? That’s something that only works if you did it yourself. It’s a moment you earn by yourself, and only you should feel the curling delight and triumph when you recognize your sound in the saw. 

The first “song” I ever played on the saw was Jingle Bells. I was alone in my room, but I immediately called my mom and played it through the phone to her. God bless my mother. She was very nice about being woken up one night in early December to hear the unearthly squeaking. 

The next song I played — and this one I saved for myself; did not play for anyone until April — was Idumea. Idumea, the song, is a Sacred Harp choral piece, originally inscribed in shape note form, a church hymn. Idumea, the place, was a city in the Negev region. Its inhabitants are, biblically speaking, descendants of Esau, Esau, the cheated son. The lyrics are about wandering lost. They are about lamenting the lonely afterlife. The singers presume they are bound for that cold loneliness themselves. Idumea reaches across the veil between this world and the next, simultaneously fearing and embracing death. The saw’s inhuman noise and its glittering teeth rip open the veil, too, revealing a sound and a feeling that disturbs and gratifies us.

Finally, finally, I was making music that perfectly matched my macabre passion, and I had learned it myself. The saw was my reconciliation and my return. The saw is what saved me.

Waked by the trumpet sound,
I from my grave shall rise
And see the judge with glory crowned,
And see the flaming skies.

By April, I was ready to busk, and that summer, I busked all over town. I played in bus terminals and farmer’s markets, only occasionally getting kicked out for being too loud. I played for old men whose fathers had played the saw at Christmas, for an engineer visiting from Egypt who offered me a peach, for commuters bound for those dark rainy views I had seen from my bus one year prior.

When I play my saw, sometimes I try to catch people’s eyes, get them to smile. But sometimes I just ignore them, and I keep my eyes on the ground ahead of me. I dress up a little when I play, and yes, on Halloween, I play dressed as a skeleton, but I never feel as though I’m acting. I’m a performer, but I’m not performing. My heart is in my chest where it belongs. I am unquestionably, undoubtedly, myself. I am the saw player, and the saw is me.

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Emily Bolton is a native Pacific Northwesterner who holds a Master's in Library and Information Science. She likes unnatural lipstick and strong tea.

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