The musical saw is not an easy instrument to play, much less master, but virtuoso Chang Chung-te (張宗德) is known as the pioneer of the instrument in Taiwan.
The nonagenarian Chang continues to perform publicly, and has in recent years been invited to perform in China. He also still makes his instruments by hand, as he has done for decades.
He has been honored with the nation’s Heritage Award and is recognized as a “national treasure” of the musical saw.
“When playing the musical saw, the sound has a calming and soothing effect on the body and mind. It is the secret to a healthy long life,” Chang said about his lifelong passion.
In his younger days, Chang conducted his own research into the making of musical saws. It took six years of trial and error, refining the parts and fixing the pitches, to produce a quality-sound saw. As his reputation spread, he was hired to perform at bars and nightclubs.
Chang worked with two record companies, producing four albums, starting in the 1960s.
As the blade is bent into a curve and played with a bow, the saw produces an ethereal tone, which some people have likened to the music of the spiritual realm or the underworld, leading Chang to title one album The Sound of the Devil Saw (魔鋸之音). It became his most famous recording.
Chang’s family, with nine children, has become the nation’s “First Family of the Musical Saw.” His seven sons learned to play the saw as well as other instruments.
His youngest son, Chang Ko-mo (張克模), now 50, is a professional musician who plays the piano, electric keyboard and the saw. The sixth son, Chang Ko-wei (張克為) plays the saw and the saxophone. They and their father are often invited to perform as a trio.
Chang Ko-mo said the musical saw is a smooth steel blade and is considered one of the most difficult instruments to learn to play because one hand has to bend the blade to produce the different pitches and tones.
It takes about one week to make a musical saw, from cutting and trimming the main parts, forging and tooling, to shaping the saw, Chang Chung-te said. Then comes the time-consuming process of grinding and adjusting the saw to produce the right sound, which can take several months, he said.
“For 60 years, I have never stopped making improvements and finding ways to enhance the quality and design of my musical saws,” he said.
Now 90, Chang Chung-te appears decades younger. Many people are surprised that he not only continues to perform, but still makes his saws by hand.
“The musical saw and its music are the treasures to guard against aging. When I feel down, I play the saw to lift me up and make me happy,” Chang Chung-te said. “It’s like clothes when they get creased and wrinkled — we use a hot iron to smooth them out. So it is the same with the sound of the musical saw: It can smooth out the wrinkles from our life.”