Q&A with music professor Ted Levin

by Charles Chen | 4/25/18 1:50am


Professor Ted Levin teaches courses about world music and interdisciplinary music topics at the College. His work focuses on ethnomusicology and the music of Central Asia and Siberia. Levin has traveled the world studying music and has published several books about his travels and studies. He throat sings and plays the banjo, bagpipes, celtic fiddle, durar, piano and tanbur. He also works with outreach programs to support music and musicians from other cultures and is currently the senior project consultant to the Aga Khan Music Initiative. Levin was the first executive director of Silkroad, whose Silk Road Ensemble included founder Yo-Yo Ma in a recent performance at Hopkins Center for the Arts.

What first got you interested in music?

T.L.: I started playing piano when I was four years old, and until I was a teenager, I had only ever heard Western classical music. I’m probably the only person who lived through the sixties and missed The Beatles. But as a teenager, I went to a summer camp where I fell head over heels for the banjo, and I basically majored in banjo at Amherst College. When I graduated, I got a Thomas J. Watson fellowship that required me to leave the United States for a year. I pursued an independent project that involved studying music while traveling from Ireland to India. Forty-five years later, I still feel like I’m doing that fellowship.

How did you end up teaching at Dartmouth?

T.L.: Well, I wasn’t looking for an academic job. After I got my Ph.D., I dropped out of academia. I went to work in a cultural exchange during the waning years of the Soviet Union. I co-produced Billy Joel’s performances in Moscow and Leningrad in 1987, which were the first major American rock and roll performances in the country. But I always loved northern New England, and when my graduate school advisor suggested that I apply for a job at Dartmouth, I did, and I’ve been here ever since.

Tell me about your research and interests.

T.L.: My area of specialization is Central Asia and Siberia. I have been a student of those musics since my fellowship in 1974, and I travel to these areas every year to revitalize my network of musical colleagues and research collaborators. I’m presently working on a book about the impact of international NGOs on culture and the future of music in Central Asia. However, these days, I’m much more active in cultural advocacy than in research. Outside of Dartmouth, I work as a consultant for the Aga Khan Music Initiative and am part of a small team that is allocating $500,000 in prize money to support music creation, performance and education in Muslim societies across the world. I see this as a huge opportunity to contribute to the future of music development.

What drew you to Siberia and Central Asian music?

T.L.: It’s hard to explain. The first Central Asian country I went to was Afghanistan in 1974, and then later in graduate school I spent a year in Uzbekistan. It was the mid-seventies, during the Cold War, which meant that I was the only American there. Though that was hard, I loved it. There was something about the music, the people, the place, the physical geography, the food, the climate. Beneath the forbidding political atmosphere, there was a warmth — a welcome — that I had never experienced before. I felt like I was finally at home.

Much of your outreach involves bringing together the music of different cultures. What are the roles that music and culture play in the spread of multiculturalism?

T.L.: Music has connected people. That was one of the ideas at the root of the Silk Road Project. I think that the more people get connected and learn about other cultures, the more likely they are to develop a kind of cultural creativity that makes them cultural cosmopolitans. And this is very important in parts of the world where there is ongoing tension between ethnic nationalism and cultural pluralism. Music can serve as a force for either. I see my role as promoting musical activities that are intrinsically cosmopolitan and challenge musicians to reach beyond their own cultures to find common ground with musicians from other societies.

How did you end up working with Silkroad and Yo-Yo Ma?

T.L.: In the mid-nineties, I published a book about music in Central Asia. It was musicology disguised as a travel log, and the title of the book was “The Hundred Thousand Fools of God: Musical Travels in Central Asia (and Queens, New York).” Yo-Yo Ma was intrigued by the title and ordered it, knowing nothing about the author. After he read it, he tracked me down and asked if I would be interested in working with him. I met with him and discussed starting Silkroad. My job was to synthesize the group’s ideas into documents that could be used to raise money and to pitch our project to concert halls and presenters that could share the project with the world. One of my main tasks was to co-curate the Smithsonian Folklife Festival at the National Mall in Washington D.C., which was devoted to the Silk Road. We brought 400 artists, musicians and artisans to D.C. Since the festival took place just after 9/11, it was not easy to bring musicians from Central Asia and a lot of other Muslim-majority countries.

What was your favorite show at the Hop that played recently?

T.L.: The Hop does a fantastic job of bringing adventurous artists to Dartmouth. Their achievement is really bringing top people from many different categories. This year, I think my favorite show was put on by the vocal group “Room Full of Teeth.” But my favorite thing that the Hop does is commission and premiere new work. In the past couple of months, I produced Qyrq Qyz’s premiere, and the Silk Road Project had its own premiere as well. This kind of access is remarkable for the college community to have.

If you were giving out Pulitzer Prizes for music, who would you give one to?

T.L.: I’d give one to my friends. My friends and colleagues are all very deserving. You can’t second guess the Pulitzer community; they always surprise, not the least this year. I’m delighted that they are expanding the purview of the prize and recognizing achievements in musical styles and genres outside of classical music.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

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