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Players gather in the Santa Cruz Mountains to make music from saws

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“More saw! More saw!” cries Morgan Cowin, the tall, white-haired president of the International Musical Saw Association, during one tune in which the instruments are being drowned out by a rowdy guitarist.

“More saw!” another player echoes.

The evening feels both awkward and affectionate, like a reunion of distant relatives. But there is a strange wonder to it, too, this group of musicians playing John Lennon and the Indigo Girls a few yards away from a green plastic Port-A-Potty. Beauty can emerge at the most improbable times and places, after all. The saw is a ready reminder of that.


Sawyers like to say their instrument is easy to learn, but difficult to master. Players grip the saw’s handle between their legs, teeth pointing toward them. They produce notes by gliding a violin bow across the flat side while bending the blade into an S curve. Though beginners can often coax out only a squeaky warble, in the hands of the best, the saw sounds like a melancholy flute.

Most players say they were immediately struck by the saw’s peculiar sound – which Mr. Cowin believes was discovered by factory workers and carpenters in the 1700s or 1800s, before being widely popularized during the 1920s and ’30s in vaudeville.

“I was like, ‘You can play a song on this thing?’ ” says Jodi Golden-White, the community college instructor from Seattle.

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