October 11–18, 2001
cover story|music issue
The Gong Show
If it makes noise, Steve Weiss Music can probably rent it to you.
If you imagine that the business of musical-instrument rentals is typically a mom-and-pop operation, in the basement of some nice old lady’s Center City rowhouse, you would be partially correct. It was from just such an establishment that I rented a quarter-sized violin for my seven-year-old son’s first lessons.
Then there is Steve Weiss Music.
Steve Weiss rents only percussion instruments, and counts among his clients nearly every major performing group in town. But if Steve Weiss Music is the IBM of this business, he is an unusual CEO, strolling around his offices in cutoff shorts and a tie-dye T-shirt.
Weiss is a professionally trained percussionist himself, a one-time student of the Philadelphia Orchestra percussionist Michael Bookspan. He has always collected percussion instruments, and as a traveling musician and part-time railroad employee with free riding privileges, his collection grew large quickly when he was young, with acquisitions from flea markets, trade shows and overseas gigs. To this day he continues to collect for the sheer thrill of it.
"I have a 10-foot-high Tibetan trumpet in my living room. Nobody has rented it yet, but it makes a great conversation starter when I show it at trade shows."
In 1961 Weiss was looking for a way out of the grueling traveling-musician lifestyle. With the encouragement of the late Carroll Bratman, a major renter of instruments in the Manhattan market, he began to rent his collection. He now has a staff of 14 and stores his immense inventory in three warehouses. Today, the bread and butter of his business is the sales of percussion instruments and sheet music, but his rental work, although arduous at times, is where the action is. Weiss figures his trucks are out on the road four or five nights a week, hauling in batteries of marimbas, tympanies, gongs and bells for the Pennsylvania Ballet, the Opera Company of Philadelphia, the Forrest Theatre, the Walnut Street Theatre; the list goes on and on.
Weiss used to be involved with more popular music, and he has supplied instruments for backup bands for Elvis, Sinatra and David Bowie. This was a different crowd from the orchestra jobs, to say the least, and Weiss doesn’t miss it. "The David Bowie job was at Sigma Sound. At that time, you had to bring the instruments into the studio on a hand-pulled elevator in an alley, which was hard enough, and his fans were crawling all over the place. David was very nice. I think his whole body was dyed orange at the time." In any case, that business has trailed off with the advent of the ubiquitous drum machine. Weiss is unperturbed. "I don’t care about losing those customers. Anyway, they did all of their sampling for the drum machines from my instruments."
A tour of Steve Weiss Music is a veritable walk through music history. "These are the tuned bells used in Leopold Mozart’s Toy Symphony. Here is the air-raid siren used in Ionization by Varese. This is the King George marimba, used in special orchestras after World War II. These are the taxi horns used for An American in Paris. Here are gongs from Thailand and China, and this is an Egyptian tambourine. The wooden ratchet makes the rifle shots in Beethoven’s Wellington’s Victory’." There is even a stock of jingle bells.
Leading the tour was John O’Connor, who has been with Steve Weiss Music since 1980. (When I asked him what his title was, he shrugged and said, "It says guru’ on my paycheck.") He proudly showed off one of his personal discoveries, a rickety wooden wind machine, most famously used in the windmill scene in Don Quixote by Strauss. "It was in the basement of my church, Holy Child, on North Broad Street. Father thought it was a raffle-ticket spinner, but I knew it was a wind machine. I remember high Mass on Good Friday as a kid, when they used it for sound effects during the Passion Play."
Percussion plays a prominent role in contemporary music, and Steve Weiss’ instruments have been along for every beat. This seems to be a special source of pride for Weiss, who has participated in many world premieres over the years. "We premiered all of George Crumb’s stuff. Relâche has been using us for years. They ask for some weird things." Weiss is happy to oblige. He pulled out a small wooden cone with two flapping arms, and vigorously shook it up and down, creating an eerie chatter. "It’s used by George Crumb, Night of the Four Moons, I think. Right in the score, it says, If you cannot locate this instrument, call Steve Weiss.’"