The Indescribable Beauty of the Saw: An Interview with Composer David Coulter

By Michael Paller

If you remember the didgeridoo, the ukulele, or the banjo playing from The Black Rider: Casting of the Magic Bullets at A.C.T. in 2004, you have heard the work of David Coulter. This British-born, Oakland-based musician specializes in unusual instruments whose sound is rarely heard by contemporary audiences—among his specialties are the jaw harp, the theremin, and the musical saw. During workshops for A Thousand Splendid Suns, we spoke with Coulter to learn more about sound art, saws, and the score for Suns.

Composer David Coulter in a rehearsal for A Thousand Splendid Suns.
Photo by Thomas Moore.
What is it about the sound of the saw that attracts you?
When played well it is capable of indescribable beauty. It contains passion and tenderness. The opposite extremes are also possible: it can be used to create horrific and excruciatingly ugly sounds. For a carpenter’s hand tool, it is capable of producing a vast and wide array of sonic possibilities.

What kind of saw do you use, a woodcutting one or a musical one?
All my saws are essentially produced with the intention of being used musically. I often play readymades—regular woodworking saws as found in a store—but for precision and the concert stage and recording studio, I nearly always use a saw made by a company called Mussehl and Westphal, based in East Troy, Wisconsin.

What other instruments do you play in A Thousand Splendid Suns?
I designed a thunder sheet made of sheet steel which I play with a variety of mallets, sticks, beaters, and bows. It is 48 inches by 24 inches and suspended from a frame, like a giant steel blade. It’s a bit like an enormous saw.

What sorts of discoveries did you make during the workshop process?
Working with [director] Carey Perloff, the biggest discovery is that you should never assume that what you thought was going to work will work. Be prepared for change. Be prepared for incongruous and unusual juxtapositions. I like to be surprised when I work; I also like to provide elements of surprise and wonder in my playing. Carey is extremely open to my sound world and has encouraged me to push it to the edges. I am excited to see how the music develops as we run the piece, and especially how I will evolve it when I am playing it eight times a week.

How will the music function in the play?
The music will hopefully function as a means to enhance the audience’s experience. Khaled Hosseini’s novel and Ursula Rani Sarma’s script are extremely powerful and, at times, simultaneously beautiful and brutal. I simply try to find a sound that corresponds with a feeling or a mood. That is one of the reasons I love music so much as a medium. It is capable of so many nuances, colors, and meanings.

A Thousand Splendid Suns begins February 1 at The Geary Theater. Click here to purchase tickets through our website. Want to learn more about David Coulter's process and the creation of A Thousand Splendid Suns? Click here to purchase Words on Plays, A.C.T.'s in-depth performance guide series.

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