Scott Reiss: In the Pipes, He Found a Calling

By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 17, 2005

Anybody who heard Scott Reiss play the recorder was unlikely to forget it. He piped with fleet, exuberant abandon, spinning out complicated, rapid-fire melodies with such energy and humor that his audiences often burst into amazed, delighted laughter before they remembered to applaud.

A co-founder of both the Folger Consort (with whom he played from 1977 to 1998) and Hesperus, which he started with the woman who became his wife, violinist Tina Chancey, in 1979, Reiss was an elemental figure in Washington musical life for almost 30 years. He was an organizer, a proselytizer, an inspired, prolific teacher and -- always -- an exhilarating showman.

"The performing gestalt of both Hesperus and Folger is joyful and communicative," he said in 1989. "Time and again, audience members will tell us, 'It looks like you're having such a good time. You make us feel included in what you're doing.' "

But there was another side to Scott Reiss, and those who were closest to him were shocked and saddened but not especially surprised when he walked out into his Arlington garden Wednesday afternoon, sat down by the grave of a beloved cat, and ended his life with a gunshot.

"Scott was a victim of mental illness," Chancey said yesterday. "He suffered from bipolar disease -- manic depression -- for most of his life, and he finally gave in to it. He just couldn't fight it off any longer.

"He found much of his life very rewarding, but it was always a lot of work for him," she continued. "It was terribly difficult for him to stay balanced and productive. Considering all the pain that he was in, the fact that he was able to do as much as he did for so many years was a triumph that we should not underestimate."

Indeed, there were many triumphs for Scott Reiss over the course of his 54 years. In addition to the recorder, he taught himself such unusual instruments as the hammered dulcimer, the Irish pennywhistle and Arabic hand drums. He was as comfortable playing blues or Appalachian music as he was playing baroque concertos. He left many recordings, ranging from sacred music of the Renaissance to a selection of "bawdy songs" by the 18th-century poet Thomas D'Urfey. And he was a recognized scholar in his field, publishing articles in magazines such as Continuo, American Recorder and Early Music America. When he played, he transformed the recorder from what Chancey referred to as a "little tootly thing" into an instrument capable of remarkable nuance and variety.

"The recorder? A lot of people don't even know what it is," he reflected in a 1989 interview with The Post. "People ask, " 'Now, what is this recorder? You spinning discs? Are you a disc jockey?' And even when they know what it is, most people don't consider it a 'real' instrument. They think of those little plastic Yamaha recorders that you play for a year and a half in elementary school and that's it.

"It was completely absurd for me to assume that I could make a career as a recorder player," he continued. "But not long after I discovered the instrument -- at the age of 17 -- I decided that that was exactly what I was going to do."

During his years as a student at Antioch College in Ohio, Reiss met musicians Robert Eisenstein and Christopher Kendall. "I was playing my recorder under a tree," Reiss remembered, "and this guy came up to me and said, 'Hey, I've got one of those.' So Bob and I got together to play some duets, and eventually we created and ran the collegium [early-music ensemble] at Antioch. Then I met Chris when I heard him practicing guitar in the hallway of my dormitory." After graduation, at Kendall's invitation, the three friends reassembled to audition for the Folger Shakespeare Library in January 1977 and gave their first concert that fall as its ensemble-in-residence.

Reached yesterday at the University of Michigan, where he serves as the dean of the college of music, Kendall recalled Reiss as "one of the finest recorder players in the world. He had a sort of restless creativity that was distinctive and unbounded."

The Folger Consort placed an emphasis on baroque and pre-baroque music. Hesperus was more wide-ranging, one of the few so-called crossover groups to do honor to the concept, and might combine gospel and Cajun music with medieval and Renaissance stylings.

Earlier this year, Reiss was on a musical tour to China -- at one point playing on the Great Wall. "While he was over there," Chancey said, "he heard this Chinese boy play saxophone. And Scott asked him if he'd ever heard of Charlie Parker. And the boy said no. And Scott got so excited -- 'Oh, you must hear Charlie Parker. I'll send you some recordings.' "

Recently, Reiss had become deeply interested in stand-up comedy. "He could channel Robin Williams," Chancey said. "When he learned that Richard Pryor had died, he spent half the day crying and the rest of the day writing a poem, 'Goodbye to Richard.' And later, when I read it, I realized that he was also writing 'Goodbye to Scott.' "

"We all live the same length of time, exactly one lifetime," he wrote.

Reiss also quoted Bob Dylan, Lao Tzu ("Search your heart and see the way to do is to be") and Pryor himself: "You don' know when you come into this world, and you sure don' know when you gonna leave. So while y'all here, you gotta have some fun. And a lot of it!"

"Thank you, Richard," the poem concluded. "Good night, and good luck."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company