David Lewiston, 88; shared music from far reaches of globe

Mr. Lewiston’s travels bounced from Bali, to Peru, to monasteries in Tibet.
New York Times file/2006
Mr. Lewiston’s travels bounced from Bali, to Peru, to monasteries in Tibet.

NEW YORK — David Lewiston, whose recordings for Nonesuch Records, beginning in the late 1960s, brought the indigenous music of Bali, Tibet, Guatemala and other ports of call to the ears of adventurous listeners, died Monday in Wailuku, Hawaii. He was 88.

The cause was complications of a series of strokes, said Brian Cullman, a friend and sometime collaborator.

For decades, Mr. Lewiston, a classically trained pianist, roamed the four corners of the earth with tape recorder in hand, seeking out Tantric Buddhist chants in Tibet, festival music in Oaxaca, Mexico, the kecak monkey chant of Bali, the panpipe music of Peru.


He listened and recorded, not as an ethnomusicologist but as an enthusiast. The dozens of albums he made for the Nonesuch Explorer series reflected his conviction that music was meant to be enjoyed rather than analyzed.

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Listeners responded. At a time when FM radio was venturing into experimental territory and the counterculture began tuning in to non-Western cultures, Mr. Lewiston’s musical reports found an eager audience. His first recording for Nonesuch, devoted to the gamelan, the traditional percussion orchestra of Indonesia, sold surprisingly well. “Music From the Morning of the World: The Balinese Gamelan,” released in 1967, was followed by “Golden Rain,” which devoted an entire side to the Balinese kecak, or monkey chant, in which a male chorus intoned the percussive syllable “chak” in a mounting frenzy.

“That was something unheard-of at that time, for a record company to devote a whole LP side to an uncut excerpt of a non-Western style,” Mr. Lewiston said in an interview for the online publication Roots World in 2000. On radio station WBAI in New York, he recalled, the late-night DJ would say “OK, light that joint, here it comes!” and play Side 2 of “Golden Rain.”

In the years that followed, Mr. Lewiston, who liked to call himself a “musical tourist,” delivered music from South America, Mexico, and Kashmir. He traveled the highlands of western Tibet and the tribal regions of Pakistan. No sound was alien to him.

“He had ears I didn’t possess,” Jac Holzman, the founder of Elektra Records, the parent company of Nonesuch, told Mick Houghton, the author of “Becoming Elektra: The True Story of Jac Holzman’s Visionary Record Label.” “Once you hear and understand something far from your experience, you fill in between the furthest point out from your angle of acceptance and your normal angle of acceptance. You expand, you exercise, you stretch. It’s like Pilates for the ears.”


David Sidney George Lewiston was born May 11, 1929, in London. Little is known about his early life, which he rarely discussed.

He studied piano and composition at the Trinity School of Music (now the Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance), earning a degree in 1953.

While a student he became fascinated by the mystic G.I. Gurdjieff, whose teachings and music he immersed himself in at a London salon. “Hearing the Gurdjieff music made me aware for the first time that there was something outside the Western classical music tradition,” Mr. Lewiston told Roots World.

He moved to New York to study with Thomas de Hartmann, a Ukrainian-born composer who transcribed Gurdjieff’s impromptu compositions for the piano. For more than a decade, Lewiston was a musician at the Gurdjieff Foundation in Manhattan.

After de Hartmann’s death in 1956, he found himself at loose ends. To make ends meet he began writing financial articles for Forbes and an in-house publication of the American Bankers Association. It was not a happy time.


In 1966, taking a short sabbatical, he set out for Bali, carrying two borrowed microphones and a Japanese tape recorder — one of the first battery-operated models — that he bought on a stopover in Singapore.

“It really was as vague as all that,” he told an audience at the Rubin Museum in Manhattan in 2006. “I stumbled into it. I didn’t have a plan, I didn’t have a career in mind. It was an adventure.”

Returning to New York 10 days later, he looked for ethnic titles in a record shop and noticed that Nonesuch, in its International Series, seemed to have a taste for adventure. He wrote a letter to the company, brought in his tapes and found two sets of appreciative ears in Peter K. Siegel, an engineer, and Tracey Sterne, who, under the title of coordinator, ran Nonesuch and gave the Explorer series its name.

The two Balinese records followed. Mr. Lewiston then took off for South America, returning with the music for “Kingdom of the Sun: Peru’s Inca Heritage” and “In Praise of Oxala and Other Gods: Black Music of South America.”

The journey went on. He accumulated hundreds of hours of Buddhist chants, notably the chordal chanting of lamas and monks at the Gyuto Tantric University and the Drukpa Kagyu rituals performed at the Khampagar Monastery, both in Tibet. He traveled to the republic of Georgia to record polyphonic folk songs and to Fez, Morocco, in search of Sufi music. He returned to Bali in 1987 and 1994.

He prized authenticity over polish. “If someone made a mistake or the wind knocked over a microphone, I wouldn’t stop and say, ‘Take two,’” he told the audience at the Rubin Museum. “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 genggong player wouldn’t fart.”

He learned early on that a generous supply of liquor helped the musicians relax, but that a too-generous supply caused them to pass out. Money also helped. His standard practice in villages was to determine the daily wage for a laborer and then pay the musicians double that for each hour of recording.