Tuesday, July 04, 2006

David Lewiston, a 'Musical Tourist' of the World

New York Times
July 5, 2006
Critic's Notebook
David Lewiston, a 'Musical Tourist' of the World

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.

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.

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 like this."

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 Bollywood hits."

"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 music.' "

"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 he made.

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 sensual.

"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."

No comments: