David Lewiston, 1929–2017

From the cover of Nonesuch’s reissue of Music from the Morning of the World.

Sometimes by bus; sometimes by jeep or truck or caravanserai; sometimes by donkey, though not if he could help it; and almost always on foot, across rickety bridges and footpaths, up the sides of mountains, through valleys and hills rife with goats and wayward sheep, over rocks and fences, across streams and rivers swollen by rain or dry from drought; carrying a small (but not that small) portable tape recorder, twenty or thirty reels of quarter-inch tape, a couple of microphones, cables, a week’s supply of batteries, a few packs of Fortnum & Mason tea, and a few spare shirts. The shirts have been lost to time and forgotten laundries—but the tapes, the recordings from those travels, still circulate fifty years on, filling listeners with pleasure and astonishment.

David Lewiston was born in London in 1929 and graduated from Trinity College of Music in 1953. Already interested in the spiritual teachings of the mystic G. I. Gurdjieff, Lewiston moved to New York City to study piano and composition with Thomas DeHartmann, Gurdjieff’s aide-de-camp and musical collaborator, and an esteemed composer in his own right. From the Gurdjieff work, Lewiston learned about the many uses of solitude; from his studies with DeHartmann, who had helped Gurdjieff transcribe and notate Eastern hymns and dervish melodies, he learned to hear and appreciate music outside of the Western canon. These proved useful as Lewiston began traveling, but neither talent helped him support himself as a young musician in New York, and he reinvented himself as a financial journalist, working on staff for Forbes and then for an in-house journal of the American Bankers Association, a magazine so dull it practically walked to the trash bin and threw itself away. 

Was he bored?

“Of course I was bored! It was awful,” he told me once.

And so in 1966, he took a short sabbatical: borrowed a couple of good microphones and a few hundred dollars, bought a small Japanese tape recorder on a layover in Singapore, and landed in Bali, hoping to make some field recordings.

“It really was as vague as all that. I stumbled into it. I didn’t have a plan, I didn’t have a career in mind. It was an adventure.”

It was a perfect moment in time to be wandering the world with a tape recorder. In Bali—and in the Himalayas and the foothills of Tibet and Ladakh, where Lewiston recorded soon after—music was still a very local affair, with little or no outside influence, no Bollywood hits or Western pop seeping into the melodies. People learned from their fathers and uncles, their cousins and aunts; and there was always music at parties and weddings, funerals and feast days. Even today, at a recent gathering outside of Ladakh, locals listening to one of Lewiston’s early seventies recordings could identify what village certain singers were from based on their accents and the way they held a phrase.

Lewiston brought a musician’s ear to the recordings, knowing when players were phoning it in and when they were really onto something special, and his enthusiasm is palpable, shining through the tapes.

“Next,” you can hear him say in a wonderfully plummy voice, “we’re going to hear The Dance of the Butterfly.” “Well,” a local voice corrects him quietly, “it’s actually The Dance of the Bumblebee.” “Oh, of course,” David says, and you can almost see the grin on his face, the gleam in his eyes, “The Bumblebee! Splendid!”

There were already many foreign or ethnographic recordings available before Lewiston went to Bali, but most of them were decidedly academic and dry, about as exciting as the contents of the American Bankers Association Journal. Lewiston’s recordings crackled with the sheer joy of the music and the warmth and depth of the sound—they were meant to bring joy, the way you’d put on an album by Monteverdi or Coltrane or the Beatles.

Lewiston making recordings in 1973.

“These weren’t professional musicians. They might have been wonderful musicians, but this wasn’t their job. They were farmers or shepherds or craftsmen, so I had to make the recording sessions enjoyable for them, they had to feel appreciated. Sometimes by having plenty of beer or wine—though not so much that they’d fall asleep—and sometimes by simply paying attention. You always want to be paid, but it doesn’t always have to be with money. Musicians play differently when they know that someone’s really listening. I’ve been in a room where someone is playing piano, and maybe they’re distracted, their mind is somewhere else. And a composer or a very good player or just a keen listener will walk into that room and start to pay close attention to their sound, to the shading of the notes … and even if the player can’t see them, they’ll feel them there, they can sense them there, and the level of playing will come up a notch. Or more.

“Also, I didn’t just focus on the recordings. It had to be about the whole experience. If someone made a mistake or the wind knocked over a microphone, I wouldn’t stop and say take two. I couldn’t stop things that way, I needed the musicians to be deeply inside the music, and so I would wait until a whole performance was over and just say, ‘My, that was marvelous! What was that second piece? Could I hear that again?’ And just hope that the wind wouldn’t knock things over and that this time the genggung player wouldn’t fart.”

Lewiston’s first trip to Bali only lasted ten days, and when he returned to New York, he tried to figure out what to do with the tapes he’d recorded. Looking through records at Sam Goody, he noticed a few albums of music from Bulgaria, Japan, and Tahiti on the Nonesuch label, and he wrote down their address with a borrowed pen and got in touch with them. And when they heard his tapes, they flipped.

Those recordings were edited down into a single album, given the lovely title Music from the Morning of the World, and released in 1967 as one of the first albums on the newly launched Nonesuch Explorer Series.

People who stumbled onto it in the sixties or seventies still tend to glow and almost blush when that album is mentioned, as if it was a secret door they walked through and never quite returned from, like a first and unexpected kiss, like a half-remembered fuck in the early hours of dawn, with foghorns in the distance. It took a strange and unfamiliar music and brought it into focus, with no thought of taming it, no effort made to popularize or present it as tame or simply exotic. It came at you with the rush of A Love Supreme or Picasso’s Guernica, all good and evil, noise and silence, and everything that was left out of Western music and everything that was hidden in the shadows of your church or your past suddenly present and shining and alive.

The timing couldn’t have been better: 1967 also saw the birth of FM radio, with free form progressive stations intent on providing a hip alternative to top-forty music, and what could be hipper or more alternative than kejak, or monkey chant? As Lewiston told Christina Roden in 2000, “During late night music programs, the DJ would come on and say ‘OK, light that joint, here it comes!’ and then play side two of Golden Rain!” (His second Balinese release on Nonesuch.)

This began a long-standing relationship with Nonesuch. Over the next forty years, they released several dozen recordings by Lewiston: albums of Tibetan ghost exorcisms, more music from Bali and from Java, from festivals in the Himalayas, Kashmir, Pakistan, Central Asia; shakuhachi music of Japan; as well as music from Peru, Ecuador, Mexico, and Central America. These albums overflow with the pure joy of adventure and possibility, the wild freedom of the unexpected, harmonic chaos and celestial bliss: the stutter of the monkey chant; a blind fiddler singing into his violin; an orchestra of jews’ harps tumbling down a mountainside; a passel of flutes playing tag with each other. Much of this music is sacred or traditional, but that doesn’t mean it’s safe or mild. It’s filled with sex and death and blood; angry children and lost dogs; with hunger and faith and broken promises; with time and with what happens when time stops.

“I haven’t had a job, a proper job, since the early 1970’s. It’s been a pleasure. I thoroughly recommend it.”

David Lewiston: May 11, 1929–May 29, 2017.

Brian Cullman is a writer and musician living in New York City.

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