Julian Koster: The Singing Saw at Christmastime

JulianKoster_TheSingingSawsAtChristmastimeHave yourself an ethereal Christmas

The singing saw (or as it’s commonly known, the musical saw) is thought to date back to the late 1800s, though it really came into its own in the first few decades of the twentieth century. Early saw players used standard issue hand saws, but over the years specialized compounds, thinner steel and varying lengths were used to produce a saw that excelled at producing music in lieu of cutting wood. The saw is played with its handle between the player’s legs and the blade bent into an ‘S’. The sawyer bows the flat middle part of the ‘S’ to produce an ethereal vibration whose harmonics and sustain can make a single saw sound like several. For those who’ve never heard a singing saw, close relations in sound are the Theramin, an electronic instrument that’s been featured in many films (Spellbound, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Ed Wood), and the electro-theremin, most famously used on the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations.”

Like these electronic instruments, the musical saw produces an other-worldly sound whose pitch is wavery and laden with overtones. Julian Koster, whose saw graced the works of Neutral Milk Hotel, has sharpened his axe, uh, saw, on a dozen Christmas and wintertime classics. Koster performs these as instrumentals, allowing the saws to sing on their own. The result is an unearthly tonal chorus that’s simultaneously beautiful and unnerving. Jolly holiday favorites “Frosty the Snowman,” “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” and “Jingle Bells” can’t quite dash along, given the slow speed with which one can change notes on a saw. The more somber tunes are stretched and thickened with tonal ambience. This isn’t the rocking good cheer of A Christmas Gift For You from Phil Spector, and it won’t inspire the dance moves of a Jackson 5 Christmas, but it will add unusual and thoughtful moments to your Christmas mix. It’s also the perfect album to play when the eggnog is all gone. [©2009 hyperbolium dot com]

MP3 | Jingle Bells

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2 Responses to “Julian Koster: The Singing Saw at Christmastime”

  1. Michelle says:

    I like ‘Hark! an Angel Sings’ – a musical saw Christmas CD I bought after seeing a musician in the NYC subway: http://www.sawlady.com/mycds.htm

  2. hyperbolium says:

    Thanks for the pointer – now we’ll have to make a subsection of our Christmas CDs!

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