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Producing The World
A series of interviews with influential recording producers

 

Mr Lewiston
Christina Roden talks with David Lewiston About the Nonesuch Explorer Series, Tracey Sterne, And Recording The World's Music.

 

David Lewiston is the trailblazing musicologist who, along with Nonesuch Records' visionary A&R "Coordinator", Tracey Sterne (1927-2000), forever changed the way audiences listen to traditional music from outside their own country.

The London-born Lewiston was first exposed to non-Western music when he was studying the teachings of Georgii Ivanovitch Gurdjieff (1877-1947), an Asian-Russian mystic-philosopher-musician who was a major theosophist icon. Gurdjieff composed a series of pieces which were transcribed for piano by his disciple Thomas de Hartmann (1885-1956). (Note Gurdjieff's life and work were the subject of Peter Brook's film "Meetings With Remarkable Men." The soundtrack consists of music by Gurdjieff and de Hartmann.) After he graduated from Conservatory, Lewiston moved to New York to study with de Hartmann.

After de Hartmann's death, Lewiston was at loose ends until he went to Bali during the mid-sixties and decided to record some the local musicians. His equipment was a jerry-rigged affair, but the music was so powerful that Tracy Sterne decided to release what turned out to be the flagship recording of The Nonesuch Explorer Series. It was the first time anybody had attempted to market "international music", especially ethnic field recordings, as entertainment for adventurous listeners.

Sterne continued her warm support of Lewiston's work until she was summarily fired in 1979 by an unimaginative corporate bean-counter named Joe Smith. She and Lewiston remained close friends until her death in December 2000 from Lou Gehrig's Disease. Lewiston continues to record music around the world and write on a variety of subjects.

The following interview is taken from a phone interview in 12/00 and subsequent e-mail conversations.


Christina Roden - What attracted you to what was then called "ethnic" music? What formative experiences influenced your desire to work with music from outside the US?

Lewiston writes:

Here's a brief excerpt from a kecak, one of Bali's most remarkable experiences.

Listen! My first visit to Bali in 1966 was full of musical wonders -- the glittering torrents of sound of the great gamelan gong, the quicksilver delicacy of a quartet of gender (metallophones) playing music for the wayang kulit (the shadow play), and especially the kecak, the island's unique music drama, in which the Ramayana epic is danced, sung, and narrated, powered by an extraordinary male chorus whose chant is derived from an ancient trance form. While the kecak was created in the 1930s as an entertainment, it has become much more, a unique evocation of Bali, for many of us who love the island and its culture.

When I returned to the island in 1987 I was overjoyed to find that its arts were still alive and vibrant, unspoiled by the rampant tourism which had overtaken much of Balinese life. During this trip I recorded this powerful performance of the Kecak Gandha Sari, acknowledged as the island's best at that time.

cd cover

Audio excerpt is the introduction from
Kecak from Bali
© 1990 Bridge Records, used by permission

David Lewiston - Do you know anything at all about the Gurdjieff work? When I was going on 22, I was already involved, studying with a man named George Bennett who was presenting the Gurdjieff materials in the early 1950s. He had a sizable house in a plush suburb of London, which he needed because there were so many of us. In the music room, in the evenings, there would often be somebody playing the Gurdjieff music, which popped me into another space. I was then studying at conservatory. Hearing the Gurdjieff music made me aware for the first time that there was something outside the Western classical music tradition. I completed my conservatory training in 1953 but felt that I wasn't by any means a finished musician. So, I asked permission to come to New York and study with Thomas de Hartmann. After De Hartmann died in 1956, I was lost. It was really hard for a young composer to figure out what to do in life. I wound up in some really miserable jobs. I never had much money; that dragged on for years.

Can you tell us more about Gurdjieff's music, the process of creation and so on?

As I understand it, the Gurdjieff-de Hartmann Music was composed between 1925 and 1927 at the Chateau du Prieuré in Fontainebleau, Gurdjieff's headquarters in the 1920s. On many evenings, in the presence of the entire group, Gurdjieff would sing a tune and tap out a rhythm, and de Hartmann would instantly have to capture the essence of what Gurdjieff was doing, creating a composition as he sat at the piano. Between 200 and 300 compositions were born in this way. See Thomas Daly's translation of de Hartmann's "Our Life With Mr. Gurdjieff" for a more detailed description.

What was your first meeting with Teresa "Tracey" Sterne like? How were you introduced to her?

It was actually Peter Seigel who arranged things. I was discussing this with Tracey last year, while she could still talk, and she said, "Well, you know it was Peter who really took the lead, the initiative in the Explorer Series during those early days." I think it was Peter who had a good listen and told Tracey, "Hey, you need to pay attention to this", and so she did. Tracey's gift was to be able to listen to music of almost any culture simply as music, rather than as ethnomusicology.

What was your strongest initial professional impression of her?

Her modesty. She didn't come off as the grande dame at all. As I recall, she introduced herself as an editor. Maybe she said "coordinator", because that was the title she was using, but the word that sticks in my head is editor. She was a live wire!

Did Tracey edit your work at all or simply trust you to do things your way? In your collaborations at Nonesuch, who played which role in getting the recordings out?

Peter did the mix, with what might be called "sweetening" today. Peter and Tracey decided on the programming together. On the first Bali album, there was just a brief excerpt of ketjak (which Westerners have nicknamed the 'monkey chant' - this 70-year-old entertainment reenacts part of the Ramayana epic against a background of ancient trance music.) We put "Music From The Morning Of The World" together more as a sampler, to provide an overview of the styles that could be heard in Bali at that time.

I remember hearing tales about people getting high and listening to the gamelan stuff.

cd cover That was more the second one, 'Golden Rain', which had a whole side of ketjak. 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. I was traveling then, but Tracey told me that on WBAI, 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!"

Which of the Explorer recordings are dearest to your heart today?

cd cover It's hard to say, you know? What I want to listen to changes from time to time. It may something Balinese from '66 or '87, or even from the '94 recordings which no one has picked up yet - amazing stuff. It could also be some of the material from South America. And then, of course, there's the Tibet material and the Himalayan trips. It all depends, it changes with my mood.

Were there any specific recordings that illuminated something for you, or changed you in a major way?

It was pretty much that way with all of them.

Did Tracey have any special favorites that you know of?

Well I think it's the ones on the tribute, but it's such a small sample. She was devoted to all of them.

When Tracey left Nonesuch, the New York print media went uncharacteristically berserk - the press was rife with passionate and vociferous protests. A New York Times article particularly stands out - I remember being floored by it.

cd cover You can imagine the tone of my angry letter to Warner management, but I think they received over 400!

Was firing Tracey a marketing decision? What was your impression how and why it happened?

Joe Smith and those other people had no feeling for classical music. I remember that Tracey that told me afterwards that one of the reasons they gave for firing her was "that dreadful Explorer Series which nobody ever buys or listens to!" I mean, that was the level of these people. I told them in my letter that they had done exactly the wrong thing. Here were these types - they'd all moved to LA by that time and were spending money like drunken sailors. Tracey was really careful about money.

Tracey's work was like a religion to her, wasn't it? She was always working, or at a concert prospecting for new talent. Would you could say that her work was her private life!

Yes, that's right. All too often, she'd be there at all hours, at the office at nine or ten at night. If I was around, she'd take me out to dinner. That was always very welcome.

In hindsight, what do you think led to Tracey's being forced out of Nonesuch?

OK, I'll give you a bit of detail about that time. Tracey had become increasingly abrasive because Specialty Records, which was the in-house pressing plant, would mix crap from the floor into the vinyl and then use it to press records. Bob Ludwig made the acetates very carefully. Tracey would sit in her office listening to the test pressings and they were full of distortion. She would invariably order a fresh set and this would go on for three or four go-rounds. When the finished LPs were delivered, they would sound terrible. Tracey would send memos to the people at the plant, to Joe Smith and people like that. She would get them on the phone and lecture them, in harsh language, trying to shake them into producing a salable product. The label was only minimally profitable at that time. Since Jac Holzmann had sold Elektra and Nonesuch in 1972, by '79 he had no say in the matter. Joe Smith was running the label and he fired Tracey; him and the people around him.

How did her departure affect your work?

Well, I was really angry. Jac's brother Keith Holzmann ran the label for four years. One fall day we met and he said, "I thought you were angry at me." I replied "That was two years ago. I'm not anymore." He was interested in new Explorer projects, but I didn't follow through.

You and Tracey were pioneers, who broke down or ignored existing barriers.

I would blame it on Tracey, because if she hadn't backed me...

It's too bad that your work together pre-dated compact disks. Today, Tracey would not have had to deal with faulty pressings.

That's true, because Specialty now has to meet industry standards.

How do you feel about Nonesuch as a label today?

Bob Hurwitz is doing what he feels is worth doing.

What do you think of the current trend of mixing acoustic traditions with modern electronic instruments?

Oh yes, a Tibetan nun and a synthesizer! When I go the Himalayas, which is an annual jaunt for me, I have to be very careful to remind the musicians "Please! No film music from Bombay!" Because music cassettes and pop music programs on All-India Radio are putting traditional music under stress. When I'm up in the Western Himalayas, I like to go to competitions for dance groups, where there is still a chance to hear what is considered to be authentic.

How do you personally describe what you do?

I prefer to be described as a "musical tourist," if a description is absolutely necessary.

You don't consider yourself an ethnomusicologist?

Tracey and I thought that most ethnomusicologists were pretty dim. We called them "ethnoids." I think of an ethnomusicologist as someone who takes wonderful music and analyzes it until all the joy has been lost. 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. I have a really hard time when I'm writing liner notes, because I feel that if a person is reading them, he isn't enjoying the music.

What are you doing these days and what are your future plans?

What encourages me is that Nonesuch tells me that the entire Explorer catalogue may be re-released world-wide on CD next year. This would be amazing news, but I don't think it's official yet.

Two, possibly three, generations of world music professionals and fans cut their teeth on the Explorer series. Without your and Tracey's example, there might not even be such a thing as world music. Did either of you have any idea that you were creating a new genre?

Ruined you for life, did we? We were just doing what we did. It was "our thing."


Selected Discs available at Amazon.com

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