THE SINGING SAW SHADOW SHOW with GRAND CAROUSEL and the GLASS ORCHESTRA as part of a fundraiser for the Music Gallery (197 John), Sunday (December 18), 7 pm. $20, stu/underwaged $10. www.musicgallery.org
If you see young people carrying saws, they might not be woodworkers. They could be members of oddball Toronto orchestra the Singing Saw Shadow Show.
The charmingly fantastical Saws began as the vision of James Anderson in early 2003. "I first heard saw sounds on a Paul Lovens recording, and then I saw a picture of Marlene Dietrich playing one," he says. "The group-saw music inspiration came from a multi-track recording of singing saws by the Music Tapes, and I thought it would be very nice for people to experience that sound live not one saw, but several together."
Because few local musicians were using musical saws, Anderson taught himself to play, then instructed his recruits.
"I offered to teach anyone how to play the singing saw if they would join this yet-to-exist group," Anderson says. "I asked people I knew and didn't know, sent out letters, passed notes around. Word travels fast in these small towns."
With Anderson's early open-door policy, people came together organically. Some, like Ian Russell, just happened upon the embryonic symphony. "I was lucky enough to be eating lunch in Christie Pits with a friend when I heard this weird noise. In the gazebo, six or seven creeps were playing saws," Russell recalls. "I told them it sounded good, and could I listen, and then James invited me to join them. He lent me a bow on the spot, and I bought a saw at the hardware store the next day."
But the early Saws found it hard to make plain old hardware-store tools sing.
"The main difficulties in learning the saw were training our ears to play in tune and developing the muscles to physically play," explains Shahin Etemadzadeh. "When we first started, we all had hardware-store saws that were short and stiff and hard to bend. After a while, we all had Lou Ferrigno arms. Now that we all have long, floppy saws, our arms have deflated to their normal Vin Diesel size."
Russell says finding proper musical saws has meant a big improvement in their sound. "There's a greater range you can get the lower notes, and it reverberates for longer," he says.
"I pity my poor hardware saw that will sing no more," laments Shayna Stevenson.
For several months, the early Singing Saws presented their warbly compositions to rapt audiences. Then Anderson developed the visual angle that would make every Saws show a whimsical surprise.
Elisha Lim joined to work on the shadows and lights. "James and I invent mesmerizing visuals with overhead projectors, arts and crafts, and throughout the show we build a huge, colourful visual landscape."
The shadow show has evolved from a backlit sheet with dancing shadow puppets to a 15-foot-tall carousel lit from the inside, rotating as the music plays, casting shadows on the animal masks the saw players wear.
The carousel was revealed last month at a clandestine show in the ruins of the Don Valley Brick Works. The spooky sights and sounds of the Saws' shows are perfect for unusual venues like the grain silo at Guelph's Track & Field Festival or an alley downtown.
"I think each show is a great chance to do something exciting and new. We constantly change for the space we perform in and the people we perform for."
This sense of mischief and prodigious creativity leads to some memorably thrilling spectacles.
"We try only to play shows that are exciting," Russell says. "Seeing a band in a bar is boring."
The only sad thing about their elaborate performances is that they themselves don't get to witness any of it. "The shadow show only benefits the audience. I've never seen the shadows during the performance, because our backs are to the screen," Anderson says.
But they're having fun anyway. "We like puns," Stevenson says. "When we first started out, I think all our song titles involved a pun with the word "saw' in it."
Russell has ambitions for the Saws. "We're looking forward to 2006 being the year we get some serious top-40 radio play. I think if we can get in touch with Pharrell Williams or some other big-shit producer, it's in the bag."