“You know how to play that thing?” asks an elderly hardware-store employee in a blue apron. Bianca Lara has taken a brand-new carpenter’s saw from a display, propped the handle against her leg, and is gently bending the blade into a lazy curve. She makes a fist and raps up and down the spine of the blade with a knuckle, producing wobbly sci-fi sounds that draw a small crowd. “That saw must be made outta some kind of good steel,” says a bystander.
“I’m on a mission to become San Diego’s finest musical sawist.” It is a word of Bianca Lara’s making, sawist. A petite 30-ish singer in the Gypsy-jazz tradition based in Oceanside, Lara performs at the Mediterranean Café in Carlsbad on Friday nights. “Guitarist, pianist, why not sawist?” But the playing of a musical saw is not a perfect art, and it takes a good deal of time before one is able to achieve pitch. Lara’s been practicing three hours a night since spring, she says.
It is not known who was the first to unlock the music within a carpenter’s saw by applying a fiddle bow to it, but academics believe it happened sometime around 300 years ago, in the rural Appalachian Mountains. Others claim the musical saw came from Russia, or even South America. Lara’s vision was to play saw in her Gypsy-jazz band in place of a violin, but that ended when she learned of the musical saw’s slow reflexes.
“What I didn’t know is that the saw can’t be played quickly. Gypsy jazz is really fast music.”
The first time she sawed at a public gig, she accidentally cut through her fishnet stockings. Less dangerous, perhaps, are the saws made specifically for music. Most (though not all) have no teeth. They date back to 1919 when a Wisconsin enthusiast named Clarence Mussehl began manufacturing toothless musical saws capable of rendering as many as 20 notes. During his best year in business, Mussehl sold 25,000 of them. Musical saws are made with thinner steel that is easier to bend, says Lara, and bending is what makes the notes. “Basically, what happens is you’re trying to make an S curve with the saw blade so the saw can sing.” She demonstrates. To change the pitch of the note, she increases or reduces the amount of flexion.
“People are amazed when they hear it. It probably doesn’t matter whether I play it well or not. Most people have never seen or heard a saw player.”