Suppose you’re sitting in Disneyland’s Carnation Plaza Gardens on Sunday morning, quietly enjoying a root beer float, when you notice a group of 50-plus people heading toward the stage, each brandishing a sharp, glinting metal saw.
A) Yell for security to prevent the imminent wanton destruction;
B) Grab your video minicam and get Channel 2 news on the phone, or
C) Relax and enjoy the music?
While all of the above might be appropriate, the preferred answer this time is “C.” This “massing of the saws,” the traditional climax of musical-saw convocations, will mark the end of Disneyland’s 1991 International Musical Saw Festival, which is this weekend.
“It’s wonderful,” said David Weiss, a top saw player and judge at today’s competition. The musical saw “exudes certain sounds that you just can’t get on any other instrument. Of course, it’s limited in so many ways. It’ll never replace the violin; no one should worry.” Weiss ought to know. When he isn’t playing Bach on his Stanley Handyman, he pays the bills as principal oboist of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
The event is part of the park’s ongoing Magic Music Days, a project that has brought nearly 800 guest performing groups to the Magic Kingdom this year alone, from clogging groups to marching bands. The big saw-off begins today at 10:30 a.m. at the Disneyland Hotel. Players will compete in five categories: pop, classical, jazz, gospel and novelty. Top prizes are genuine Sandvik Stradivarius saws. Made especially for musical purposes, these saws have duller teeth but produce a richer tone than regular handsaws. Many serious sawyers play both types.
To operate the musical saw, a player holds the tool blade up between the knees and draws a violin bow across the dull edge, causing the blade to vibrate. Pitch is varied by bending the blade. This technique produces surprisingly beautiful tones that have found use both as whimsical sound effects and in serious symphonies. Skillfully played, a standard hardware store saw generates a clear, resonant whistle with a startling range of highs and lows. Fifty of them playing in unison is like nothing you’ve ever heard--unless, that is, you attended the first International Musical Saw Festival at Disneyland in 1989.
The large-scale festival was originally suggested by Jim (Supersaw) Leonard of Santa Ana, who had performed solo at Disneyland. Leonard, author of “Scratch My Back: A Pictorial History of the Musical Saw and How to Play It,” is a veteran judge of saw competitions.
Asked what he looks for in a musical-saw performance, Leonard cited the ability to stay on pitch, good vibrato (which the saw player achieves by wiggling one knee up and down), and an ability to minimize the buzzing noise of the bow hairs against the saw’s edge. Judges also take into consideration the difficulty of the piece and the performer’s overall stage manner, Leonard said.
This year, there will be an open-mike session for non-competing saw players, as well as saw workshops for beginners and advanced instrumentalists. Today’s events will culminate in an awards banquet for all participants and their guests.
Then at 11 a.m. on Sunday at Carnation Plaza, in the heart of the Magic Kingdom, Weiss and his fellow master sawyers--some of the best in the world--will give an hourlong concert with Mickey Mouse in attendance. All of the participants will then assemble to jam on some classic Disney tunes.
The approximately 50 saw players scheduled to participate hail either from nearby, like Leonard, or from as far away as New Zealand, Wales and Puerto Rico. Henry Dagg, another judge and master saw man, is a former BBC sound engineer from Belfast, Northern Ireland. These days Dagg, 35, spends most of his time composing, but he is one of the very few earning the bulk of his income from saw playing. He sometimes spends seven or eight hours at a time at street performing.
Weiss, on the other hand, played a piece commissioned for saw and orchestra with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl a few years ago. He even once played at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall. Weiss has also performed on “The Tonight Show,” on Garrison Keillor’s “Prairie Home Companion” and aboard the Queen Elizabeth II (where he called his act--what else--Sea Saw). He and Leonard have released their own saw recordings: “Virtuoso Saw” and “Supersaw,” respectively.
What keeps Weiss, a hard-working oboist, enthusiastic about the musical saw is the lovely, lyrical quality of the saw combined with the sheer novelty of it.
“It’s a joy to make music on something that is not intended for that purpose,” he said. “It’s the surprise element--the visual element. No one expects any kind of music, let alone expressive music, to come out of a saw blade.”
The 1991 International Saw Festival will culminate with a concert Sunday at 11 a.m. at the Carnation Plaza Gardens, Disneyland, 1313 N. Harbor Blvd., Anaheim. Tickets: included with park admission, $22.50 to $27.50. Information: (714) 999-4565.