Thursday, June 1, 2017

Remembering David Lewiston, 1929–2017

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.” (...)

“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.

by Brian Cullman, Paris Review | Read more:
Image: uncredited