Ethnomusicologist Ted Levin lectures on musical and cultural diversity

Kristi Ruff

Ted Levin is a fascinating man. Upon my entrance into Shattuck 156 on Tuesday night for the “Ethnomusicologist as Cultural Entrepreneur” lecture, I was struck by an imposingly tall professor who is not only an expert on East Asian musical tradition and the process of finding, recording and transmitting these types of music, but who is also equipped with an arsenal of languages readily at his disposal for translation and communication purposes.
This outstanding capacity for not only getting to know the musicians with whom he works but also for immersing himself in the language and culture of these artists amazed all who attended his presentation. Though I was momentarily distracted by his Dumbledore-like appearance, Levin lectured about the magic inherent in the cultural diversity between musical traditions around the world, not wizardry.
Professor Levin, a friend of the beloved “Didgeri-dean” of the conservatory, Brian Pertl, currently holds a post at Dartmouth, but spends the majority of his time abroad. For those conservatory students who are interested in, fascinated by or completely obsessed with world music and ethnomusicology, well, you certainly missed out.
Beginning with a brief summary of his international adventures and musically related exploits, Professor Levin’s lecture focused on the process of “amplifying the voices of musicians who need to be amplified, because they’re being drowned out by more popular, westernized music; documenting [musical traditions] that need to be documented before they are erased.”
He detailed his work with the Aga Khan – the spiritual leader of the Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims – who created a trust in 2000 to “support the efforts of Central Asian musicians and communities to sustain, further develop, and transmit musical traditions that are a vital part of their cultural heritage.”
Levin made it very clear that this line of work requires not only passion, but also an ability to find donors and collaborators to help make it happen. It is, in essence, a lot like being a salesman: one must have a detailed plan of how to make everything work and be able to sum up that plan in a report of just a few succinct bullet points.
Another issue that directly follows the issue of finding funding for such projects is that of cultural translation. “Different cultures have different musical languages,” noted Levin, and one of the toughest obstacles to overcome is the gap between those languages.
He gave one fascinating example of an artist named Alim Qasimov, one of the foremost Azerbaijani artists in the mugam style of vocal music. Through one of Levin’s projects, Qasimov collaborated with the famed Kronos string quartet.
This effort was quite the undertaking, recollected Levin, because Qasimov’s music is completely improvised and western tradition is written and entirely note-based. As the Azerbaijani artist put it, “Here they fix the music in notes… me, I am free.
In order to produce a successful performance, each of the different artists had to find a way to translate and integrate parts of the other’s musical tradition. Professor Levin was able to aid this process by serving as a translator.
Ted Levin’s unique experiences and broad knowledge base make him an excellent resource for any student looking to get involved in the vast, ever-expanding field of ethnomusicology. He was extremely generous with his time after his lecture. Levin answered many questions about how to best get started in the field, noting, “You really just have to put your foot out there.”
He also answered questions about issues associated with licensing and other logistics once successful projects have been completed and just generally clarified what an ethnomusicologist does: “A real ethnomusicologist learns to see through [the musicians’] ears and eyes” in order to help facilitate cultural connectivity.
To anyone interested in the field, I would highly recommend emailing him or visiting his webpage to view his currently available works at