Hello all -
I hadn't seen this posted here yet - thought it might be of
interest...David Lewiston was profiled in Wednesday's NY Times.
Apologies for not putting it up sooner - I've been busy, and figured somone
else might see it and post it before I got a chance - anyway, here it is...
92nd Street Y
David Lewiston, a 'Musical Tourist' of the World
By JON PARELES
Published: July 5, 2006
Forty years ago David Lewiston decided to change his life. He traded a desk
job for a self-invented career as "a musical tourist": a recorder and
collector of traditional music from dozens of countries over a territory
that extends from Bali to Kashmir to Peru. He has brought back recordings
for the Nonesuch Explorer Series, and then for other labels, that became
revelations for many listeners: albums like "Music From the Morning of the
World," his ear-opening Balinese collection.
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Robert Caplin for The New York Times
David Lewiston brought back recordings from around the world.
Forum: Popular Music
Mr. Lewiston is not an ethnomusicologist or any other kind of academic. His
guideline, he said, is simply "the pleasure principle."
Mr. Lewiston, 77, now lives on the Hawaiian island of Maui. There he has
400 hours of music — half of it digitized from his old tapes, half of it
recorded digitally — and 12,000 photos that he wants to archive, catalog
and perhaps find a way to make available online. "While I'm still alive, I
have to make sure this material gets archived," he said. The entire
project, he estimates, would cost between $150,000 and $200,000. "I don't
have it myself," he said. "I need to find somebody who's got more money
than they know what to do with."
He visited New York City not long ago to speak at the Rubin Museum of Art
in Chelsea and to revisit briefly Greenwich Village, one of his haunts as a
young man. At a Village cafe, he spoke about a lifetime of what he
calls "creative stumbling."
Mr. Lewiston, who is English, earned a graduate diploma in 1953 from
Trinity College of Music in London, where he studied piano. He grew
interested in the spiritual teachings and philosophy of G. I. Gurdjieff,
who had traveled widely in Asia. Gurdjieff was also a composer, drawing on
non-Western traditions, and his music suggested to Mr. Lewiston that there
were possibilities beyond the Western classical canon. Mr. Lewiston came to
the United States to study piano with Thomas de Hartmann, Gurdjieff's
musical collaborator and the leading interpreter of their compositions.
To make a living in New York, Mr. Lewiston became a financial journalist,
working for Forbes magazine and then for the magazine of the American
Bankers Association. He was bored.
So in 1966, Mr. Lewiston took a leave of absence from the magazine and
traveled to the other side of the world: to the Indonesian island of Bali,
where he thought he might record some music. A photographer friend lent him
some first-class condenser microphones and a few hundred dollars; Mr.
Lewiston packed his modest mono tape recorder. And in Singapore, where his
plane made a stopover, Mr. Lewiston made a crucial purchase, a cheaply
built Japanese machine, a Concertone 727, which happened to be one of the
first portable stereo tape recorders.
Bali in 1966 was trying to build a tourism industry, and when Mr. Lewiston
inquired about music, locals were eager to help him. In his 10 days in
Bali, Mr. Lewiston sometimes recorded three groups a day. The Concertone,
which barely outlasted the trip, gathered the first stereo recordings of
Balinese music: the clanging, shimmering gong orchestras called gamelans.
Mr. Lewiston also recorded the Kecak monkey chant, a circle of men singing
hearty, percussive syllables that go ricocheting all around.
Back in New York City from Bali, Mr. Lewiston found himself in a Sam Goody
record store looking at a rack of international albums including music from
Japan and Tahiti; they were on the Nonesuch label.
"Oh, there's a record company putting out this sort of stuff," he said he
recalled thinking. "Being a good journalist, I wrote a pitch letter, just
addressed to Nonesuch Records. And I got a call back."
He took his tapes to the office of Tracey Sterne, whose unpretentious title
was A&R coordinator for Nonesuch. Her engineer, Peter K. Siegel, went to
listen to the tapes and came rushing out of the studio moments later,
saying, "Hey, this you've got to hear!"
There had been ethnographic recordings well before the 1960's, notably on
labels like Folkways. But most of them had been dry, scholarly collections,
with brief examples of various styles more for study than enjoyment. "Music
From the Morning of the World," although still a sampler, reveled in the
sheer sound of the music.
Released in 1967, it became the first album of the Nonesuch Explorer
Series, for which Mr. Lewiston would go on to record more than two dozen
collections. In the decades before the Internet, the well-distributed
Explorer series was often the only traditional world music available in
many stores. After Nonesuch curtailed its Explorer series in 1984, Mr.
Lewiston's recordings appeared on Bridge, Shanachie and Ellipsis.
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Forum: Popular Music
When Mr. Lewiston returned to the United States from Bali, he worked for
about a year and took off again, this time to South America, where he
visited every country and came back with music from Peru, Colombia,
Bolivia, Ecuador, Chile and Brazil, as well as Mexico. He returned broke.
He had his last day jobs in the early 1970's, disciplining himself to save
a third of his pay toward, he recalled, "never again having to do anything
On subsequent trips Mr. Lewiston recorded in Tibet, Kashmir, India,
Pakistan, Morocco and Central Asia. "I just thought, 'Oh, haven't been to
that place, let's go and see what it's like," he said. He also returned to
Bali in 1987 and 1994. On his early trips his travel budget, he recalled,
was often $5 a day. He found musicians simply by asking around. "Don't
organize, just go," he said.
Mr. Lewiston recorded wherever musicians felt comfortable. "It should be a
party," he said. "It should be totally enjoyable for musicians. If it's
enjoyable, it'll be reflected in the music making. These aren't session
musicians. These guys are farmers, and when they get together for music,
it's basically to have a good time. I don't want to interfere with that."
He sets up his recording equipment quickly. "Especially in villages, people
get impatient really fast," he said. "So I have a configuration that I can
just plunk down, switch it on and say, 'O.K., ready.' Because I don't want
to make them nervous by fiddling with this and fiddling with that. And the
trick is — at least my trick — if I'm not happy with the way I've
positioned the musicians and the mics, I'll just unobtrusively go in and
reposition them and set the levels to what they should be. And just have
rapt admiration for everything and say, 'Wow, that was great,' and, 'Do you
have more?,' " he said. "And after four or five or six pieces say: 'Well, I
really enjoyed that first piece you played. Can I hear it again, you
think?' Rather than saying, 'Take 2.' "
He learned another recording technique in Colombia. "We had a bottle of
aguardiente, firewater," he said. "When the aguardiente ran out, the music
stopped. So that was a lesson. But on other occasions I've provided too
much, and the musicians passed out."
His equipment has improved through the years. He now records digitally onto
a hard drive. But the villages he goes to are not so isolated anymore. "All
India Radio, which is the government broadcasting system, has stations all
over India," he said. "Of course, what people want to hear are the
"So increasingly that's the music that's heard and, of course, it's picked
up in the villages," he continued. "So if I go into a village, it's like
this: I immediately look for a guy wearing a shirt, tie and jacket, right?
I know he'll be either the local doctor or an administrator or a
schoolteacher. I say, 'I'm David Lewiston, I'm very interested in the local
"I'll explain what I want is the pure traditional music," he said. "So when
the musicians set up, these intermediaries will be listening, and they will
have enough knowledge of the local culture to know whether it is really
local music or whether it's a Bollywood tune."
Mr. Lewiston keeps returning to Gurdjieff's music. In the early 1990's,
before his hands grew arthritic, he recorded his own interpretations in a
San Francisco Bay Area studio, and he wrote via e-mail that lately he had
been playing the slower pieces again, noting their similarities to the
Persian classical improvisations called taqsim. But he has no interest in
the countless recent world music fusions, some inspired by the recordings
His albums are documented with his photos and with liner notes that he
struggles to write but are filled with both historical fact and delight in
the music. But his appreciation, he insists, is not intellectual but
"The ethnoids," Mr. Lewiston said, using his joshing term for
ethnomusicologists, "can't stand me. They'll review one of my records,
picking every nit they possibly can. And then the final line will be 'The
sounds on this album are superb.' They can't get away from that."