David Lewiston, a self-described “musical tourist” who trekked around the globe over nearly half a century, recording gong ensembles in Bali, Peruvian pan pipers and chanting Tibetan monks to amass one of the world’s richest collections of international music, died May 29 at a hospice center in Wailuku, Hawaii. He was 88.
He had a stroke, said Mirayam Licht, his power of attorney and a longtime friend.
The British-born Mr. Lewiston was one of the most esteemed ethnomusicologists of the 20th century, although he rejected that professional label. Working with the Explorer Series of Nonesuch Records, he eschewed the academic sobriety that had long characterized his field, operating instead on an unbridled spirit of adventure and through what he termed “creative stumbling.”
“I think of an ethnomusicologist as someone who takes wonderful music and analyzes it until all the joy has been lost,” he once told the online publication RootsWorld. “It’s as though a rather boring person who wanted to be paid for talking about music invented a Teutonic-sounding, pseudo-academic title as a scam — and got away with it! Much better to just shut up and enjoy the music.”
Mr. Lewiston took his first field recording trip in 1966, while working as a writer for a banking trade journal in New York. He described the job as a stultifying distraction from his real love, which was music. Mr. Lewiston had studied classical music at an English conservatory before apprenticing himself in the early 1950s to Thomas de Hartmann, a composer who was a follower of the Russian mystic G.I. Gurdjieff.
Awakened by de Hartmann to the beauty of Eastern music, Mr. Lewiston selected Bali as the first destination in his musical travels. En route to the Indonesian island, he stopped in Singapore, where he purchased an inexpensive stereo tape recorder. The battery-powered device would allow him to take the recording studio to his musicians, rather than displacing musicians from their environments and taking them to the studio.
Mr. Lewiston recorded the ethereal percussive sounds of the traditional Balinese ensembles known as gamelans. He also captured the monkey chant, in which 200 men vocally reenact the moment in the Indian epic poem “The Ramayana” in which simians come to the rescue of Prince Rama.
Mr. Lewiston returned home with his tapes and offered them to Nonesuch Records, embarking on a years-long partnership with the label. His first album was “Music From the Morning of the World” — a landmark of ethnic music that in 2007 was entered by the Library of Congress into the National Recording Registry.
Mr. Lewiston eventually quit his day job, traveling for nearly the rest of his life on as little as $5 a day across Central and South America, Central Asia, the Himalayas and beyond.
“The chanting of 40 Tibetan monks is a cavernous, impenetrable drone, a wall of sound,” a New York Times reporter wrote in 1976, describing a recording Mr. Lewiston had made of the ancient practice known as “one-voice chording,” in which a single cantor produces three notes at the same time.
“The resultant tantric ritual chant is primal and awesome, sounding at first like a swarm of angry bees and then like a landing approach to the Ultimate Note,” the Times continued. Interspersed with trumpets, bells and gongs, the “soothing, hypnotic power of the chant reminds the listener that in folk culture the musician is magician, and vice-versa. . . . Lewiston literally brings it back alive.”
He braved mountains and monsoons — although technical challenges sometimes presented challenges greater than those posed by the elements. In an effort to capture music in its purest form, he aimed to be as unobtrusive as possible, given his many pounds of equipment.
“Especially in villages, people get impatient really fast,” he told the Times in 2006, noting that his performers were farmers, not experienced session musicians. “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.”
It was not unusual for outside sounds — a car horn, the bark of a dog — to interrupt a recording. In such cases, he would tread gingerly.
“If someone made a mistake or the wind knocked over a microphone, I wouldn’t stop and say ‘take two,’ ” he told Brian Cullman, a writer and musician who is helping organize and preserve Mr. Lewiston’s archive. “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 genggong player would not pass gas.
David Sidney George Lewiston was born in London on May 11, 1929. He studied piano at Trinity College in London, where he graduated in 1953. He told the Times he quickly concluded that “conservatory training focuses too much on the West.”
In New York, he also worked for Forbes magazine before embarking on his travels. “I stumbled into it,” he told Cullman. “I didn’t have a plan, I didn’t have a career in mind. It was an adventure.”
Mr. Lewiston’s discography includes dozens of records. Much of his archive is today housed at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, which said in a statement that Mr. Lewiston’s “documentation of village music cultures in South America, Africa and Asia, has enriched our understanding of human wisdom and genius.”
He had no immediate survivors.
“The world is full of beautiful music and I’m a pretty average Westerner as far as musical tastes go,” Mr. Lewiston told the Times. “So if a certain piece appeals to me chances are that people in the West will like it, too.”
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