In Memoriam
     
James Preiss
1941- 2014

November 3, 2013

To all members of Steve Reich and Musicians,

Its been a long time. I've spoken and seen a few of you at gigs of one sort or another - or visiting Jim. - First thing is that Jim is very ill as most of you know. He said, over a year ago, it was COPD. I don't even know exactly what that is, but he definitely complained about difficulty breathing. He moved into an assisted living apt building in Flushing, Queens, NYC. He was afraid he might be alone and fall in his home and no one would help him. I saw him several times there and he walked very slowly and felt he couldn't play the marimba any more. Then apparently he did fall, hurt his head and no one in the building staff found him until after a day. He was taken first to Flushing Hospital and a number of us saw him there in the ICU and then later in a regular room. He was barely conscious and it was hard to tell if he could recognize us or not. He couldn't speak. Then he was moved to a nursing home, Long Island Care Center not far away in Flushing and I saw him there last week. He has a traych in his throat to breathe and he seems to recognize me and, as Garry and Liz had done, I played some of Drumming & '18' on my iPhone right near his ear and he seemed to listen intently and want to speak but the traych made that impossible and so he tried to mouth some words but I couldn't read his lips. I asked a doctor there if he expected Jim to regain his ability to speak and he said he really didn't know but that Jim had been 'compromised' (I guess by the COPD and the fall) before he got there so he was not too hopeful. I guess his most honest response was 'I don't know'. For all of us it would seem prayers or whatever form your good wishes take is the next best thing we can do, the best being, go visit him.

I should also inform those of you who don't know, that Mort Silver passed away a few years ago from cancer. He was the first member of our ensemble to go.

As ever,
Steve

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I don't have a bio for Jim, but this is what I know from conversations with him.

Jim studied percussion at the Eastman School of Music with William Street. Jim told me that Mr. Street was not a didactic teacher, but taught through example, emphasizing sound production and musicianship. Jim was an experienced mallet player when he arrived at Eastman and Mr. Street encouraged him to hone those skills while teaching Jim "to play from the heart." Upon graduation from Eastman, Jim joined the United States Marine Band as timpanist and xylophone soloist. After his discharge from the band, Jim moved to New York City and entered the master's degree program at the Manhattan School of Music where Paul Price was the head of the percussion department. While a student there, Jim began a series of lessons outside the school with Fred D.Hinger, who at that time was timpanist in the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. Jim says these lessons transformed his concept of playing. Mr. Hinger's ideas about touch and stroke influenced Jim to develop his graceful style of playing with full tone and picture perfect upstrokes.

After receiving his degree from the Manhattan School, Jim joined the faculty there as one of the percussion teachers. When Steve Reich called Paul Price in early summer of 1971 to ask about percussionists who might be interested in attending rehearsals for Drumming, Mr. Price recommended Jim. At that time, I was the only schooled percussionist in the ensemble other than Steve Reich himself. So Jim and I became the first two core percussionists in Steve Reich and Musicians. Jim and I played in the premieres of Drumming in December of that year beginning a musical association and personal friendship with Steve and the other musicians in the ensemble that has continued throughout our lives.

Jim brought many of his percussion students into Steve Reich and Musicians over the years, including Gary Schall, Glen Velez, Thad Wheeler, Bill Ruyle, Kory Grossman, Richard Schwarz, and Bill Trigg. Jim and I are responsible for bringing to Steve's attention the possibility that Piano Phase could be played on two marimbas. At a break in a rehearsal one day, Jim and I began noodling around with the Piano Phase patterns on a couple of marimbas, realized we could play the piece, and thought it sounded good on marimbas. We played it for Steve who liked our version, and now it is standard repertoire for percussionists around the world. Jim formed the Manhattan Marimba Quartet with his students, Bill Trigg, Bill Ruyle, and Kory Grossman. It was Jim's suggestion to Steve that Six Pianos could be played on six marimbas, thus creating another great work for percussion.

Jim was always a great marimba player, and in 2007 recorded three of the unaccompanied J. S. Bach cello suites on BMP Records. In the liner notes for the CD, Jim says, 

"My deep and abiding interest in the music of J. S. Bach began during my undergraduate days at the Eastman School of Music when my teacher, William Street, encouraged me to go to the Sibley Music Library to find suitable materials for practicing to help develop my reading skills on marimba and the other keyboard percussion instruments. My idea was to start with the first book on the shelf and see how far I could get. The first category turned out to be "Music for Violin Solo Unaccompanied" shelved alphabetically. There weren't many volumes under "A" and soon I began the B's. BACH turned up very quickly and I observed that there were many volumes of a work entitled "Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin." I checked out one of these editions, took it up to my practice studio, and began playing the first page, the Adagio from the G Minor Sonata. I was amazed. I had never heard music quite like this before. I soon abandoned my (shelf-) reading project in order to devote more time to these remarkable masterpieces. I also became aware of the collection of suites for Solo Cello, and these two volumes have been my constant musical companions ever since."

Jim played with many groups and orchestras in New York City. He was principal percussionist of the Brooklyn Philharmonic, the American Composers Orchestra, the Westchester Philharmonic, and the Riverside Symphony. He performed regularly with the Orchestra of St. Luke's and the American Symphony Orchestra, and was a founding member of the Parnassus Contemporary Chamber Ensemble. He taught at the Manhattan School of Music and later the Mannes College of Music.

 Whatever music Jim played was done with the highest standard of performance and musical integrity. 

Russell Hartenberger - January 2014
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Slipped Disc
Norman Lebrecht on shifting sound worlds

Steve Reich’s percussionist, RIP
January 23, 2014 by Norman Lebrecht

We’ve been notified of the death of James Preiss, who worked with the composer all the way back to the premiere of Drumming.

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Hi Steve and Garry,

I just returned from NYC to attend Jim's funeral. It was a simple service in keeping with Jim's approach to many things. The church was not much more than a two-room store front on Roosevelt Avenue in Queens with an elevated subway track running overhead. One of the rooms was a small chapel where the service was held. The pastor was a young man who said Jim had attended that church for about 5 or 6 years. He said Jim often brought timpani and other percussion instruments to play at the church.

Several musicians from the ensemble were there: Liz Lim, Gary Schall, Frank Cassara, Ed Niemann, Dave Van Tieghem, and Todd Reynolds. Unfortunately, Nurit came down with the flu last night and was unable to attend.  It's a shame since she seemed to be the one who tended to Jim the most in his last weeks.
Other percussionists from New York were there and I was told that many other percussionists came to the wake yesterday. Jim's sons, Chris and Jeff were there, of course, as were his two brothers from Minnesota. The two brothers looked a lot like Jim and had many of Jim's mannerisms.  It was kind of surreal to see them. One of them even dressed like Jim did. When I went over to talk with him he was sitting on a couch eating cheerios out of a big plastic bag.

Jim's coffin was open at first, then closed for the service. It was draped with a U. S. flag in honor of his military service. I'm not sure how they arranged to get the flag, but it was just like the kind you see on the coffins of servicemen who have been killed in battle and buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

The service was simple with some bible verses, a couple of hymns, and a short talk by the pastor. He mentioned the three things Jim loved in life:
religion, music, and food. We then caravanned to the cemetery in Kew Gardens for the internment. The pastor read some more bible verses, then the flag was folded, military style and handed to Chris and Jeff. Jim's gravesite is a pleasant spot under a large tree in a relatively quiet part of the cemetery. The weather was very cold and there was a lot of snow on the ground, so we didn't stay very long at the gravesite.

After the internment we drove back to the church for a light lunch and some conversation. It was great to see the folks from the ensemble. We're all looking forward to playing again in September.

Just thought you both would like to know about the funeral.

As ever,
Russell

January 28, 2014

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Mort Silver
1945 - 2011

Mort Silver began playing woodwinds in our ensemble in 1976 and continued until his illness progressed starting in 2003. Mort was one of those remarkable musicians who could play a number of woodwinds well: clarinet, flute, saxophone and even oboe. He was one of the most highly respected musicians working on Broadway. When we toured, besides playing in Music for 18 Musicians, Octet (later Eight Lines) and Tehillim he also played New York Counterpoint as clarinet soloist with tape. He always got the essence of the music. No coaching or discussion needed.

Mort was a pleasure to tour with. He had a rare combination of patience and humor that made the inevitable delays and tech problems in rehearsals easy to get through. After his illness gradually stopped him from playing we would have lunches together where he always wanted to know what was going on musically and personally. He was a realist in terms of his illness. He accepted his life and was fortunate to be constantly helped by his wife Brenda and their two sons.

Mort was a mensch. I miss him.

Steve Reich
March 2015

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Let me start off by saying, right off the bat, that Mort was the very best of colleagues. Let me also say that he was a consummate musician. He could move from any style, i.e. category of music with ease, and with an enviable expertise. We both studied at Juilliard at the same time with the same teacher- Joe Allard, in fact, we entered the school at the same time and graduated together. We didn't know each other that well at school, but later when I started doing some work on Broadway (he was doing that kind of work long before me) our paths crossed more frequently. But we really got to know each other and became close friends during the time we were both members of Steve Reich and Musicians from 1976-86. Here are a few moments that come to mind that will give you an idea of the kind of person he was. During the recording session of "Octet", it's titled "Eight Lines" now, I had a flute part to play at the end of the piece that was way beyond me…Mort, without hesitation or fanfare or criticism aimed at me, covered the part for me….and expertly I might add…..and he never mentioned after the date how he had saved me. Another time we were in Stuttgart for a recording session of "Tehillim" and in the middle of the session I came down with food poisoning and a fever. Somehow I made it through the session and as soon as we got back to the hotel he came to my room and gave me some medication that put me on the road to a fast recovery. There were other times that he took care of me on the road, but those two examples stick out in my mind. During the last years of his life we saw each other sporadically, but since I was living in New Rochelle, a short distance from his house in White Plains, we still had some time together….and I am glad we did.

Virgil Blackwell
May 14, 2014 `