Musician Scott Reiss, Master of the Recorder, Dies

By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 18, 2005

Scott Reiss, 54, a world-renowned virtuoso on the recorder and a champion of early music and folk music from several traditions, died Dec. 14 at his home in Arlington from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. He had bipolar disorder.

Mr. Reiss (pronounced RICE) was a founding member in 1977 of the Folger Consort, an ensemble that plays early classical music at the Folger Shakespeare Library and across the nation. In 1979, he and his wife, Tina Chancey, formed Hesperus, a group that performs a blend of early music and American folk music from a variety of sources. It was one of the first groups in the country to find similarities between the two streams of music and to merge them in a systematic way.

"Scott's big focus was bringing the past alive," Chancey said. "He wanted to merge early music with the modern tradition, so he chose American folk music."

Mr. Reiss, who first played the clarinet, discovered the recorder -- a flutelike instrument played vertically -- in high school. Except for three lessons in his youth, he was almost entirely self-taught.

"It's such a simple instrument, that is to say a very simply constructed thing," he told The Washington Post in 1989. "Yet it's not easy to play."

By his mid-twenties, he was one of the world's foremost performers on the instrument. A 1989 article in The Washington Post said he was one of only two full-time professional recorder artists in the country.

With his red hair and beard and animated performing style, Mr. Reiss was considered a dynamic and virtuoso musician. Reviews over the past 28 years repeatedly described his performances as "phenomenal," "brilliant," "remarkable" and "mind-boggling." He appeared on dozens of recordings of medieval, Renaissance and baroque music, as well as Celtic, Spanish, Native American and other musical styles.

In addition to several kinds of recorders, Mr. Reiss played the Irish penny whistle, hammered dulcimer and Arabic drums. He often appeared with performers from other traditions, including Scottish and Irish fiddlers, blues guitarists and Ecuadorean and Sephardic Jewish musicians.

Mr. Reiss was born in Coopersburg, Pa., and knew from an early age that he would become a musician. He was an all-state clarinetist in high school, when he fell under the spell of the recorder and early music.

At Antioch College in Ohio, he was playing his recorder under a tree when another musician, Bob Eisenstein, struck up a conversation. They began to perform Renaissance music with a fellow Antioch student, Christopher Kendall, who went on to found the Folger Consort.

After graduating from Antioch, Mr. Reiss studied at the New England Conservatory of Music and the University of Maryland.

He performed with the Folger group from 1977 to 1998 and periodically since then. With Hesperus, he toured from Brunei to Indonesia to Singapore in a concert program sponsored by the U.S. Information Agency. He also performed in Germany, Bolivia, Panama and, this year, China. In this country, he appeared at the Kennedy Center, Lincoln Center in New York and in Los Angeles.

In 1983, he founded an annual workshop with Mike Seeger called Sound Catcher, which trains musicians to play music by ear, rather than from written scores. He had private students and taught at the University of Maryland.

In 1997, Mr. Reiss helped the Secret Service and Takoma Park police uncover a ring of thieves operating among baggage handlers at Dulles International Airport. When two men offered to sell a case of recorders to the House of Musical Traditions in Takoma Park, the store proprietors called Mr. Reiss.

Recognizing the professional quality of the instruments, he called the manufacturer and learned that they belonged to the Flanders Recorder Quartet, which had traveled through Dulles. When the thieves returned to the store to collect their money, they were arrested. At a later concert in Washington, the Flanders quartet invited Mr. Reiss onstage in thanks.

In addition to his wife of 25 years, of Arlington, survivors include his parents, Gordon and Jeanne Reiss of Coopersburg; and a sister.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company